Student Story: Yamila

The tip of Florida lies less than a hundred miles north of the island nation of Cuba, but when Yamila decided in 2016 to leave her home country and seek asylum in the United States, she knew a much longer journey lay ahead.

Yamila covered nearly 11,000 miles, crossing 10 international borders before arriving at a port of entry to the United States. Family members had told her she would probably be murdered along the way or die in the jungle, and on several occasions she feared that they had been correct. Still, the pull toward freedom kept her moving forward.

“I never thought how hard it might be,” says Yamila, who began learning English as soon as she settled in the United States a little over two years ago. “I only thought, I need to go to the United States, and I ask God to take care of me.”

Since Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution of 1959, about 1.5 million Cubans have migrated to the United States. Roughly 200,000 left immediately after the revolution; tens of thousands more came in separate waves over the next four decades, mostly by plane or by boat to Florida. Open hostility with Castro’s regime prompted the United States to exerted maximum political and economic pressure on Cuba, while at the same time encouraging its people to flee the regime and take refuge in the U.S.

Faced with a surge of Cubans making the perilous journey across the Florida Straits in tiny boats and homemade rafts, the United States instituted a “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy in the 1990s. Cubans who were intercepted on the water were returned to Cuba, and only those who made it to the Florida coast received asylum.

Yamila, who was born in 1972, is part of a new wave of refugees. Spurred in recent years by a relaxation of visa restrictions, more Cubans began taking circuitous paths to the United States. Thousands began traveling south to Brazil and then connecting with caravans headed through the Amazon jungle and across the treacherous Darien Gap, a swath of mountainous rainforest that connects South and Central America. From there, they make their way to the Mexican border.

When the Obama Administration began normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014, Cuban dissidents correctly anticipated that this would bring an end to their privileged status as asylum seekers, prompting another spike in defections. When Yamila got caught up in a conflict between police and protesters, she decided to join the exodus. “In Cuba, there are no human rights, no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion,” Yamila says. “If I say, ‘Castro is bad,’ the police can arrest me.”

Although Yamila didn’t denounce the communist government while she was still in Cuba, she says she refused an order from a police officer to assault one of the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, who have been protesting the incarceration of husbands and other relatives since a 2003 roundup of political prisoners. The Damas are sometimes arrested themselves, and Yamila says she feared she might join them. Soon after the incident, Yamila began making plans to seek asylum in the United States. She got a visa to visit Guyana for a few days, but she stuffed a backpack with survival gear and told her mother and two daughters that she would never be coming back. Afraid that she might lose her nerve at the airport, Yamila kissed her mother goodbye, then turned and ran to her plane.

From Guyana, she caught a flight to Brazil. She would cover the remaining 7,000 miles by foot, canoe or horseback. Indian smugglers took her through the Amazon jungle, where boa constrictors and caimans lurk in the waterways and jaguars rule the jungle. Yamila had brought penicillin and antibiotics along, which helped keep her moving after being bitten by poisonous ants.

“There was no path. It was terrible,” Yamila says. “We walked all day; we only stopped to sleep. When we were finally outside the jungle, I fell in the doorway of the house where we stayed. I was hurt all over my body. I had been four days without food. We had only river water keeping us alive. Sometimes it was green. Sometimes it was brown.”

After they crossed into Columbia, officers arrested her. “They wanted to return me to Peru,” says Yamila. “I said I would prefer dying.” One of the officers helped Yamila get a boat ride up the coast to a spot where migrant caravans enter the Darien Gap. No one has ever cut a highway through the dense forests and mountains of this region. Even greater than the natural dangers are the risks posed by rebel groups, local militias and drug traffickers.

“Many Cubans die there,” Yamila says of the Gap, which increasingly claims the lives of refugees from Africa and the Middle East who also travel to South America in hopes of finding safety in the United States.

Yamila passed by remains of others who never made it out of the Gap, and on at least one occasion was sure she would join them. At night in the rain, she and her companions were creeping down a mountainside when they lost their footing. Yamila’s shoes flew off her feet and she and her friends went careening down the muddy mountainside.

“Yamila! We die!” Yamila remembers hearing a voice scream in the darkness as she grasped at roots and tree trunks rushing past. Eventually, they stopped sliding. For the remainder of the descent, Yamila strained to listen for the sound of rushing water that meant they had nearly reached the bottom. “When I hear the sound of the river, I thank God,” Yamila says.

Once they cleared the gap, they still had to cross through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. As the forest thinned, their chances of being caught by authorities increased. It took Yamila five attempts to make it into Honduras. Each time she was arrested, she landed in the same holding facility in Costa Rica. By this time, Yamila was out of money, but a woman who worked at the camp brought her food and enough money to pay smugglers and bribe officials for the journey ahead. “She didn’t know me, and she helped me,” says Yamila. “Many people helped me in my travels. The Mexican people were wonderful. I think always God helped me.”

By the time she reached Mexico, Yamila had seen 17 other Cubans deported. Two pregnant women somehow made it through the Darien Gap with her. One gave birth in Panama; the second held out until she got to Mexico. Another young mother nearly lost her baby crossing a river. Yamila helped her cling to the child as they made their way through water that rose above their heads. An older man suffered a heart attack and another woman broke her leg climbing a mountain. Neither of them completed their journey. In Guatemala, Yamila heard a young girl crying out as she was being attacked by a group of men. Yamila cried with her but could not stop the attack. She heard reports of four Cubans who were killed in Mexico.

“I would not want anyone to go through that,” Yamila says of the journey that exceeded even her darkest fears. Still, she has trouble thinking of herself as either brave or reckless. She came, she says, because she had to leave Cuba. She kept pushing on because the alternative was death.

Yamila spent seven days at the National Institute of Immigration at Tapachula, Mexico, on the border with Guatemala. A week later, with bare feet, tattered clothes and no money, she presented herself at the U.S. border. It was Jan. 12, 2017, exactly one day after President Obama ended the policy of automatically granting asylum to any Cuban who set foot on American soil. She would spend four months at holding facilities in Texas before being allowed into the country. She relocated to Rochester in 2018 and is awaiting her Green Card, which will allow her to get a job.

While she’s been waiting, she’s completed training programs in customer service, removing asbestos and handling hazardous materials, but her dream is to return to teaching, her profession in Cuba. As soon as she’s eligible, she intends to apply for a job in a school and enroll in college to obtain teacher certification. And as she’s learning English, she’ll be writing in her new language. She wants to tell her story to as many people in her new country as possible, so that they know what it means to live without freedom and how important it is to protect what they have.

“I’m very grateful to be in the United States,” she says. “It’s an incredible country. Here I can find freedom. I can talk; I can think. This is my country now.”

Exciting Update!

Refugees Helping Refugees is pleased to announce that as of August 5, 2019, Andriana Ongoiba is our new Executive Director.

Andriana has previously served as the RHR Community Health Coordinator and as an ESOL teacher through the Office of Adult & Career Education Services (OACES). She brings years of experience working with refugees and immigrants in the community.

RHR is thrilled to welcome her on board, and excited for all she will bring to advance our mission.

Student Story: Abdi

In some respects, Abdi and his family were among the lucky ones. When civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, they were among the first to flee the country. Abdi’s father had worked for the government and 21-year-old Abdi had a job of his own. They had enough money to rent a car and drive across the border to Kenya. “We saw killing everywhere,” Abdi said. “If the government sees you, they think you are with one of the (militia) groups. If the others see you, they think you are with the government.”

Like most Somalis, Abdi’s family hoped the crisis would be temporary. They arrived with the first wave of refugees accepted into the Dadaab camp, built to accommodate 90,000 Somalis, while the United Nations, the United States and neighboring countries tried to help reestablish a government that could unify warring clans and stave off Al-Shabaab and Al Qaeda attacks. As more than a dozen governmental groups emerged and fell apart, Abdi’s family remained at Dadaab. Hundreds of thousands would die in Somalia, either directly from the fighting or from the disease and famine that accompanied it. Hundreds of thousands of others would make their way to Dadaab, swelling it to more than four times its intended size until it became the world’s largest refugee camp. Both Abdi’s parents died there. His siblings found spouses and had children who have never known life outside the camp.

Abdi made himself useful at Dadaab. Always a strong science student, Abdi found work as a laboratory technician, and his English skills made him a valuable translator for foreign doctors. But the rest of his life, much like that of his home country, entered a holding pattern. Even if he had had the time, Abdi couldn’t imagine trying to start a family inside Dadaab. “Life is difficult (in the camp),” said Abdi. “You go to your job, you go home. You cannot get married and have children. It’s expensive to send them to school. So you forget about it.”

In the fall of 2016, Abdi came to the United States through the UN’s refugee resettlement program. In some ways, the move marked an exciting new beginning. In other ways, it’s merely extended Abdi’s holding pattern. He came with no family members or friends. He lives alone, works at a grocery store and comes to RHR to improve his English and learn more about American citizenship.

“It’s a beautiful country, beautiful people. The only problem here is the snow,” he says with a laugh. But for many refugees—especially those who resettle without families—isolation presents an even greater obstacle than Rochester’s harsh winters. I go to my home. I go to work. I come here,” he says. “I don’t know how to talk to people here. I think too much. Because (in Dadaab), the situation was no good, you couldn’t have a family, a wife, kids. So maybe you worry now.”

Abdi can still remember when Somalia was a beautiful country. As a young man who dreamed of becoming a doctor, Abdi and his friends would go to the renowned National Theatre in the heart of Mogadishu. One of the first structures to be bombed during the war, the site became a prized base for warring militia groups over the years. The first attempt to rebuild the theatre was derailed by a suicide bombing in 2011, but a new renovation effort began this year. Abdi may never make it back to the theatre, but he’s working on his own rebuilding project here in the United States.

“I want to be an American,” he says. “I like having an opportunity to learn more American history and more English. I want to become a citizen.” Abdi says he sometimes smiles and waves at strangers, but he worries that they might be afraid of him. “People think you might not be a good person,” he says. “People don’t know your heart.”

Touching the Lives of Individuals

Nazareth College student Alison Risewick recently visited us at Refugees Helping Refugees and was able to meet many of our students and staff.

Reflecting upon her experience, she writes “In America, there are numerous misconceptions about refugees. Often, one of the biggest mistakes that Americans make when hearing the term ‘refugee,’ is that they forget that refugees are individuals who once lived a normal life before they were forced to flee their home country; they were doctors, lawyers, teachers, and yet suddenly, they are forced to leave behind all they have ever known. Rochester has now expanded its residency, becoming home to individuals all across the world….While this is a local organization, it has the strength to touch the lives and make a difference to the individuals who are a part of it, and that is a start to changing our world.”

We pride ourselves on the individualized attention we give to our clients at Refugees Helping Refugees. Our class sizes are small, our case managers hold office hours for walk-in appointments, and our clients can feel comfortable asking any member of the staff for help. We have recently taken this individualized approach one step further––pairing our clients with a local friend in a mission to bridge the gap between refugees and members of the Rochester community.

If you live in Rochester and are interested in working to help us bridge this gap, consider joining our Caring Circle program. The Caring Circle matches Rochester residents with refugees in a partnership of cultural exchange and support. Refugees practice their English and gain a friend in the community. The community members, in turn, learn about their partner’s culture and language, share their favorite parts of Rochester, and help contribute to the integration of a refugee.

The Caring Circle requires a commitment of at least 10 hours a month for a minimum of 3 months. The exact time and commitment should be decided at the beginning of the partnership and can be re-evaluated over time. Volunteer times for this commitment are flexible and include evenings and weekends.

What are you waiting for? Sign up today for the Caring Circle with our Volunteer Application and make a new friend!

Rochester Community Stands with Muslims

Staff and volunteers from Refugees Helping Refugees joined the greater Rochester community in gathering outside of the Islamic Center of Rochester on Sunday afternoon to show their love and support for the Muslim community.

The event was organized by the Levine Center to End Hate and the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester in the wake of the New Zealand terrorist attacks that took place at two mosques on March 15, killing 50 people, and injuring 50 more.

Refugees Helping Refugees Case Manager Pamela Adams shares some of her thoughts and observations of the gathering below.

“The afternoon was a beautiful and poignant coming together. People from all different areas of Rochester – of all ages, genders, faiths, races and ethnicities – standing, kneeling, holding hands in solidarity with one another.

As I sat quietly in the crowded room for prayer (a room just like the one in which the New Zealand victims were praying during the time of the attack) watching the women pray on their knees in front of me I was overwhelmed. Some were crying. Children were meandering through the narrow spaces between bodies. We sat together in silence literally watching one another’s backs.

Before and after the prayer, I locked eyes with several women…some said thank you, some didn’t speak…either way, we were connected in sorrow and in love.

I’m grateful to live in a community that cares deeply. We don’t get everything right, but we get a lot of things right. Today we had one heart. Thank you to the compassionate organizers of this event, to all of the courageous speakers and to everyone who showed up on this Sunday afternoon to say #NotInMyName.”

Her Voice Carries

Refugees Helping Refugees is excited to announce that one of our own, Safi Osman, was recently featured in a Rochester public art project called Her Voice Carries!

“Her Voice Carries is a public art project featuring women who are lifting up the voices of others. The intention is to create a network of murals across America that weave a collective story laced with individual truths. In addition, each story becomes part of a larger dialogue through audio recordings, social media and a traveling exhibition. This series emphasizes the commonalities of our human experience through the leadership of empowered women.”

Originally from Somalia, Safi has lived in the United States for 20 years. Known as “Momma Safi,” she teaches sewing skills, serves as an emergency translator, and provides transport to refugees in need through Refugees Helping Refugees, an organization for which she is a founding member. Safi is one of the first people refugees call upon for help, day or night.

Sarah C. Rutherford started the project in Rochester, New York, and completed five outdoor murals across Rochester, as well as one inside the Memorial Art Gallery. Follow the project as it expands to other locations @hervoicecarries on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.