Violence is a common experience faced by hundreds of Central American asylum seekers fleeing their homes in search of safety for themselves and their families.
On April 9th, 16-year-old Mateo and his mother, Lilian, arrived in Nogales, Sonora after leaving their home in La Ceiba, Honduras over two months earlier as part of the Refugee Caravan, organized by Pueblo Sin Fronteras to call attention to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. As families begin to reach cities along the U.S.–Mexico border, the flow of children arriving at the comedor has increased in kind. Mateo shared his story with us, one that is all too commonplace among those escaping the violence of their home countries in Central America. (Names have been changed for privacy and safety reasons.)
For Mateo, rampant gang activity forced him to drop out of school after the eighth grade. He explained that gang members would recruit young people with promises of money, guns, and women. As some of Mateo’s peers joined the local gang, he spent less time with them, and finally had to sever friendships. These former friends became criminals, carrying out gang orders from theft to murder, and frequently extortion of local businesses and bus drivers; if individuals failed to pay their cut, they would find their establishments vandalized and buses torched.
The police were often complicit. According to Mateo: “La policía también es corrupta. Es la misma que los pandilleros…apoyan a los pandilleros. La policía está tan involucrada con ellos, y por eso es imposible para hacer un denuncio. La pandilla les dan dinero y armas. (The police are also corrupt. They are the same as gang members…they support gang members. The police are so involved with the gang, it’s impossible to file a police report. The gang provides [the police] with money and weapons.”
One day, after publicly protesting the president and the government, Mateo’s cousin was killed. From photos and videos of the demonstrations, Mateo said, protesters are identified and targeted, taken from their homes and murdered by either gang members or the police themselves. Because he frequently spent time with his cousin, Mateo was now even more afraid of becoming a target, and his cousin’s brother refused to leave his house for fear of being killed.
At home, Mateo faced domestic violence and threats. His stepfather, often while drunk, would abuse and threaten Mateo, his mother, and his six-year-old brother. Mateo remembers an incident when his inebriated stepfather, provoked after an argument with Mateo’s mother, came at him with a machete, intent on killing him. He escaped, but could do little else—filing a report with the police would be useless, a situation his stepfather would invoke during his tirades and beatings.
At a breaking point, Mateo and his mother, Lilian, resolved to leave Honduras at the end of January to join the Caravan for the arduous journey to the U.S.–Mexico border. Lilian made an even tougher decision—to leave her younger son with her mother until they could send for him. To meet up with the Caravan, Mateo and other young men walked 13 miles through the night while women and small children rode the already overcrowded buses. The following day, with blistered feet, he reunited with his mother. When they finally reached Puebla, Mexico with the rest of the Caravan, the Mexican government issued them exit permits, granting them authorization to remain in Mexico for a maximum of 20 days. From there, Mateo and Lilian travelled north on their own by bus, arriving in Nogales, Sonora and the KBI a week after Easter.
At the comedor, Mateo and Lilian shared meals served by welcoming volunteers and staff. After a few days of recuperation and adjustment, they sought information about the asylum process from the KBI and, on April 14, they presented themselves for asylum at the DeConcini Port of Entry.
Like so many who travel north—those in the recent Refugee Caravan and others—Mateo and Lilian aren’t merely leaving their homes in search of opportunity; they are fleeing life-threatening danger and persecution. Even as they seek safer lives in a new place, they carry the trauma they’ve experienced and the pain of being separated from their loved ones and all they know. Their journey is far from over. At the KBI comedor and shelter, we offer accompaniment to help ease the transition, offering food, first aid, clothing, information, and solidarity. Always, the KBI stands with our migrant neighbors, and defends human dignity, family unity, and the compassionate embrace of those in need.