A U.S. Border Shelter That Attracts Asylum Seekers Far And Wide

Mar 20, 2014
Originally published on March 20, 2014 12:58 pm

You have no idea what some people will do to reach the United States until you hear their stories.

I've understood this truth ever since I went to Afghanistan in 2001. A man told me how he left his country without any travel documents and somehow crossed Iran by bus and foot, only to be caught in Turkey and sent back. He didn't give up, and a few years later came to visit me in Washington.

What I didn't clearly understand was how people in troubled nations finally make it here. It turns out that for some people, the key to the journey is the Borderland, the U.S.-Mexico border, which we have traveled this month for NPR.

If you lack a U.S. visa, you can't just board a flight for New York's JFK airport. The worse off your country is, the harder it may be to obtain that visa. American consular officers are likely to suspect, when you're coming from Yemen or Syria carrying everything you own, that your journey is more than a quick tourist trip.

But a network of smugglers can, for a fee, guide people to the airports of Latin America. From there, established land routes lead through Mexico to the US.

La Posada Providencia shelter, an unassuming cluster of buildings near the border in San Benito, Texas, has in the past year received people from about 20 countries, such as Albania, Romania, Nepal, India, and China.

When we visited, we chatted with men from Somalia and Cuba. And we ran into three Ethiopian women who were studying English as a second language, taking a class over a kitchen counter.

They have applied for asylum in the United States, and are allowed to stay at the shelter while the government considers their cases and the stories they have told.

You really need to hear the voice of Saraa Zewedi Yilma, one of the Ethiopian women, who told of her story Thursday on Morning Edition. We're mapping her incredible journey (from Ethiopia to Sudan to Brazil, then through Venezuela, Colombia and beyond) for our upcoming digital feature on Borderland.

For now, listen to that story in her own words. Hers is a soft voice, sometimes hesitant as she strugges to find the language. She is a tiny woman who took an immense journey; and the population of the La Posada shelter suggests her story is not uncommon.

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Early in Steve Inskeep's drive along the entire U.S./Mexico border, his car pulled off the road in San Benito, Texas.


So we're just pulling into a very narrow asphalt driveway here, a couple of low buildings up ahead. This is the La Posada Providencia shelter.

MONTAGNE: Steve and our colleagues were seeking personal stories of people, goods and culture that cross the border. They found more than they expected when they got out of the car at that shelter in South Texas.

INSKEEP: You know, you could live in this neighborhood, you could live in San Benito probably for a long time and drive past this a hundred times and not really notice it at all. The buildings we approach were made of wood. The white paint a little faded. It's a shelter for men and women seeking asylum in the United States.


INSKEEP: Catholic nuns run La Posada and when we ate lunch with the asylum seekers, a nun led a prayer, singing in Spanish, which was ironic since many of these recent arrivals from Mexico speak very little Spanish. They came from somewhere beyond Mexico, some from beyond Latin America. Sister Zita Telkamp had a list of where recent asylum seekers came from.

SISTER ZITA TELKAMP: Albania, Bangladesh, Belize, Brazil, China. We just had a young lady recently, I think last week, from China.

INSKEEP: Yet all arrived by crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico, which prompted a question I put to three women from Ethiopia. How on earth did you end up in South Texas? You have no idea what some people do to reach the United States until you hear their stories. The women were sitting with a teacher, textbooks open on a kitchen counter.

So basically I'm interrupting an English as a second language class. Is that what's happening here? You're trying to teach and I'm like...

TELKAMP: You ask her questions, she could probably get more practice in English.

INSKEEP: And so we practiced. Mexican migration to the United States dropped to zero during the great recession as many people returned to Mexico as came to the U.S. Now it may be growing again, but a huge part of the migrant flow is still through Mexico from beyond, usually Guatemala or Honduras, but also Romania or India. Mexico is one step on a journey and the borderland is like Rick's Cafe in the movie "Casablanca," the perilous place where refugees gather, hoping it's a step towards safety in America.

Now, what about you, Sara? How did you get here?

SARAA ZEWEDI YILMA: I left my country before four years ago because of the politics.

INSKEEP: Saraa Zewedi Yilma is a tiny woman, skilled with languages. She's learning Spanish and helps other asylum seekers with it. She says her family faced persecution in Ethiopia. Human rights groups have criticized its government for cracking down on dissent. Though it is hard to verify Saraa's story, she says Ethiopia grew so intolerable she fled to Sudan.

Even that unstable place seemed better. And there she met a connection man. That's what the women call businessmen who promise passage to the USA starting by providing a fake passport.

YILMA: He take my photo. I traveled with my husband. He take me a photo and he give me some passport. It's in Arabic. I'm not understand what it say. It's in Arabic. It's only, he told me, my name. It's different...

INSKEEP: What was your name supposed to be?

YILMA: Lila.


YILMA: And they ask you, Lila.

INSKEEP: Saraa and others at the shelter describe a network of connection men. They funnel people from all over the world to Mexico. All expect to be paid, of course, 9,000 here, 2,000 there. Saraa's total cost was $15,000. She got it from two of her sisters. They were working in Saudi Arabia and sent money. One of the nuns brought us a map so that we could trace Saraa's journey across the globe.

Saraa and her husband flew from Sudan to Sao Paulo, Brazil in South America, which was just her first stop.

YILMA: But I've been in Venezuela, I cross a lot of countries.

INSKEEP: Okay. So we're in Brazil here. We're in Sao Paulo. How'd you get from Sao Paulo to Venezuela?

YILMA: Venezuela by car.

INSKEEP: By car. So you're going through the Amazon. You're going across the Amazon River at some point.

YILMA: Yes, by car.

INSKEEP: And you end up in Caracas, Venezuela.

YILMA: Yes, Caracas in the border of Columbia and Venezuela.

INSKEEP: Then you went across westward to Columbia, okay.

YILMA: Yes, Columbia.

INSKEEP: And as she was passed from one connection man to another, the group was growing. She stayed at a safe house with 16 other migrants from Ethiopia, Somalia, Bangladesh, Nepal. Before long they were 29, struggling across the top of South America.

YILMA: By 13 hours, by boat and...

INSKEEP: One part of Columbia to another part of Columbia by boat.

YILMA: Yes, by boat.

INSKEEP: You said a small boat. Like a little open boat?

YILMA: Yes. We were. Yeah.

INSKEEP: You're shivering as you remember.


INSKEEP: Then you go to Panama through the jungle.

YILMA: The jungle two days.

INSKEEP: And when immigration officials at border after border asked where she was going, she never lost sight of her goal.

YILMA: They asked me what did they - what's your destination. I say USA.

INSKEEP: They let her go, so long as she was just passing through. She moved through the countries of Central America, one by one, then spent four days crossing Mexico by bus. Finally she walked across a bridge into Brownsville, Texas. Saraa presented herself to federal immigration authorities and they put her in detention. Saraa said it was nice compared to where she'd been.

She was not the only member of her family searching for America. A connection man sent her sister by another route. But word came through Saraa's family that her sister drowned when a boat sank in West Africa. This was your older sister?

YILMA: My youngest.

INSKEEP: Your youngest. I'm sorry for your loss.

YILMA: Sorry.

INSKEEP: That's no problem at all. After a moment she smiled and continued her story. Saraa's journey has stopped for now at that shelter in South Texas, though it's not over. She was allowed to come here while awaiting a court hearing on her final immigration status. Do you miss home now that you're here?

YILMA: Yes, I miss it, but I can't go back.

INSKEEP: Can't go back. Now, do you know what you want to do if you're granted asylum? Do you want to stay around here? Do you want to go to New York? Do you want to go to Chicago? Do you want to do some job or another? Do you want to go to school?

YILMA: I want - yes, I want to study. In July I get my baby. I'm pregnant four months.

INSKEEP: Oh my goodness. Not only is she pregnant, she's been separated from her husband, who is still in detention and was shipped to an immigration center in Buffalo, New York. As we sat in this low ceilinged kitchen, it was hard not to think of the odds that after all this, Saraa might be sent back. She will have to demonstrate she faces political persecution or threats at home.

Many asylum seekers are denied, which crossed my mind as I was talking with Saraa, who'd come so far at such a cost. She can only wait and hope. And when we finished our talk, she returned to work with her English teacher, completing phrases from a book.

YILMA: What is that? It's a coffee pot.

TELKAMP: Uh-huh, okay. (Unintelligible) it's a girl.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.