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Flight from violence

Real stories of Central American families searching for safety

As a caravan of asylum seekers and migrants continues toward the U.S. border, and debates over immigration resume, it helps to understand the humanity and hardship of the families making the perilous journey.

Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world.

Families escaping gang violence and persecution have undertaken a dangerous journey by foot, train and bus to safety in the United States. 

Countries have the right to control and secure their borders, but many families arriving at the U.S. border have credible asylum claims and the legal right to have their cases heard without being criminalized.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy separated thousands of families and placed parents and children in detention facilities. The U.S. federal courts ordered the administration to reunify children with their parents, but the trauma of separation may haunt them forever.

The International Rescue Committee has been working with over 100 families across the U.S. who have experienced such trauma. Here are their stories.

Guatemala is fraught with poverty and violence, including homicides related to gang rivalry and organized crime.

Guatemala has the third highest rate of female killings in the world. The country's homicide rate has seen a decline in recent years, yet is still higher than the Latin American average with 27.3 murders per 100,000 people.

George* from regrets that he “let go” of his 7-year-old son when they were held by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after arriving from Guatemala. “They [CPB officers] refused to let me give my son a final hug or even help him put on his sweater,” he recalled. “The officers said: ‘He’ll learn to take care of himself.’”

Many parents separated from their children have shared similar feelings of guilt, even though they felt they did not have an option.

“One father shared with me, as tears welled up in his eyes, that he didn’t know which state his son had been taken to or when or if he’d ever see him again,” said an IRC caseworker in Arizona who wants to remain anonymous. “He was able to speak with the 7-year-old a couple of times in the three months they were separated, but his son only cried on the phone and asked him why he’d left him alone.”

One father shared with me, as tears welled up in his eyes, that he didn’t know which state his son had been taken to or when or if he’d ever see him again.

Yareni and her 4-year-old son left Guatemala after receiving death threats, enduring a long trek through Mexico before arriving in the U.S. They were detained by border agents after they arrived, and her son was separated from his mother on May 25. Yareni was sent to a detention facility for adults in Texas while her son was transferred to a facility for children in Arizona. After seven weeks, they were finally reunited in New Jersey on July 11.

Yareni told an IRC aid worker about her son’s nighttime bed-wetting, nightmares and separation anxiety which she felt resulted from the forced separation. In addition, because asylum seekers are not authorized to work for some time, Yareni found herself in urgent need of financial support for food, clothing and school supplies.

With the help of the IRC, Yareni received a cell phone, gift cards totaling $800, and donations of clothing, shoes, and modest bedroom furniture. The IRC also helped Yareni enroll her son into school and access English classes, medical services and a Spanish-speaking pro-bono therapist.

El Salvador has been called the world’s most violent country with rampant murders and forced recruitment by gangs.

In 2017, nearly 300,000 Salvadorans flee their homes in search of safety. 2018 is totaling to be one of the deadliest years in Salvadoran histrory since the brutal 1980s’ civil war, which saw 75,000 people killed and over one million displaced.The country is also regarded as one of the most dangerous countries to be a woman, with 67 of every 100 women having experienced violence in their lifetime.

After two months apart, an asylum-seeking mother from El Salvador and her 5-year-old son were reunited in Los Angeles, where they are staying with relatives; her husband remained in the Adelanto Detention center outside the city.

The mother was required to wear a GPS ankle monitor and was visited by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents every Tuesday. The host family, disturbed by the monitoring, asked their relatives to leave.

In less than 24 hours, the IRC placed the mother and son in two-week temporary housing, and with the support of the local organizations, was able to obtain housing for the family for six months. The IRC also referred the mother to legal and medical services, so she could get help managing her son’s diabetes. The youngster has started kindergarten.

Criminal gangs dominate Honduras.

Threats, kidnappings, sexual violence and homicides are all too common. According to a 2017 report from the Norwegian Refugee Council, the city of San Pedro Sula has the second highest murder rate in the world—111 out of 100,000 inhabitants are killed annually. Violence and poverty have robbed generations of opportunity.

Juana* and her 16-year-old daughter fled Honduras for the U.S. They were detained at the border, separated by immigration officials, and sent to different detention facilities.

“I was afraid I would never see my mom again,” Juana’s daughter told an IRC caseworker. “I gained weight and lost a lot of hair because of stress.”

Juana and her daughter were reunited in Boston but couldn’t find housing. The IRC was able to find a family in Dallas who generously offered them use of their guest cottage, free of charge, for six months.

The IRC provided gift cards for the family to purchase food and other basic necessities, as well as school uniforms for Juana’s daughter. We helped the family coordinate doctor appointments and begin counseling sessions to help them cope with the trauma they experienced in Honduras as well as the journey to the U.S.


A Honduran migrant couple and their five kids taking part in a caravan heading to the U.S., wait to cross the border from Guatemala to Mexico

A Honduran migrant couple and their five children, part of a caravan heading to the U.S., wait to cross the border from Guatemala to Mexico.

Photo: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images

As of Sep. 20, 182 children remain in government custody and have not yet been reunified with their families. The IRC continues to support families seeking refuge in the U.S. as they await their asylum hearings. We’re helping them meet their basic needs, connect to critical legal services and access counseling. Learn more about our work and the facts on asylum seekers in America.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.