24 Hours with the Cuban Refugees — Hope, Help and the Unknown
On Monday, in what I thought would be a two hour story; turned into a day-long, soul-awakening experience.
1pm — I arrive during the peak of the afternoon heat wave, the gymnasium looking very different from the last time I reported on the Houchen Community Center, a few weeks ago. Now cots fill the gym, row upon row, ready to receive exhausted refugees after their months’ long trek.
Things at this hour are pretty calm, there are two refugee women who take the reigns on welcoming the newcomers, letting them know where everything is. I venture out to find the Director — Verónica Román — and find her in a room that now serves as a supply depot; gathering travel cases so she can ration the shampoos and conditioners in order to make the most of the limited supply.
I meet several of the volunteers, but there is little time to chat as the daytime hours are filled with receiving donations. Through it all, I keep seeing regular El Pasoans, show up and deliver bags of items, most not wanting to leave their names, only wanting to help.
3:30pm — A woman shows up looking very distraught and is desperately looking for the someone to talk to. I speak to her in Spanish and try to console her; she tells me that she hasn’t liked her experience at the other housing facility and she walked over to get permission to remain there (at Houchen) with her husband until they receive their passage to their final destination.
When the director hears this, she brings the woman some food and tells her there is no permission required — all the refugees are welcome.
Later, I watch as the volunteer group for Houchen, was able to secure a ticket for that woman and her husband to depart that same day.
5:00pm — The center receives a call — as a friendly courtesy — from Officers at the ports of entry, that the refugees who landed in the morning in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico that morning have now been processed and will be walking over the bridge shortly.
20 minutes later, a line has formed in the previously empty hallway, “please have your passports ready” one volunteer announces. On a simple sheet of white paper, the staff is asking every refugee to write their name, passport number and date of birth.
I ask them what happens with these papers, the woman in charge at the desk tells me they have not heard from anyone from the national government, nor the state, nor the local agencies, therefore they are doing this as a precaution and trying to keep a makeshift record of the people arriving to their center.
A man they have nicknamed ‘The Captain,’ begins to direct the newcomers, instructing them to enter the gym on the left side, pick a cot, leave their items and head to the kitchen for a meal, then see the medic.
The cots are divided, single men in one area, married couples in another, single females and families with children in another, I pass by and hear him ask, “viene tu solo o con familia? hombre solo, alla” (translation: are you here alone or with a family? Single men to the other end)
I found one group to sit with as they began to eat, so I grabbed a chair and joined them. They asked me who I was and what was my role there, I explained that I was simply a journalist and wanted to meet people and tell their story, they seemed to warm up immediately after that.
One of the young men, Humberto, asked me if he could please borrow my “whatsapp” (for free international messaging) on my cell phone to notify his sister and let her know he’s arrived safely. As I think about it, his young wife shows me a family picture of the two of them and the sister, so I pull out my phone and contact her, letting her know that her brother and sister-in-law have arrived safely in El Paso, TX United States.
I send her a photo so she knows he’s safe and I give her the address to the center; she and I go back and forth about the logistics, I ask her where she is coming from, she replies, Houston. I realize it’s not an international call, so I dial and hand him the phone.
He and his wife are beyond grateful and hug me as they head off to get in line to shower and then nap a little while they wait.
The other two in the group, father and son Migue and Migue Jr. then begin to ask me questions about wifi and bus times, prices, etc…I explain that I don’t work there but would be happy to google it, I keep saying “google it” and the young man finally asks me, “que ‘eso que sigue diciendo, google it?” (what is it that you keep saying ‘google it’)
I instantly remembered Cuba restricts internet use and only allows the people to view government approved websites. I hand him my phone and show him how to google, he is fascinated by just putting in random things and seeing limitless internet.
I never felt more like an ungrateful American in my life! And here I have been walking around googling places to do my nails and movie times, ordering from Amazon on a whim, when in other places of the world you get close to nothing and only what the government feels you should have.
He ask if he can borrow my phone to call family, I tell him I am confused wasn’t he related to the couple that just left? He tells me no, they met in Panama and decided they could trust each other and were safer in a group together, they looked out for each other the rest of the way to the United States.
I understand, so I start the process again, send a message to the number and let her know they have arrived safely, she immediately responds and ask me for help in walking her through the ticket booking process to bring him and his father (her brother) to Florida. I text that I will get those answers for her as soon as I ask someone in charge.
At that moment, a volunteer comes looking for me and says, “Are you ready? we are going to take some folks to the bus stop.” I say goodbye to the young man and tell him not to worry, I will be back with information from his aunt.
7:00pm The van is nearly filled up, so we hop in and head to nearby Tornado Bus Company, who has graciously been helping Houchen Community Center get bus tickets for the refugees heading to the next destination.
I ask to speak to the manager, and she comes to the front, I introduce myself and ask her a few questions, how this system with the refugees got set up, who initiated the call, etc… she tells me “Oh that’s simple, I went to high school with Veronica, (the director at Houchen) she called me and told me what was going on and asked if we could help, I then called my boss and he gave it a green light, I called her back and said, we would be happy to help; so we have been adding routes and giving a discount on the tickets since last week”
I walked back outside and see some of the folks from earlier that day, we hug, say our goodbyes, wishing them well on the next leg of their journey.
8:30pm — Back at the community center, we arrive and there is a new line of people, a new group to meet. I am also introduced to a new group of volunteers, as the night time group has arrived. I’m shocked. “The night-time group? You mean there is more?”
They all kind of laugh at me and say, “Oh yes, the day really begins at night here, just wait” My first thought is, when do the volunteers sleep, they all work regular 8am-5pm jobs!
Migue Jr — the young man from earlier — finds me, asking about his aunt and his passage. I let him know I spoke to his aunt while I was a the bus station and sent her the contact information; she replied with all the travel details for him and his father, so we head over to front desk and give the details to the volunteers so they can leave word with the early morning volunteers that someone needs to transport them and others to the bus station. They add him and his father to the well-worn dry erase board list on the wall.
I walk over with him and the couple that I spoke with earlier, I start asking them about the voyage. All the refugees have a similar story, they went from Cuba by boat to Ecuador, from Ecuador they head into Colombia, then into Panama.
If you can make it to Panama, from there you can fly to Cuidad Juarez, Mexico and then walk over to the United States of America. Time-wise, for most groups it has been about 3- 5 months on the trek, costing countless of thousands of dollars.
Every group I spoke to told me how in Colombia the coyotes are ready and waiting for them, as soon as they arrive they are robbed, often at gunpoint, so most of them have to stay a few weeks longer to find work and save money to get to Panama.
They add, “by the time you reach the International Bridge here (El Paso) you have no idea who you will encounter and what they require you pay.” I look at the group as they tell me this and think of all the women I have met today…and what they must have had to endure.
I asked every one that sat with me, “why? what is the goal, purpose vision, etc…to go through all you have gone through.” Time and time again, the response was the same, “por la esperanza, de un futuro mejor” (translaton: for the hope, of a better future.)
In the case of the young couple, the wife was a lawyer in Cuba, but she said she was happy to take any job even if it was cleaning houses, so long as she is free.
At that moment their family members from Houston text me that they are outside, ready to take them
home and want to surprise them, I ask Humberto to come with me, he walks me outside and sees his sister for the first time in years…
10:30pm– Finally there is a small window of downtime, everything seems to be running smoothly. Director Veronica, looks at me and asks “hungry?” I reply “yes” (being tired and hungry, we have now resorted to communicating in one word or less.)
Since we realize we haven’t had dinner, we head to the kitchen with everyone else, I am starving. As we eat and chat about the day’s events, one of the volunteers, Rick Vielma comes and sits with me.
As the conversation goes along, he tells me how upset he is with the lack of response from national, local agencies, the diocese; he says he’s has taken to social media, but all that has resulted is his post being taken down and/or blocked.
Vielma continues, “Where is everyone?! I see on the news and read in the stories, that supposedly so much is being done, but I have been here for 10 hours everyday since day one and I have yet to see any of it, these people you met today, we are the same ones, the resources are coming in from regular citizens that are dropping off checks, cash and supplies, that’s it!”
I know his questions are valid and I assure him that those questions will be covered in the second part of my story.
Midnight — The longest line I have seen yet, out the door into the parking lot. The girls at the front ask me to come help, as they need an extra set of hands. I go, remove my badge and ask what I can do. I grab a paper and start taking down everyone’s information.
This time in the group, we notice a toddler, first one I have seen, although the director told me the youngest refugee they had was 1 month and 8 days old, he was born in Panama while the mother was on the journey. The staff immediately rushes to the little boy to get him food and water. There is no time for a break, as Houchen is the only refugee center open 24 hours a day.
1:20am — There is a bit of a commotion, the women are looking for men to accompany them to the bridge, “coyotes” are verbally accosting the women that go there to pick up the refugees. Several men walk out, one volunteer tells me, “ready?” yep, let’s go.
We arrive at Paso Del Norte Port of Entry, and as we are walking up to the sidewalk to pick up the refugees that have been in touch with the community center, these men approach us and start yelling at us, threatening us, and the newly arrived people — including a toddler — are completely shaken.
The ‘coyote’ is a Cuban American, so he and his group of men wait at the port of entry and offer all refugees a ride to their final destination for $500 a head, food is extra. Coyotes like him are praying on the people that are scared and tired, and will trust a their fellow countrymen.
I walk over and talk to the authorities as things are escalating; the men are livid that the Houchen group is taking in the refugees free of charge and, as one of them shouted at us in Spanish, “you are taking away from my income!” This is why they needed the men to go on the rounds, some of the refugees even volunteer to go.
As for the new arrivals, this particular group was too shaken and decided to take their chances alone in the dark. ( I will have more on this developing situation in the next part of this story)
2:20am — We head back to the center, when we get a call from the other bridge, “26 refugees are about to be released, please come pick them up.” We head to the Bridge of the Americas, there we are met with a whole new group of “coyotes,” each group eyeballs each other and we each stay in our own corner.
Veronica and her sister Yvonne, who runs the night shift pick up rounds, head inside to speak with the agents and to get a head count. They come back out and we all wait. The first group of refugees have been given a warning to ignore the ‘coyotes’ and look for the women, that are with Houchen who will take them to a safe place.
Sure enough, as soon as the group gets in the Houchen van, the leader of the ‘coyote’ group begins to verbally assault us again, he and his men walk over and begin shouting — to the refugees — that we are human traffickers and are going to sell them; luckily this group was able to easily identify who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, regardless of countrymen or not.
We call the agents to come out and control these men, and a squad of agents appeared in two seconds, (I want to give a personal recognition to the Bridge of America’s agents, you all were amazing and handled the situation immediately, thank you) The ‘coyotes’ continued to argue with the agents and eventually were asked to leave the premises; turns out some of these ‘coyotes’ have traveled all the way from Dallas or other interior areas of Texas once the news broke that the refugees were arriving here in El Paso.
3:30am — We are still waiting for the last group; of the 26 that were called for pickup only about 12 have finished being processed and have walked out, the agent tells us mostly like they won’t be done for a few more hours, we decide to call it a night. As we drive out we see the ‘coyote’ rental vans parked nearby.
4:20am — The center is peacefully quiet, some of the volunteers are still there, they have to be at work or school by 8am. I ask Veronica if she is going home, she takes me to a storage space within her office, I see a makeshift bed. No, she won’t be able to go home tonight, there are refugees that they need to drive to the airport at 5am, and others to the bus station at 6am.
She thanks me for spending the day with them, I hug her and say goodbye to the people still awake, volunteers and refugees alike, talking, keeping each other company.
As I drive home, I think of all the people I met, the young woman who was a lawyer and told me she was hoping to find work as cleaning staff or any laborer, the young man who is an artist and showed me his beautiful works, (which I felt were definitely gallery-worthy.) He hopes to do custom cabinetry here where it’s much easier than back home. The reason: in Cuba the wood, nails, bits and screws are all rationed so you have to smuggle them from the people that work in those industries; now free, he and his father are excited to work as laborers until they can buy material to start their own thing.
The college student who left his father, sisters, aunts, grandparents in Cuba, only he and his mother made the journey, they saved for two years to get passage on a “lancha” (small boat) that would take them from Cuba to Ecuador.
The countless women that passed through the doors and I could only image what they suffered along the way. The special baby that was there for a day but whose presence continues to stay with everyone there.
The Capitan, who will finally be reunited with his wife and child as they left a few days ahead of him, and finally with the donations that Houchen Community Center has directly received, they were able to a get a ticket for him.
The funny stories about how the first days the volunteers were cooking with chiles, not realizing the Cuban community doesn’t eat a lot of spicy food like that, the diet is completely different, on Saturday the refugee group asked if they could cook, and they made “lechon” and other Cuban dishes for everyone at the center.
I am so impressed with the amount of love and outpouring that the citizens of El Paso have shown, people walking in constantly with money or supplies, in the time I was there I saw L&J’s show up with food, I know Cristomo’s donated food as well, I will be following up with a list of all the business that have donated to the Houchen Center.
What I want to personally ask is that one of the cell phone carriers provide some wifi cards, every refugee has only one form of communication with their family members in the States, they use the “whatsapp” to communicate, but need wifi to access.
Something has changed in all of us that have spent time there, I know there is a lot of fear of the unknown, but let us remember that these are people, human beings, many have suffered crimes against them that we cannot imagine, nor would want to. Many of them were robbed of the last of their money to get here, the highest I heard was from the last group, they were held and demanded to pay $1,200 per person to live, pay it upfront or get it wired to you.
I want to thank all the amazing volunteers, tireless leader and director at Houchen, Veronica Roman, and every refugee whom shared their story with me and let me into their lives for that brief moment.
This is a bigger story than I even anticipated. I will be following up as I reach out the national and local agencies as well as the El Paso Diocese.
I am asking the questions you all have, where are they going? What is the process? Why is there now an influx? All I ask is that you be patient and stay with us and we continue to bring you the story.
Originally published at elpasoheraldpost.com on May 17, 2016.