Wednesday, June 15, 2016

19 Countries

The Man From Ethiopia: One Man's Immigration Odyssey 
On Sunday, May 29 we went to Casa Marianella in the Evening because they would be having their monthly potluck get together. Our goal was to see if Neckson (Central African Republic) and Regeese (Congo) were still there. Neckson is a Mormon and Regeese was studying the Church. We also wanted to see if we could find Valentin (Angola) who came to church one time. It didn’t take long and we had reacquainted with all of them, and then had a bit to eat. We saw Afiwa there too and she was glad to see us.

Soon we found ourselves seated at a picnic table talking with a man from Ethiopia. We asked him a little about himself and soon he was telling us the most amazing story of his immigration to the United States. He had only been in the U.S. for 22 days. But his journey to get here took 7 months and spanned 19 countries. His wife has been here for three months and is so common, he is living at Casa Marianella and she is somewhere else in the city. She was not there. I’ll attempt to relate his story as best I can.

He never told us his name, just that he and his wife had fled from Ethiopia in November. They traveled from Ethiopia with two other men from Eritrea and Somalia, three countries in the “horn of Africa” region. They had no visas or specific plans except to keep going no matter what. He said they traveled any way they could; by bus, by truck, by plane, but mostly on foot, walking thousands of miles to security, freedom and a new life that would be better than the one they left behind.

The first leg of the journey took them from Ethiopia to Somalia. Then following the coast line they made their way south through Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and finally to South Africa. This leg of the journey was long and very difficult. But compared to what was to come the first six countries of their odyssey may have been the easiest part of the journey. 
Following the East Coast of Africa

In South Africa they were able to get together a stash of money to buy plane tickets to South America. From Johannesburg, South Africa they flew to Brazil where the trek would take them through five more countries as they made their way toward Central America. 

Through 5 more countries in South America  

From Brazil the small group began to make their way toward the United States, mostly on foot! Starting in Western Brazil they ventured to Bolivia and Peru but had no time to visit Machu Pichu or Lake Titicaca. They continued through the mountains to Ecuador and then on to Colombia where things took a turn for the worse. Because they had no visa border agents took them into custoday and they spent 45 days in jail.

As if things weren’t bad enough when the group languished in a Colombian jail for a month and a half, the worst part of the trek was about to come after their release. From Colombia they walked for 10 days through the mountainous jungles of Panama. He told us how hard it was for them to walk through the jungle without even a machete to chop their way through. He said it was too dangerous for them to be caught walking on the roads and they slept on the ground at night with no protection from the elements.

From Panama they made their way north through Costa Rica which had better roads and was safer for them than Panama or Colombia. But there was no time to rest and they just kept going until they reached Nicaragua.
Sneaking into Nicaragua did not go well for this man. He was captured by government officials and once again found himself in jail for another 45 days. His wife was not captured though so she kept heading north on her own. They had no way to communicate for a long time.  

After a month and a half in confinement in Nicaragua he was released and allowed to go on his way. He crossed into El Salvador and then Guatemala. Finally after over 5 months of travel he got to Mexico and started making his way toward southern Texas, which was still hundreds of miles away.  

 The route to the U.S. through Mexico was only slightly less dangerous than the rest of the trip had been. Never knowing where to sleep or whether his wife had made it to the border. He and his two friends had to trust smugglers and coyotes. They could be captured, killed or robbed at any point. But after several more days they came to the border and crossed illegally into Texas. They were soon spotted by U.S. Border Patrol and were arrested. They were taken to a detention center for men (basically a minimum security prison) in Pearsall, Texas which is about 60 miles south of San Antonio. After processing and several days in Pearsall waiting to see if they would be deported. He had an immigration hearing, was checked out medically, given 3 good meals a day and sets of new clothes before being taken to Austin where he was reunited with his wife. He now stays at the men’s shelter at Casa Marianella. His wife is staying at the women’s shelter that is part of Casa, and the two of them are hoping they will soon be given work permits and they can eventually get refugee status and begin building a new life. He did tell us though that his pro-bono immigration attorney forgot to file his application for a work permit so now it will be at least a month before he can get that and start working. After that his immigration journey will not be over. If  he is given refugee status it will be another 4 years before he will be able to get a green card and a few years after that so he can apply for citizenship. But if we are still a free society, it will have been worth it.

As we parted he emphatically told us how God protected the group so many times and even though they were often in danger, lost or putting their lives in the hands of smugglers. He was grateful to be in the United States and praised God for helping them get here. He was optimistic and looking forward to the new life that he and his wife would have here.