This is Dunia’s Story.
She is a young woman, somewhat shy, but with much courage and faith. And it was her courage and faith in God that made her decide to leave her native country of Honduras and undergo the arduous and dangerous journey with her 16-month-old baby.
She was born in one of the towns of Comayagua, Honduras; there she grew up and went to school in the village. She recalls the violence among young people and even the children as she was on her way to school. She remembers being threatened more than once and how she would run home scared seeking refuge and protection. Dunia took refuge in the joy that her older sisters offered. The church and her school made up a large part of her life. Praying the Rosary and reading the Bible were gifts she received from her mother.
One of her family’s traditions was to go see her brother and cousins play soccer. Every Sunday morning her family went to the soccer fields in La Cañada. There they would meet with uncles, aunts, cousins and friends to enjoy the game. It was at one such Sunday game that the local violence exacted terrible tragedy. Dunia’s cousin was so glad that his team had won and was celebrating in joy when a member of the losing team became angry and confronted him.
“In front of all of us, he fired two shots and killed him,” she said. “The police did not even try to arrest the man who killed my cousin.”
Every day Dunia heard about robberies, extortions and killings. She knew about the “war tax” that business owners paid. She also knew about an entire family that was killed.
“They respected no one,” she recalls. “Not the grandmother or the two children, a four and a six year old. They killed all of them for money.”
The gangs look for young boys between the ages of 11 and 13, for those who are orphaned or have problems with their family, Dunia says, offering them friendship, protection from other gangs, and drugs. Then they teach them how to steal and extort people.
Dunia was a homemaker and did not expect to be extorted because neither she nor her partner owned a business. But the phone calls started coming in. They did not ask for much, just 5,000 Lempiras or the equivalent of about $238, but this was money that they did not have.
The fear-inducing calls continued and in February of this year, after another cousin was murdered, Dunia made the difficult decision to take her two children and leave.
“We have always lived in poverty,” she recalls thinking, “but you cannot live with violence.”
She called relatives in the U.S. and they cobbled together $7,000. But this would only pay for the safe passage of her and one child. She made the unimaginable decision of leaving her five-year- old daughter with the mother of her partner in the village. She and her baby son headed north.
Dunia left Comayagua toward San Pedro Sula with six teenage boys. They came on a bus accompanied by a coyote (smuggler) that took them to the border of Guatemala and Honduras; they would then change coyotes and travel through Guatemala to reach the border of Mexico.
After having to walk, run and hide with her child in her arms, she says she began to wonder what she had gotten herself into. She spent many nights on the floor of various houses, exhausted and hungry. One of the boys helped her with the child and he also helped her stand firm in her faith. She carried a Bible that they would read together and then they prayed the Rosary always asking God to protect them.
Arriving in Reynosa, Mexico, they put her with six other strangers on a raft and they crossed the Rio Bravo. They had been instructed to follow the path once they got off the raft. They obeyed, and soon found themselves confronted by four officers.
“I felt fear and a great desire to cry, had it all been for nothing?” Dunia remembers. “The officers took out their cellphones; they took pictures and made fun of us.”
She spent three days in the same detention cell. She shared the space with 60 other people, mostly young women and their children. While in the detention center, they took her photo, fingerprinted her, and she was asked to sign many papers she did not understand. They also asked her if she had any family in the United States and their phone numbers.
In California, Dunia’s sister-in-law, Maricruz, received a call from the immigration office. They asked her to buy the Greyhound bus ticket and to let them know the confirmation number.
“That is how I found out that Dunia and her child were alive and that we would soon see each other,” Maricruz said.
Dunia was transported to the Greyhound bus station in McAllen, Texas and given the boarding pass her family had bought for her in California. After two and half days of traveling, exhausted and in pain, she came to San Bernardino. Finally, she reunited with her siblings who already lived in the area.
“Those early days were of joy and excitement, but then came the sadness of having left my [oldest] child behind, Dunia says.”
She reported to the local immigration office where they put an electronic ankle device on her. Every Monday she has to present herself at the local immigration office and on Wednesdays an officer would verify that she is still living at the address on her file and that she still had the electronic ankle device on. She is no longer required to wear the ankle device.
“I did not expect this system,” she says. “ I came here looking to leave violence behind and they treat me like a criminal.”
I asked her, “Do you regret it?”
She replied, “I wanted something better for my children; a future and peace.”
The root of the Church’s social teaching is based on the respect for life, the dignity of each person, and the protection of human rights. As Catholics, it is important that we consider what is happening in Latin America, which has led to increased violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The drug and arms sales are intrinsically connected to the violence in this region of Central America. As faithful citizens, we are called to be aware of the United States trade policies, and the impact these policies have had on these countries. I invite you to read a statement from Bishop Pates to Secretary Kerry on this topic.
Hilda Cruz is the Coordinator of the Justice for Immigrants Campaign for the Diocese of San Bernardino.