A Family Walked Nine Countries To Flee Persecution. Now, Hard Memories Linger

Richard, Marisol, and their 3-year-old son sitting on some steps close to The Redbury Hotel. (Credit: Gabriela Henriquez Stoikow)

Richard, Marisol, and their 3-year-old son sitting on some steps close to The Redbury Hotel. (Credit: Gabriela Henriquez Stoikow)

Marisol and Richard still remember the screams of a woman tied to a tree on the outskirts of a camp in Capurganá, Colombia. She had been strapped there by the men controlling the camp at the entrance of the Darién jungle after she hit her children. For two straight days, they heard her screaming until she finally fell silent. “It was a torment,” Richard said.

The couple, Marisol, 22, and Richard, 30, are asylum seekers from Venezuela, and were just starting their 2,623-mile journey to the United States with their two children: a girl, 5, and a boy, 3.

The couple, now living in New York City, asked to be identified by their first names only due to immigration status concerns. Columbia News Service spoke with them in Spanish.

The family stayed in that Colombian camp for the next two weeks while Richard worked cutting trees, digging, and helping to build a bridge to earn the money to pay their toll to enter the Darién Gap. This 100-mile stretch of mountainous jungle connecting Colombia and Panama has become the main route to the United States for migrants and asylum seekers fleeing the humanitarian emergencies in their home countries.

Since January 2022, more than 440,000 Venezuelans like Marisol and Richard have crossed the Darién Gap, according to Human Rights Watch. Venezuelans make up the largest group of people migrating, followed by Ecuadorians and Haitians.

Venezuelans are fleeing a social and humanitarian crisis after decades of poor governance, bad economic policies, and political conflict. This has resulted in a massive exodus of people fleeing economic insecurity and, sometimes, political persecution. By Spetember 2023, there were 7.7 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants worldwide, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

By the time Marisol and Richard had traveled for four months across South and Central America to New York City, arriving in late August 2023, they and their children had weathered so many dangers that they were all deeply shaken and in need of counseling. Now, they wonder if they made the right decision for their family, because they’ve struggled to find and secure the mental health care they need. The city lacks enough mental healthcare workers in general, but especially workers who speak Spanish, according to the 2024 annual report from The Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health.

The couple fled Venezuela primarily because of persecution by the government, though the country’s lack of food and medicine factored into the decision. Richard, who is an artisan, said that the persecution started in 2018, when he made purses and belts from Bolívares, the Venezuelan currency, just as its value was declining. His work was featured in national and international media, which he said irritated the Venezuelan government.

Police and military officers started harassing him and Marisol, who was pregnant at the time, trying to stop him from using Bolívares as raw material, accusing him of mocking the national currency. They were also looking to take the money he made from his art. They seized the couple’s car, and then their house and valuables, until all the couple had left was their life. Fearing this would be taken too, they decided to leave.

The couple first tried a fresh start in Colombia, but neither of them could find work. Then they tried Ecuador, and then, Peru, with the same outcome. So, they decided to head north. By April of 2023, they were on their way to the U.S.

After paying a toll of $100 per person to enter the jungle, Richard and Marison said that they walked 12 hours a day for two days over steep hills and through deep mud and river crossings to cross it. Richard carried their 3-year-old son on his back. Marisol carried their daughter. On the second day, a woman traveling with them abandoned her 3-year-old boy on the side of the river, unable to carry him any further on the treacherous journey.

“People screamed to her ‘leave him,’ so she did,” Marisol recalls. “I am a mother. I couldn’t leave that boy in the jungle, so we took him and returned him to his mother at the end of the stretch.”

With three children to take care of, the couple had to carefully divide the little food and water they had. They also had to distract the children from seeing the bodies partially buried along the path, the people with injuries ranging from sprained ankles and broken legs, and the fights between travelers that often turned deadly.

“I felt that I was going to die,” Richard says, looking at his wife. “But she gave me strength and encouraged me to keep walking.” As soon as the family emerged from the jungle onto Panamanian soil, they say now, they felt able to breathe again.

The reprieve, however, was short-lived because the family then had to spend some 15 days crossing through almost every Central American country to get to the Mexican border. They had no money, so they relied on temporary jobs and charity from people along the way to pay for their transportation, food, and bribes to police officers or the military.

“Mexico is worse than the jungle”

Once the family made it to Mexico, they crossed into Juchitán de Zaragoza in the south. There, exhausted and stressed out, Marisol and Richard got into a fight, growing so angry that they took different buses. Marisol needed a break, she says. She went ahead, while Richard kept the children and caught a bus running just a few hours behind his wife’s.

Somewhere along the road, Richard’s bus was stopped by armed men carrying guns and machetes, who forced the 13 people on board to get out and walk with them to the mountains nearby.

In what Richard now describes as a moment of panic, he grabbed his two children and ran away down the road. “People screamed at me ‘Stop, we are going to kill you’ but all I could do was run.” Two other men from the bus escaped with him.

When he arrived at a nearby checkpoint controlled by police, he told them about the ambush, but the police never found the other passengers. Richard then called Marisol and the family met again a few hours later.

Their daughter is old enough to still remember that night, the couple says, but their son doesn’t. Nonetheless, Marisol says both children are now afraid of the police and people with guns.

Reunited and deeply shaken, the family was finally inching closer to the U.S.. But now, the fear of persecution hung heavy over their heads — this time, for being refugees.

In the other countries they had passed through, refugees like them could legally purchase bus tickets to travel. In Mexico, their only choices were to either walk or pay criminal smugglers for transportation. Each of those rides only took them five to ten blocks and could cost up to 200 Mexican Pesos – $11 USD. If the family wanted to keep moving, they either had to pay again, or get out and walk.

During the night, while sleeping on the sidewalks, they tied their children to their bodies, for they had been warned that criminals tried to steal children while their parents slept. “We saw a lot of mothers crying because their kids were taken from them,” Marisol recalls. “We barely slept when we were in Mexico. Mexico is worse than the jungle.”

Coping with trauma

The family finally arrived at daytime in Texas in late August 2023, after crossing the Rio Bravo. Once they were on American soil, they were detained by border patrol and held in an “icebox,” a detention facility with freezing cold temperatures, with their clothes still dripping wet from crossing the river. Each member of the family was only given a thin foil blanket, the couple recalls. Marisol said officers threw away her 3-year-old’s asthma inhaler. The couple declined to name the detention center for fear of compromising their asylum case.

After eight days in the icebox, they were released and sent on a plane to New York City, they said. They don’t know who paid for the tickets or how they got to the airport. Nonetheless, it has been documented that the governors of Texas and Florida have been sending buses and planes filled with asylum seekers to New York and other sanctuary cities since the Spring of 2022.

New York City responded to this unprecedented challenge by opening 221 sites, including hotels turned into shelters, to house the more than 189,200 asylum seekers that have arrived as of April 2024, according to data from the city.

The family is still staying at The Redbury Hotel in Manhattan, a shelter for newly-arrived migrants provided by the city. They’re safe, but the family is still adjusting to the many hurdles they face every day. One problem is the food. They cannot eat the meals served in the building because they are usually frozen, and the hotel staff only allows each family three minutes for the microwave, not enough time to defrost anything. At least two other asylum seekers staying at the same hotel confirmed these concerns. Once again, Marisol and Richard find themselves relying on money and food donations from people in the streets and meals offered at churches to put food in their stomachs. The Office of the Mayor of New York City did not respond to a request for comment.

Staff at The Roosevelt Hotel, the city’s main intake center for migrants in need of housing, which is almost a mile away from The Redbury, helped the couple get medical insurance and enroll their daughter in school. But the couple is still trying to find her a psychologist. The Redbury has no social workers, they say. The Mayor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment about this claim. It’s also hard for them to communicate with their daughter’s teachers, who can barely speak Spanish, they said.

Schools are one of the main ways that parents can find mental health services for their children, said Gabriela Livas Stein, a professor at The University of Texas at Austin who studies stress in Latino families.

“In New York, some schools actually have in-house psychologists, therapists, and social workers to provide those kinds of services,” she said.

Primary care physicians and community organizations can also refer asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants to mental health providers, Stein adds.

Marisol and Richard say they also need counseling because they aren’t the same people they were a year ago. But for now, they want to prioritize getting help for their daughter.

After the family arrived in the U.S., she had trouble making friends at school.

“The teacher tells me she sits on her own during class and at lunch,” Marisol said. “That surprised me. She used to have so many friends in Venezuela.”

Also, the couple says both kids used to have manners but now they are impolite, even with their parents.

“The kids now have tantrums and argue with each other for no reason,” Richard added. “They also question us when we give them an instruction.”

Marisol agrees. “They were not like this,” she adds.

Frequent crying and tantrums are common among children who experienced trauma, said Sandra Mattar, a clinical psychologist at Boston Medical Center Immigrant & Refugee Health Center. “They have temper tantrums, and they cannot stop because they don’t know how to self-soothe.”

Parents can unwittingly contribute to this by being lax in discipline.

“Sometimes parents feel guilty that their kids experienced this, so maybe don’t set limits the way that they would or help them sort of behave because they’re having their own kind of reactions to it,” said Stein.

Parents also wrestle with trauma

Richard and Marisol have other struggles, too. They have not been able to find a lawyer to help them file for asylum; their lack of English is making it hard for them to find their way around the city; and they are constantly worried about how to afford their next meal. They also say

they no longer trust people.

“We’ve been through so much that now I don’t trust anybody,” Richard said.

This lack of trust is common in people who’ve been through a traumatic event, said Stein.

“What happens with trauma exposure is that you live in a constant state of hypervigilance and fear, which can be really challenging. Even if you’re in a new setting that’s safer, you still carry that worry with you, and that impacts your relationships with others,” she said.

Marisol and Richard also describe feeling disappointment in others, sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, and a heightened sense of fear.

But treating patients who are living in shelters is a grueling task, Mattar says. Basic needs such as a stable place to live, food on the table, and a job need to be met first. “It’s hard to promote and talk about mental health if you don’t take care of those needs.”

The story of Marisol and Richard is not that uncommon. Families living in The Redbury and other shelters for recently arrived asylum seekers describe having faced similar dangers in crossing the Darién Gap and Mexico: Walking for days with limited food and water, fighting extreme exhaustion, seeing bodies in the jungle, sleeping in the streets of Central America, and undergoing the intimidating encounter with American authorities at the detention centers once they put their feet on U.S. soil. And once they are in the U.S., they have to face a slew of new problems.

“They have these very raw recent memories of what they had to go through at the border and when they were crossing all the borders,” Mattar said. “Their bodies are completely dysregulated; they are unable to sleep; they are scared and confused. They feel that they lack any control because they don’t speak the language.”

Furthermore, they now face the harsh reality of becoming an immigrant and losing control over housing, food, employment and independence, Mattar continues, all of which are made worse by the lack of services for new arrivals. “It’s further perpetuating their trauma and their beliefs about the US as a benevolent country,” Mattar said.

Marisol still has mixed feelings about coming to the U.S. She is certain that she and Richard will eventually find a job. But she is still unsure about whether it was worth it.

“Sometimes I think about all the things I put my children through to allegedly give them a better future,” Marisol said as her eyes filled with tears.

About the author(s)

Gabriela Henriquez is a Venezuelan journalist studying at Columbia Journalism School. She is a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.