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A Firsthand Encounter with Migration in Central America

“We were at the Guatemala-Mexico border for three months. When the UN rights groups came to clean the showers every few weeks, we would rush for the showers so we could clean our kids. Later they gave us one diaper for our two kids, un pañal por dos niños!!!” she said, roaring in laughter, looking to her nephew in his late teens, who laughed along with her. 

I did not expect THIS.

Laughter in the face of adversity. When my interest in learning about migration in Central America led to a week of visiting various migrant shelters in Mexico City, I did not expect THIS.

My friend and I sat with a family from Honduras and had the opportunity to hear their story. They shared how they were forced to flee from their town on the Honduran coast due to threats of violence, leaving their successful restaurant behind. How organized crime groups charge $200 USD per person to ride the train towards Mexico and the US (slightly less than a month’s income under minimum wage). How people hold their breath as they go through checkpoints. 

The family was stuck waiting at the Guatemala-Mexico border for three months in cramped conditions, guarding what they could bring. They saw people bribing their way into Mexico and guards indiscriminately beating up those waiting.

News articles ... that were once vague and broad became personal.

The family made it to a place of safety and calm for a while: a refugee community house in Mexico City. They told us that they are waiting there while their asylum claim is processed by the Mexican government. They hope their claim is denied; a denied asylum claim from a “Safe” Third Country is required before they can apply for asylum in the US. Mexico does not feel safe for them and they hope that the US, or perhaps Canada, could be a safe place to re-settle.

As the family shared their story, news articles I read in the past that were once vague and broad became personal.

I can’t ignore what’s happening now.

Later, I hear that women take contraceptives when embarking on the journey from Central America toward the US. 70% of women are sexually assaulted en route, and the only thing worse than being sexually assaulted during this journey is getting pregnant as well. They can’t afford to take care of a baby.

I tried to make sense of it all.

The director of a refugee shelter shared that they see 80-150 individuals come through their doors every day. Most men are rejected at the Guatemala-Mexico border because males are feared to be part of gangs. Unaccompanied minors must stay in Mexico legally until they reach the age of majority—including some as young as eight years old. They’ve been taken under the wings of the staff.

People are fleeing from corrupt governments, organized crime, violence, family breakdown, addictions, and trauma. The US and other countries play a role in this. A Sister at the shelter explained how the US has used migration as a bargaining chip with Central American countries, threatening economic sanctions on them and enforcing Safe Third Country Agreements. Meanwhile these “safe third countries” are where refugees from Central America are fleeing and where the same gangs exist.

“We want your territory, we want your resources, we want your riches, but we do not want your people,” said the Sister, as she described how the US continues to expand its influence and power throughout Central America.

I saw God in their faces.

As I reflected on these stories I heard, I tried to make sense of it all. How does injustice and suffering like this exist? Why are there fewer refugees receiving asylum in the US since 1980? And what about my home country of Canada? What’s being done there to receive more refugees who are fleeing violence, instability, and economic hardship? Why is more money spent for our militaries to be deployed throughout the world than for programs which help create peace, justice, and flourishing within the countries that migrants are fleeing from?

Why are refugees from Mexico and Central America portrayed as violent criminals who will harm our countries? Was that Honduran family a threat? No. They are like so many other people trusting in God and trying to reach the border. For safety. For a second chance to restart their lives. To rebuild. To give back to the communities they join. 

I felt more alive, awake, and connected in my conversation with the Honduran family from the shelter than ever before. I saw God in their faces and at work in their lives. They are not a threat. They are one family in the midst of millions of people in Central America and around the world, who are seeking asylum. They are not just numbers. They are human just like me. Their stories must be heard and action must be taken to provide protection for them.

Photo by Marko Mudrinic on Unsplash

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