Horizon at Sandy Point

Monday, May 16, 2016

Going with the Coyotes

 No one wants to be a refugee. But in countries around the world today, ordinary citizens who would prefer to raise their families in peace and provide enough for their children to thrive and grow to be better than they, are leaving, in boats, in risky conditions, walking thousands of miles away from untenable circumstances, hoping to find themselves in places where their families might thrive. In the Caribbean, crime and criminality are driving Jamaicans from Jamaica; Venezuelans are fleeing the failing economy and impending crisis; and Cubans are leaving the oppressive political and economic regime that gave them values, skills and discipline. Refugees are rarely uneducated, unskilled; they know there's a better life waiting somewhere. They have the same aspirations - perhaps held more fiercely - as the rest of us.

(The names have been changed in this account. For those of us who witness the journeys of refugees, their adventures rekindle in our own memories what it is "to live on the edge." Let us always appreciate that we are part of one tide of humanity.)

Three weeks ago, we watched Kaleb and Jonathan running through the orchard, heavy backpacks bumping on their backs. "No," said K, "stay here until we leave," to the offer to drive them out to the mall where the unmarked minivan was waiting. They had been expecting a later rendezvous, with a boat heading to the mainland in the small hours of the morning. When the call came, six hours early, the transport was minutes away. Last minute snacks, a loaf of bread, a tub of peanut butter stuffed into the packs that would be the only luggage they were allowed to carry.

They were heading to an unknown adventure that would, they hoped, take them into the USA. With no thought of arriving, they left all to divine guidance, to the people who would lead them from Trinidad, on the underground passage - hundreds of miles - through the jungle between South and North America.

The boat that took them from Trinidad to the Main surged through 4-metre waves. Three hours turned into seven. They were blessed they said, just three voyagers instead of the usual 14. Ashore, they were bussed to Caracas. There, they would spend five days waiting for the group, or transport, or word of the voyage to the border of Costa Rica and Panama. This was not to be. Costa Rica had closed its borders; Panama threatening to do the same against the tide of Cubans seeking escape in America from the rigors of discipline and privation imposed by their government. Obama's visit brought not hope for easing relations, but fear that the code - established at the time of Cuba's cultural revolution - which allowed Cubans to enter the USA with amnesty by land, but not by boat, would be reversed.

On the sixth day, they joined the group of refugees, not only Cubans,  that was prepared to "go with the coyotes" (people that take you through the forests illegally) in the interior of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras into Mexico. Two days later, they set out walking to Panama, through the jungle. Sometimes, the coyotes are the most humane beings.

Message from K: "From panama to costa rica to nicaragua to honduras to mexico to EU. It is crazy but if we see no other option we will have to do that. We are telling to every one we know to help us. We trust the Lord everything is going to be allright. We have to take the risk. Say everybody we are ok. We are walking through the jungle going to Panamá City.

On the same day, the first cruise ship to dock in Havana in fifty years signalled the return of US tourism to the island, an opening up that was not yet matched by painless travel for Cubans.

photo by Alexandre Meneghini, Reuters

In the Central American jungle
At home in the jungle

Water from the rivers

Resting for a while

Crossing the river

One day later: "We need your prayers. We are in the middle of the jungle. So I don't know when you will get this message."

And so, the special "aunties" in Trinidad prayed and waited. In Cuba, the wives waited and worried. A triangle of prayer enfolded Kaleb and Jonathan.

Five days later:  "We are in Panamá. Tomorrow we will go to join the group of Cuban people in Paso Canoa."

And these insights to the rigours of the jungle trek: "My feet are broken. My lips also. I was bitten by an ant in the jungle named congolesa; my hand was dead for many hours and I got fever and a very sharp pain. We saw monkeys, snakes, and many other animals. But now we are good." Later, we learned they had no food for the last two days in the jungle.
Camp in Panama

The last week in Panama brought clarity to the Cubans. They would be given their papers to enter the US. Eventually, they would fly from Panama City to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico on a commercial flight for which they would have to pay. By bus, they would cross the border to El Paso, Texas.

On the day that eight Cubans landed at Bal Harbour, a friend called to say she was sure Kaleb and Jonathan were among them. But they were still in Panama. We held our breath until the final day when K and J - with papers in hand - were flying from Panama to Mexico: even that flight seemed to have been delayed several hours.
Travel documents in hand

Today, they are in the USA. They have travelled and endured considerable hardships to get here. The period of adjustment is brief for some, for others it takes time. But K and J have already demonstrated the determination, strength and willingness to bend themselves to shape the future for their families. May they and other refugees find peace and happy lives in new lands. May ordinary citizens always be willing to help their fellow man along the way.