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Refugees reflect on past lives and new beginnings

on December 14, 2015

Interactive Map: follow Jeremías’ journey as an unaccompanied minor, from his neighborhood in El Salvador, to resettlement in Oakland, here.

In the shadow of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris and the ongoing strife in Syria, America’s role in handling the refugee crisis has been catapulted to the forefront of political debates. Discussions about whether the United States would accept Syrian refugees began after governors from over 30 states said they would not welcome them within their borders.

In the Bay Area, where refugees from all over the world have long sought shelter, some worry the ongoing national debate will affect all refugees, and not just Syrians. “The tighter restrictions are going to affect everyone. There will be more background checks on everyone. They want to make sure there’s no terrorists coming in, so there’s more checks and more border patrols,” said Yoshi Mendez, a refugee rights advocate at East Bay Sanctuary Covenant in Berkeley.

The backlash against Syrian refugees gaining admittance to the U.S. stemmed from initial concerns that one of the men involved in the Paris attacks could have entered France among Syrian refugees seeking asylum. Reports show that while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the attacker’s body, no investigations have in fact proven that any of the attackers was a Syrian refugee. Nevertheless, Mendez fears that this could stigmatize refugees coming to the U.S. by perpetuating skewed generalizations that “refugees are bad, they could attack us at any point,” she said. “This is horrible.”

Others hope that policymakers in the U.S. will not shut America’s doors to refugees. “The fearfulness is understandable, but be aware that most of the refugees are not terrorists,” said Sister Elizabeth Lang, director of refugee services at Catholic Services of the East Bay. “They [refugees] go through very stringent process with the State Department and the U.S. immigration services.” Before the resettlement process kicks off for any refugee, they have to undergo a lengthy security vetting and orientation process that also entails a series of interviews with Department of Homeland Security and United States Citizenship and Immigration agents.

The Bay Area, and particularly Oakland, has long been home to refugees, who immigrate here fleeing problems at home like political instability, gang violence and other conditions that put their lives at risk. Some of the largest waves of refugee immigration to Oakland were the Vietnamese people in 1975, when the U.S. admitted over 145,000 refugees at the end of the Vietnam War. There was also another spike of refugee immigration from Eastern Europe in the early 1990s following the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

The make up of refugee groups in the East Bay has been diversifying over the years, said Lang. “In the 80s we had a lot of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Russians and Afghans—most of them are in the Fremont area,” Lang said. “We have emerging groups now. The Bhutanese, Burmese and new Afghans populations are spreading out to other counties because of rent [prices].”

Today, experts estimate there are approximately over 100,000 former refugees living in the East Bay. In this piece, we look into the experiences of former refugees from different parts of the world currently living in Oakland.

One of them is only 18.

Jeremías story

Jeremías remembers his neighborhood in El Salvador as being safe when he was young. But things changed when drugs were introduced to the neighborhood. “It all began with the problem of [young people] beginning to smoke marijuana,” he said, speaking in Spanish through a translator. “They began making groups, and they began calling them the Mara,” or members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, has been characterized as one of the most dangerous gangs in the Western Hemisphere by InSight Crime, a foundation that studies organized crime in Central America and the Caribbean.

One afternoon, as Jeremías and his cousin were playing soccer, members of the gang approached them looking to recruit them. “They began to insult us, telling me and my cousin to join them. I told them, ‘I am not joining you, I don’t need to,’” Jeremías said. “They told me they were going to give me drugs, women, guns, whatever I wanted, and that my father wouldn’t be able to tell me what to do. That I was going to be free.”

That is when Jeremías knew he needed to leave. “I didn’t want them to bother my family. I was very scared,” he said. “I calculated that I was the problem.”

With only $3,000, the 16-year-old set out alone, with the help of a smuggler, for the U.S., travelling through Mexico. (To protect the safety of Jeremías and his family, Oakland North will use only his first name.) Two years later, he is currently living in Oakland working for a company that delivers mattresses.

Jeremías is one of tens of thousands of children who have fled gang violence in their countries and have sought refuge in the U.S. The official term for them is “unaccompanied children,” which means they are people below the age of 18 who arrive in the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian, putting them in the temporary custody of federal authorities. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported an influx of unaccompanied children crossing the southwest boarder of the U.S. The majority of these children are coming from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, escaping the threats of violent gangs targeting them and their families.

According to a 2014 report by the DHS, 68,541 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the southwest border near Texas in 2014. This was a 77 percent increase from 2013’s 38,759 children.

“Many of the children are fleeing violence because of the gangs,” said Mendez, the refugee rights advocate from the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant. “Many of the girls have been raped and we have a few girls who come pregnant.”

For many other young people like Jeremías living in Central America’s Northern Triangle—a term used to refer to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—looming threats from gangs is a reality they know all too well. According to a 2013 study by IBI Consultants, an organization that specializes in national security consulting, the Northern Triangle “has earned the unenviable position as one of the world’s most violent and lawless regions.” The Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, and the 18th Street Gang, or Barrio 18, are two of the strongest gangs operating in that area. Both MS13 and Barrio 18 were formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and gradually spread out to other parts of the U.S., Central America and Canada.

According to a September report by Insight Crime, a foundation that studies organized crime in Central America and the Caribbean, El Salvador reported 907 homicides in August, making it the most violent month since the country’s 1992 civil war. The report includes a statement from El Salvador’s Security and Justice Minister, Benito Lara, who attributes the spike in homicides to “an internal rivalry between gangs and confrontations by criminal groups against the police.”

Gang activities in the Northern Triangle expose people to rampant extortion and death threats, motivating them to escape to the U.S. These conditions lead to high homicide rates, sexual violence against women and lack of economic opportunity, according to a 2015 study by researchers at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

In his hometown, Jeremías said, “The pretty girls—whoever wanted them would take them. They [Mara] began to enforce their own rent, hit people.”

In a 2014 study, the Congressional Research Service reported that the median age of unaccompanied children coming to the U.S. from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is 16. The study also reported that there were more male children than female. Mendez said while many of the unaccompanied minors are fleeing gang violence, some come hoping to be reunited with family members already in the U.S. “We’ve seen a lot of mothers who left children behind, and now these children are coming looking for them,” she said. “Many of them have been abused or neglected by one parent, and they are coming to look for the other parent.”

For many children coming from Central America and then crossing into the U.S. via Mexico, travel begins with finding a smuggler whose job is to escort them on a more than 1,500 mile-long journey, a service that often comes with a fee. The smugglers help children get on “La Bestia,” or the Beast, the major train system that transports immigrants across Mexico, going from the southernmost part of the country’s border with Guatemala to the U.S. La Bestia was not designed as a passenger train, but as a cargo train to ferry goods for export. There are no seats and passengers often have to sit atop the train, being steady so as not to get knocked off. Spaces are limited and one has to act fast. “On top there are some railings,” Jeremías said. “One climbs them quick and create your own space.”

Once on top of the train, one has to remain very “firm,” Jeremías said. Passengers typically lie down to avoid getting hit by branches.

“So far we haven’t had clients who’ve had accidents, but they say they saw other kids who lost a leg, or an arm, because the train was going too fast and they just can’t keep up with it,” Mendez said.

The children are often hungry and vulnerable to exploitation by violent gangs and other groups along the way. “Many of the children have told us that the journey is very difficult because they don’t have anything to eat. They have to walk a lot, the Mexican police are very corrupt and if they don’t have money to bribe them, sometimes they get beat up,” Mendez said.

Jeremías’ diet aboard La Bestia consisted of tortillas and canned beans. He remembers going days without food, surviving only on water.

According to a report by Rodrigo Villegas for the Migration Policy Institute, travel on La Bestia is many times the only shot many Central American immigrants have at successfully travelling through Mexico. “Central Americans require a visa to travel to Mexico, and with Mexican officials patrolling the roads, bus stations, and airports—but not (until recently) the cargo trains, La Bestia proved a logical route for migrants without visas,” Villegas writes. “There are no passenger trains traversing the country, leaving cargo trains as one of the few means of transport available to cover the distance to the U.S. border.”

In light of the treacherous travel and the dangers that unaccompanied children are exposed to en route to the U.S., last year President Barack Obama launched the Central American Minors (CAM) program. This program is intended to enable children to apply for legal status in the U.S. while they are still in their home countries, eliminating the need for smugglers and travel on La Bestia. Through this program, unaccompanied minors receive a renewable two-year temporary entry to the U.S. However, according to a recent investigation by The New York Times, almost a year after this program was established, not a single child has been admitted to the U.S. through it.

The major challenge with this program is the strict eligibility requirements that parents and children need to meet, Mendez said. A parent must be a U.S. resident or have Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in order to apply for their children to come through the program, she said. “There are very few people who can meet this requirement,” Mendez said. “Many children are coming because their parents can’t go back to their home countries. So if parents are undocumented, their children don’t qualify for the program.”

At the border, children traveling on La Bestia usually turn themselves in to border patrol agents to eliminate the chances of them being kidnapped by human traffickers. Turning themselves in also allows them to start their immigration process into the U.S. Once minors have turned themselves in, they are temporarily housed in shelters. If they have family members already living in the U.S., they are released to them as their immigration process continues.

 Jeremías recalls having unpleasant experiences with boarder patrol officers. He was cuffed both on his hands and feet, but officers removed the cuffs when they found out he was a minor. He remembers explaining to the authorities that he didn’t mean any trouble. “I don’t come to bother you, I only come asking for help. Where I live, if I go back, I will die,” he recalls telling them.

Jeremias stayed at a shelter in San Antonio, Texas when he first arrived and was released to the custody of his older brother, who also currently lives in Oakland. Once in Oakland, Jeremias attended a clinic that was being offered by lawyers from the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, a Berkeley-based organization that provides advocacy and support services to immigrants in the East Bay. With the help of this organization, Jeremias began applying for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) Status, which would allow him to live and work permanently in the U.S. He got his job delivering mattresses, and began to learn English.

But shortly after he made it to the U.S., he received news that his father had been murdered. He believes the gang is responsible. “They say two people arrived, and my dad just looked at them and didn’t pay them much attention and stepped away,” Jeremías said, recounting the call he received from his family back home explaining what had happened. “When suddenly he crouched, a person hit him with the elbow and he fell. They shot him five times. Three in the head and two behind the neck and shoulder.” Jeremías had just spoken to his dad that morning. “I never expected it to be this way,” he said.

When asked about his future plans, Jeremías now wears a look of uncertainty and sadness. “The truth, right now, is I don’t know,” he said. “When my dad was alive, I had a lot of plans,” including learning English. “I wanted to prepare myself with an education, and especially with English,” he said. “When you know English, you can communicate with everyone.” Now, he said, his “motivation has fallen.”

“All of the lawyers tell me that I am a good person and that I have to keep going to have a future, but it’s not easy,” he said. “It’s not easy because the pillar that always gives strength has crumbled down.”

Until things are better back home, Jeremías says going back is not an option. “If I were to return to El Salvador,” he said, “I would surely be killed or left beaten.”

“Oakland may be dangerous, but not as much as El Salvador,” he said. “One feels safer here.”

Sister Elisabeth Lang’s story

Lang came to the U.S. from Vietnam as a student to attend Siena Heights University in Michigan. She had plans of returning to Vietnam upon completion of her four-year stint there, but as Lang says, “God had a different plan” when the fall of Vietnam happened in 1975. Lang said she became a refugee living in the U.S. when this happened—she couldn’t return to Vietnam because it was “not safe.”

That’s when Lang moved to the West Coast, initially with the goal of being here for just 6 months, and started working with refugees as a translator. She saw it as a way of putting her fluency in Vietnamese to good use given the influx of refugees to the U.S. that followed.

Upon gaining refugee status, Lang began her process of applying for a green card, a process that she said took too long. So instead, she opted to apply for citizenship, since she had been in the U.S. for over 5 years. The application was successful and Lang is currently a citizen of the U.S. and an active nun in the Catholic church.

Today, Lang serves as the director of refugee services at Catholic Charities of the East Bay, the largest provider of social services throughout Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. The organization provides refugees with critical services as they start life afresh in the U.S. “We place high priority in welcoming refugees from all over the world to the Easy Bay,” Lang said. “We help them locate apartments, furnish their shelters, we assist them to apply for medical assistance and food stamps, as well as applying for Social Security numbers so they can go to work.”

“I love the work I’m doing,” Lang said. “This is not a job for me, it’s a ministry.”

Click play on the video at the top of the page to hear more of her story.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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