Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Venezuelan Migration

 *Content warning - this is a tough but necessary read*

Years ago, someone asked what I would wish for if I found a magic lamp with a genie inside. He prefaced this with the fact that the genie would only give me one wish. Which injustice or societal ill would I choose from amongst the long list of Consistent Life Issues? I assume this question was meant to find out which issue was our main focus. But I knew better…

“That’s easy,” I said, “I’d wish to eradicate dehumanization.”

That’s basically the CLE version of using a wish to wish for infinite wishes, which as we all know, is never allowed.

But this would be my personal loophole. My way to outsmart the genie. Because if there was no more dehumanization then there would be no more war, no more violence, no more degradation or hunger. We would all suddenly see every single person as the unique and irreplaceable miracle that they are.

Dehumanization is the root of all the world’s evils.

And when it comes to those immigrating - especially from South America - dehumanization abounds.

People fleeing their homes due to extreme destitution and/or violence are often thoughtlessly referred to as ‘aliens,’ or ‘illegals,’ and in some extreme cases “animals,” “killers,” or “criminals.”

For those of us who try to be intentional about fighting this particular type of dehumanization, we usually refer to them simply as “migrants.” But even that label can sometimes feel too… I don’t know… detached them from their intrinsic human dignity?

I’ve found when people hundreds of miles away hear that word - “migrant” - or see headlines about “migrant caravans,” they tend to just picture a sea of nameless, faceless masses, not individuals; not people whose lives are as intricate and complex as our own; not human beings who love their children equally as fiercely as we love our own… willing to do absolutely anything to keep them alive… which is what so often leads them to begin their migration journeys in the first place.

This week at the Stellar Shelter, Karina received a Venezuelan woman with two small children. The woman, we’ll call her Mairelys, recounted how she’d given birth to a perfectly healthy baby a few years ago, but due to the lack of proper medical care, her baby died at the hospital. She said there is no food in Venezuela… that she’d been “starving for years,” and that she couldn’t let her two other children, now 2 and 6, suffer that same agony.

The unique thing about Mairelys’ migration story, and all those traveling up from South America, is that they must traverse a massive jungle to get here - a brutal passage called the Darién Gap.

Karina said this is something she knew about, of course, but sort of abstractly. She’d never researched it in depth. However, she quickly realized why most people don’t research it at all… because the horrors of this journey are too horrific for most of us to comprehend.

Mairelys said that it was best to travel in groups for safety. She then shared the story of a young mother in their group who was traveling with her small toddler. At one point this mother turned around “just for a moment,” Mairelys said, and the child was instantly snatched into the trees by a large animal. She said the mother couldn’t bare the devastation of losing her child in this way and took her own life the next day.

I cannot begin to fathom any of this. My mind doesn’t want to picture it, my heart doesn’t want to try to understand how that would feel. It’s more like a Hollywood horror story than reality. But it is the reality for many Venezuelans.

A level of starvation that would make one so desperate to escape their homeland, that they would take on the dangers of a wild jungle with a baby on their back, just for the slightest shot at survival… or the pain of losing children in such a horrific way…

I can, however, imagine coming to the realization that you cannot go on without them.

Karina and I both sat in silence for a few minutes.

“I get it…” I said, “I mean, the decision that mother made at the end.”

“I do too,” Karina replied.

After a few more moments of sitting quietly in the disbelief of what these travelers have to go through, Karina continued relaying more of what Mairelys shared about her experience.

“She said a lot of parents die in the jungle on their journey… and that the rest of the group can barely take care of themselves and their own kids.” Mairelys was incredibly thin when she got to our shelter because she had to make sure her children ate, even if she didn’t. But if she added another mouth to feed, her kids might become the next day’s orphans… so she couldn’t take any of those children with her.

I didn’t think my heart could sink any lower, but then the bottom dropped out and thus began a never-ending free fall.

“She told me that she would look out at the trees at night and just hear the cries of orphaned children as they wandered around aimlessly… and how babies were just left on the ground.”

At this point, I couldn’t take any more. My sadness had to turn into anger in order to keep from complete despondency. “Why is THAT not a mission trip?!” I exclaimed. “Where is the billionaire who can buy up some of that property and pave a road through the gap? Or at the very least set up medical tents, and organize teams to go rescue these children?”

But that’s not the world we live in, nor the horror story so many Venezuelans live through. Perhaps there’s a valid reason why these things cannot or have not been done, but I wasn’t interested in excuses in that moment.

“People need to know,” Karina said quietly. “We need to tell them.” And I agreed.

But we can’t tell you in the way most of these stories are told by non-profits. We refuse to give you a neat little bow at the end by stating how “resilient” or “courageous” Mairelys and her children are for making it here. Because telling this story in that way would only serve to make all of us feel better about the fact that, yes, some of the travelers do survive. And while we’re so glad they did, and that they have now a safe place to stay… going through something like that has to change a person, on a molecular level, forever.

Mairelys said her group was able to bring along one 8-year-old orphan because he was big enough to be self-sufficient for the most part. But what about the smaller children they had to walk past without offering aid? What about the babies’ lifeless bodies they had to see as they tried their best to stay alive for their own children? How do you carry the weigh of that trauma, those memories, the choices you did or didn’t make to save another human being’s life for the rest of your own?

So, yes, Mairelys is resilient. Because she had to be. To a level that makes her superhuman… yet, she and her children, while superhuman, will still face more dehumanization in one day than most of us will in a lifetime.

I don’t want people to see her merely as a nameless, faceless “migrant.”

She’s a mother… a mother to two living children and one she sadly lost. She’s a hero who, along with her group, saved an 8-year-old boy’s life. She’s a woman who’s 90 lbs soaking wet because she “starved for years,” but somehow still conjured the strength to get two small children across a treacherous, deadly jungle, because there is no stronger force on earth than a mother who wants to save her children… but even then, far too often it’s still not strong enough.

There will be no bow. No feel-good anecdote. All we can offer Mairelys now, beyond a warm shower, safe shelter, and a few hot meals a day, is a platform… a place to share her stories in hopes that those of us here in the States will truly see the human dignity, and strength, and heart of every individual person who makes it to our borders to request safe passage. Because they carry so much more than their children through this. They will also carry these stories and that trauma for the rest of their lives. And the least we can do is let them lay some of that burden on us so they know they didn’t go through it all in vain.

Their stories have the power to humanize. 

Their stories must change us.


{Image Description: Mairelys' 6-year-old daughter dancing through the hallways of the Stellar Shelter in a pair of brightly colored pink and purple butterfly wings.}

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