A steep price for hope: A survivor recounts her horrific migration journey

Published on:

December 23, 2021

By IFSI Immigrant Navigator Team

Andrea was born in Port-au-Prince, but she’s spent 13 of her 29 years of age living abroad: 10 in the Dominican Republic, where she grew up, and 3 in Brazil, later on. Throughout her travels, all she has sought is a place to live safely, work, and raise a family in peace. Her homeland, ravaged by natural disasters and political turmoil, and plagued by persistent poverty, insecurity, and mass unemployment, sadly is not an option. 

She tried living in Haiti after being unable to renew her visa in the Dominican Republic, but the conditions were too complicated. So like many Haitians, she and her husband migrated to Brazil with their young son. But despite having a work permit and speaking Portuguese, she could not get hired for any jobs. At school, her six-year old son faced overt racism, was bullied, called names and beaten frequently by his classmates because of his long hair and dark complexion. His teachers had to save him at times from serious injury. He became afraid to go to school. “As a mother I was in Brazil looking for a better life for my child,” Andrea recalled. “So when he kept complaining about how he was bullied and mistreated at school, I saw no alternative but to leave.”

This time, Andrea and her husband decided to try the United States. Lacking visas, they would have no choice but to travel by land — a dangerous trek across seven countries, walking long hours and wading through rivers and crossing on rickety boats. They knew a growing number of Haitians were making the journey, and they expected it to be difficult. But for Andrea, who was pregnant with her second child, it was much worse than she could have ever imagined. She still struggles to speak about it.

"I almost died," she said." A lot of people were hurting, raping and beating others. When they asked you for money, if you did not have it, they would beat you. I am one of those who suffered from these treatments." She was not spared for being eight months pregnant. "That did not stop them from beating me, since I did not have money to give these mercenaries."

They were in Panama when a group of men in uniform beat and raped her, while they held her husband at gunpoint and made him watch. Her 6-year-old son was also forced to witness the horror. “They looked like soldiers. As I was pregnant they were supposed to help me instead of hurting me. I was in such bad condition they let me go because they were afraid I would die," she says. "I felt so bad physically and mentally that I spent 14 days without food and very little to drink."

At one point Andrea was ready to give up, but her son inspired her to keep going. “Mama, let’s keep walking,” he said, grasping her hand and leading the way. “God will help us because He sees we are looking for a better life.” But now she knows the trauma is still with him as he became anxious and distressed whenever they approached an area with many trees like where she was raped. “Mama, I don’t want to go through the woods,” he would say. As for her husband, anytime Andrea mentions the assault, he refuses to talk about it. “I don't really know because he's never said anything to me. He is someone who never expresses his emotions even when something difficult is going on in his life."

At the first Panamanian immigration checkpoint, Andrea was admitted to the hospital, where she stayed for three days. She reported the rape to the authorities so the perpetrators could be identified and brought to justice, but they dismissed her claims and hurried her transfer to the next stop. Though deeply traumatized, she has yet to receive any mental health support. In fact, she is still reluctant to talk about her experience even with clinical professionals. “I’m ashamed to talk about this,” she says, fighting back her tears. 

Upon entering the U.S., Andrea was detained in Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border, with her husband and son. They were released two days later after successfully completing an initial asylum interview. They stayed for six days in Kingsville, until one of Andrea’s aunts sent them plane tickets to Boston, MA.

Andrea and family frequent the IFSI office where they receive on-going legal guidance, food assistance and friendship from staff who also speak Haitian Creole. Cartoonist,Teddy K. Mombrun.

They are now living in Revere, MA with Andrea’s aunt and other family members. The Immigrant Family Services Institute (IFSI) helped them file for the Temporary Protective Status (TPS) and provided them with toiletries and toys for their children. After many months, Andrea and her husband still have no work permits. So for now they depend on community and family support. While she’s waiting for her work permit, Andrea is eager to learn English, which will be her fifth language as she already speaks Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Haitian Creole.

Looking back on her journey, Andrea says, "I would not want anyone to experience what I faced during that difficult trip to get here. If you do decide to come here through so many borders, just know... you may suffer a lot." And she recognizes that if U.S. policies had been as they were just months earlier, "they would have probably taken me and sent me back to my country despite knowing it is almost impossible to live there." 

But she is optimistic about what lies ahead. "I feel that there is hope and with time, things will get better," she says. "I am happy that my child loves the school that he now goes to. So I still believe that in the future, life will be better."

By The IFSI Immigrant Navigator Team: Dr. Mario Malivert, Larry Childs, Makendi H. Alce and William Pierre-Louis, Jr. Cartoon illustrations: Teddy K. Mombrun.

“The IFSI ‘Immigrant Navigator’ is a multi-lingual web portal and linked in-person services that ease and accelerate the settlement and social integration of vulnerable, often undocumented immigrants. A key feature are the stories these immigrants share with IFSI staff through interviews and from which other immigrants gain inspiration, key lessons and tips about how to navigate the perilous journey and US integration process. These stories also educate a broader US public including policy makers and service providers. Every 2 weeks a new story will be published on the IFSI Blog. Our first, “A Steep Price for Hope,” captures the both tragic and heart-warming experience of one Haitian family. Thank you for listening — and for welcoming these newcomers to our communities!” - Dr. Geralde Gabeau, Founder & Executive Director.

Key lessons for immigrants:

Key lessons for host country citizens:

Cartoon Illustrations Images:

Jungle scene: Migrants are frequently assaulted on their high-risk journey and even those fortunate enough to survive are often burdened by trauma.

Office scene: Andrea and family frequent the IFSI office where they receive on-going legal guidance, food assistance and friendship from staff who also speak Haitian-Creole.