The Power of Community

Edith Tapia

A week ago today, Jamillah Nabunjo was finally allowed to rest in peace. Jamillah died on Sept. 29, 2019, alone, in a public hospital halfway across the world from her family, without an opportunity to talk to them or see her two children. After her death, her body laid in the morgue of Ciudad Juarez for nearly nine months. Jamillah’s death was unexpected, unnecessary and unjust. By March, the COVID-19 pandemic made repatriation of her remains impossible, but her family and friends were hopeful that she could be given a proper Muslim burial and allow her soul to be at peace. Jamillah was finally buried in Ciudad Juarez after a long and unsuccessful struggle to send her body to her family in Uganda.

It took three more months and the power of communities across various borders and faiths to honor both Jamillah’s life and her family’s wishes. As we stood under a scorching sun during her burial service, Jamillah’s family and friends in Uganda, Juarez/El Paso and across the United States gathered — in person and via zoom — to say goodbye. It was a powerful moment, one I will carry with me forever. I was overwhelmed by the solidarity and kindness of everyone who was present, and everyone who made the moment possible.

For nine months, I have talked about how we failed Jamillah, and how we, as a society, were responsible for her death. Yet as we laid her to rest, my faith in humanity was restored. I heard all of her friends come together and promise to look after her children, uplift her story and honor her memory. The power of community in this moment was truly inspiring and humbling: a small Muslim community in Juarez who had never met Jamillah mobilized their entire network in Northern Mexico to help raise funds and advocate for the release of her body. Black, African and migrant advocates in the United States activated their resources and platforms to move the Ugandan government to cooperate in recognizing Jamillah as a Ugandan national. The International Committee of the Red Cross facilitated the official translation of documents; binational interfaith communities stood with her every step of the way and fought for her dignity; fellow African asylum seekers uplifted her humanity and continue to recognize her as a caring mother, daughter and sister to them all. People like you, who donated through CLINIC, also made this possible.

Jamillah’s legacy in our collective community will continue as a gift and inspiration to us. Her experience and legacy force us to confront our values, policies and humanity, and encourage us to be better individuals, a better society and better peoples of faith. As such, Jamillah’s life and death will never be in vain. Jamillah now rests in peace — body and soul — but we will not stop advocating for Black, Muslim and migrants’ rights and lives. Thank you, Jamillah, for everything you did and everything you represent.