RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
2016 was the deadliest year for migrants and refugees since World War II. Most perished while trying to reach Europe.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
But there's also a deadly migrant corridor in this country near the U.S.-Mexico border. In Brooks County, Texas the terrain is tough, temperatures are blazing and many who die there are never identified.
MARTIN: Jen Reel wants to try to change that. She's a photojournalist with the Texas Observer, and she's created a database to identify people using pictures of the things they carried with them.
JEN REEL: There were a lot of rosaries and prayer cards. Those were very difficult to photograph because people understand when they're making this trip that it's a huge risk and there's a lot of danger. I imagine that they're relying on their faith to get them through this.
MARTIN: For some, faith wasn't enough. Reel's database is called I Have a Name. Most of the things she took pictures of are from mass graves in Brooks County, Texas.
REEL: The problem was because they were so overwhelmed with lack of resources - it's a very small county, I think about 7,000 people live there - they were not identifying properly where these people were buried. Some of the remains were found, multiple sets of remains in a grave site.
MARTIN: Eventually the bodies - along with whatever items people had with them on those journeys - were exhumed by forensic anthropologists at Baylor University. They were also trying to identify them. Jen Reel met them at their lab.
REEL: They were unpacking a blue backpack that had been found with some remains. And as they were unpacking them, there were toiletries, things like that, but also a baseball. You know, growing up I had played catch almost every night after dinner with my parents. And so I wanted to create a photo essay of the personal items because I thought that these images were a way to relate. Oftentimes the images that we see come out of Brooks County are migrants who are being detained by border patrol or seeking assistance in refugee centers. So this was a different way to approach that.
MARTIN: So you got involved trying to document what was found alongside these bodies. Can you describe some of the photographs?
REEL: Sure. One case was from an individual - a presumed male - believed to be between the ages of 35 and 50. And there was a stuffed animal found with the remains. There was also what looked to be a large wedding band. And it had been sewn into the waistband of this person's jeans. And oftentimes when people make this trip they are robbed. We saw a lot of that, actually, personal items that were hidden. One gentleman had created photocopies of money that he kept in his pockets and his real money was sewn into his clothing as well.
MARTIN: Have you been able to identify any of these people?
REEL: So we launched this database on December 8. And while I was photographing for the database, I came across a case that had a child's drawing along with a woman's name and a prayer written on a piece of paper. And I did some searching online and ended up finding a missing persons ad in a small paper out of McAllen, which is down at the border. And we ended up finding the family from Ecuador who was looking for this woman. And they were able to confirm that it was her then through DNA testing.
MARTIN: As a photojournalist, it is your job to be sort of outside of the moment that you're trying to capture. But what was it like for you to document these items?
REEL: Well, I would say that the stuffed animal really stayed with me. And to me that seemed like a gift. You know, there are people waiting to be reunited with their loved ones, and they're still waiting.
MARTIN: Jen Reel is a multimedia editor at the Texas Observer. Jen, thank you so much for talking with us about your work.
REEL: Thank you so much, Rachel.
MARTIN: And an update to share since we first spoke with Jen Reel - three families recently called her team about items they recognized in the database. They're working to see if they're a match.
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