June 10, 2022
Stories from the ‘IFSI Immigrant Navigator’
My name is Pierre and I grew up in Borgne, a town on the northern coast of Haiti. Since I had many brothers and sisters, we didn’t need friends to play with. On some days, we went without food, but never without laughing. It was a big happy family.
My father used to leave at dawn to work on the parcels of land he inherited from his parents and then return home late in the evening. My mother stayed at home taking care of us. She always made sure we had something to eat, even if at times there was nothing left for her.
As I grew older and completed my primary cycle, I went to Gonaives, a city south of Borgne, for high school. I lived there with one of my uncles but my parents continued to support me through my teen years. After high school I wanted to go to university or professional school to learn a trade, but I knew it would be difficult for my parents to afford it. So instead I decided to go to the Dominican Republic to work and further my education there.
The thing is since I was undocumented in the Dominican Republic it was impossible to continue my education or find a decent job. This difficult situation caused me to look at alternatives. So, when Chile started to allow Haitians to enter without a visa, I began making arrangements. After having spent about 18 months in the DR, I traveled to Chile on May 1st, 2017.
In Chile, life was also challenging. My proficiency in Spanish should have helped, but I still couldn’t find a well-paying job. On the positive side I met a young woman who had also left Haiti with the hope of a better future. In a few months, our friendship blossomed into a serious relationship. The birth of our first child strengthened our ties, making it all the more important to find a country that could offer us better opportunities. One of our friends who succeeded in reaching the US border encouraged us to do the same. Thus, in March 2019, we began our journey toward Mexico.
It was a long and dangerous trip especially since my girlfriend was still breastfeeding our child. From Chile, we traveled through Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. We faced our first stressful situation in Colombia, where our guide wanted us to cross the sea on a small boat. Too many people had climbed into the vessel. We were scared it would capsize, yet we had no choice but to stay the course. Our nerve-racking boat trip lasted about 4 hours which we survived.
Stepping onto solid ground was a great relief and we thanked God for granting us safe passage. But our ordeal had only just begun. Our guide informed us we must walk for at least seven days through a Panamanian forest called the Damien. There, you either survive or die, and the odds of dying are higher. By the third day our food was finished except for some sugar and salt which we mixed to make a beverage. We drank that until we reached a river, and from there we no longer had any food at all though fortunately plenty of fresh water from the river.
Then, still in Panama and at the first refugee camp beyond the forest, I was separated from my girlfriend. Later I learned she had passed out from having not eaten for days and being pregnant. People came to her aid, poured water on her, and gave her something to eat. She told me later, "I felt like I had died and that God resurrected me." We spent ten days there before she regained her strength and traveled through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. Finally, we reached Mexico after almost two months on the road.
In Mexico, we spent 22 days in jail. For us Haitians, being locked up is a dreadful and humiliating experience since from that point on, people can perceive you as a criminal. Flies and mosquitoes swarmed our cells. As it was raining every day, water infiltrated the cotton mattress on which we slept. At one point, I had to stand while holding my child until the rain subsided. Afterward, the mosquitoes returned in force, making it impossible to sleep.
Upon our release, we spent two days in Patachula in a room having to pay the daily rent of $5 per person. From there we went directly to the US border arriving in the afternoon. We wanted to cross the river at once but Mexican soldiers stopped us so we spent the night by the river. At 4 am, when there were no Mexican soldiers in sight, we waded into the river. The water was so deep I had to carry our child on my shoulders. At that point American border patrol agents saw us in the river. We were scared they would force us back to Mexico but instead they told us to keep coming forward and that they would do us no harm.
Upon reaching US land border patrol agents took us into custody, and that was our second stint in jail. But this time around the place was cleaner; we even got a good night of sleep. Still, we were scared they would keep us for a long time. However, the next day they released us after completing an initial asylum interview. We were relieved to have spent just one day in jail.
The agents then put us on a bus to San Antonio where we stayed in a place run by the Catholic Church. They told us we could spend as many days as needed until family or friends sent for us. After three days in San Antonio our parents sent us plane tickets to Boston.
It's been three months since we arrived and have been living in Boston. We have two children now: the older three years old, and the youngest, born here, has just turned two months old. While on the border, we were afraid we would be denied entry but now that we are here and have an American child we hope US Immigration will think twice before sending us back.
In the beginning we stayed at someone's house in Brockton (a little south of Boston) receiving cash assistance from IFSI and baby supplies, but now we have our own place. IFSI also helped us complete our application for asylum and US Immigration has already responded to our petition which is promising. We look forward to receiving asylum status so we can work and eventually apply for citizenship. That's the way we hope to improve our living situation.
Despite all the suffering we endured coming here, I was never discouraged. I've always believed that if God would allow me to get here, my life would change for the better. I am a patient person, and I have faith that God will grant me whatever I need.
By The IFSI Immigrant Navigator Team: Dr. Mario Malivert, Makendi H. Alce, Larry Childs, Angie Gabeau, Hidalgo Delbeau, Nick Carstensen, and Giulia Campos
Illustrations: Teddy K. Mombrun
Lead journalist for this story: Dr. Mario Malivert
The IFSI ‘Immigrant Navigator’ is a multi-lingual web portal with associated 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, lessons and tips about how to navigate the perilous journey and US integration process. These stories also educate a broader US public including educators, students, policy makers and service providers. Every few weeks a new story is published on the IFSI Blog. This story, “Guided by Faith'' captures the experience of an aspiring university student and a woman he meets on his migration journey. Thank you for reading — and for welcoming these newcomers to our communities!” - Dr. Geralde Gabeau, Founder & Executive Director.