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To the migrants from Central America, a thank you

By Elizabeth Stevens
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"Some people imagine the people in the caravans are criminals," said Maria del Carmen González, shown here with her daughter. "The reality is that we are fleeing the criminals." Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

This month, there will be no feasts or family gatherings for the people traveling north, but there is a spirit to celebrate.

“Some people imagine the people in the caravans are criminals,” said Maria del Carmen González. “The reality is that we are fleeing the criminals.”

I met Maria in the town of Tecún Umán on Guatemala’s border with Mexico in early November. Migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala continue to join up there—some to seek asylum in Mexico and some to cross the Suchiate River and travel together into Mexico and beyond.

My colleague Alyssa Eisenstein and I visited Maria’s family in a shelter for migrants who are passing through town on their way north. Her four children looked tired and serious, and as we sat together in the sweaty heat, the youngest ones stayed close to her, slipping on and off her lap and probably wishing there were someone or something to play with.

Maria’s story is a common one: She is from Honduras, where gang-related extortionists have been bleeding her family dry. For years, they threatened to kill her or kidnap her children if she and her husband failed to pay them a third of their meager income. When a gang tried to recruit her eldest son to sell drugs in the high school, it was the last straw: They packed up a few things and headed north. Their former tormentors are so angry they left, she has learned, that home is now a more dangerous place than ever. Their hope, she says, is that Mexico will grant them asylum.

Getting by on hopes and prayers

Alyssa and I visited the projects that Oxfam and our partner COCIGER (Citizens Convergence for Risk Management) are working on in town—providing meals, mattresses, water filters, kitchen equipment, nutrition kits for children, and hygiene materials like soap and towels. But mostly we listened to stories.

With the support of Oxfam and our partner COCIGER, migrants in Tecún Umán are getting hot meals every day. We have also distributed mattresses, water filters, hygiene materials like soap, kitchen equipment, and nutrition kits for children. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Some of the people we met were traveling without friends or relatives, but in every case, families were foremost in the minds of the migrants. Like the farm worker José Quiñónez, whose mother is gravely ill. Paying the medical bills would have been a strain even if extortionists weren’t demanding half his income. Which they are. “Some people think we are a threat,” he said. “I think they would feel differently if they understood our situations.”

Those situations are difficult in every way. Being a target of gang violence rarely qualifies people for asylum in the US, no matter how deadly the threats. And the Trump administration’s efforts to throw up roadblocks against asylum seekers—moves that are in violation of international and US law—cast another shadow on the prospects of the migrants. But when the odds are stacked against you every day of your life, you learn to get by on hopes and prayers, and in Tecún Umán, hope is very much alive.

You can’t be sad

Alejandra Hernández, who is 24 years old, traveled to Tecún Umán from Honduras with her two cousins. Along with a change of clothes, she carries a bible that her mother gave her. “I miss my mother every day. I spoke to her a few days ago. We cried together.”

Alejandra Hernández sits in the town park of Tecún Umán. "Poor as we are, we are not used to sleeping on the streets or asking for food. But Guatemalans have been very hospitable, and they have fed us along the way." Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

She is heading for the US. “My cousins and I decided to join a caravan because we thought it would be safer and cheaper to travel together,” she said. “It’s been hard. Poor as we are, we are not used to sleeping on the streets or asking for food.  Sometimes it’s very cold at night. But Guatemalans have been very hospitable, and they have fed us along the way.”

As we sat in the town park, the three of them goofed around like any 24-year-olds. They laughed as if their world weren’t in tatters. As if their future were sure and bright. “You can’t be sad,” said Alejandra. “You have to go on. We have an expression, ‘if you have bread, it’s enough to be happy.’ That’s our attitude.”

When an elderly indigenous woman from the town came by and asked us for money, the cousins didn’t hesitate a moment: They reached for their purses and each of them gave her a coin.

A gift

For three days, Alyssa and I spent time with the travelers. We took their pictures and wrote down their stories. We made friends. On our last night in Tecún Umán, we got word that a crossing was imminent, so we rose early the next day to be present. A hundred or so women, men, and children gathered quietly in the park before dawn. We accompanied them as they made their way to the river, passing through the eerie light of street lamps one moment and plunging into darkness the next. Makeshift ferries were waiting for them at the water’s edge; the ferrymen hurried everyone onto the boats and poled them across the water. In a few minutes they were gone, launched on the perilous next phase of their journey north.

Soon, I will be gathering with my family for Thanksgiving. I’ve never known privation, or the daily terrors of parents who are raising their children in the dangerous places of the world. The gratitude I feel for that is bittersweet. But this year when I give thanks it will be to the people we met in Guatemala—to the parents who are risking everything to protect their children, to the sons and daughters who are doing the same for their parents, to the women who gave their coins to a stranger, to the townspeople who—out of kindness and sympathy—fed and sheltered thousands of unexpected visitors. They reminded me that our humanity is a powerful, almost unstoppable force. That knowledge is a gift I hope never to forget.

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Oxfam is calling on the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and the US to comply with their obligation to protect and guarantee the human rights of all migrants, to respect and guarantee the principles of family unity, to prohibit the denial of entry at borders, to uphold the right to non-refoulement (the right not to be forced to return to a country where you face persecution), and to prohibit collective expulsions. (Read more.)

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