Story by Nadia Kalinchuk, American Red Cross, National Headquarters, Restoring Family Links Outreach Coordinator and Caseworker for the Americas, Migration Focal Point
When I left Quetzaltenango in the early morning hours, I was in a cool mountain climate. When I wake, I am instantly covered in a mist of sweat, hot and slightly disoriented. I am in El Carmen, at the border, between Guatemala and Mexico. Hector, the migration focal point and Restoring Family Links lead in Guatemala, tells me that I will instantly feel the heat, and I do. We enter the reception area, which is nestled between street vendors and bodegas. The map on the wall tells me where I am and I am instantly comforted.
Hector introduces me to the lead volunteer who welcomes migrants who are deported to Guatemala from Mexico. The Puesto de Atencíon is a collaboration between the Cruz Roja Guatemalteca and the ICRC delegation of Guatemala. The bus from Mexico came through with a group of migrants. Another volunteer down the road had boarded the bus to inform them of the services provided at the Puesto de Atencíon. We anticipated the group will come through in a bit to make a call home to their loved ones, or simply use the restroom and get a snack before moving forward.
When the group arrives they line up to get coffee and make a phone call. Some sit on the seats in the reception area to put the shoelaces back on their shoes. Hector welcomes them and engages in casual banter while I try my hand at serving snacks. A younger migrant who was traveling with his uncle is disgruntled with him, complaining that he had recommended that he cut his shoelaces when they were in detention in Mexico. He is unhappy at the prospect of walking without his laces. His uncle relents and goes off to buy a new set of laces. The street is full of bodegas that cater to migrants, selling backpacks, shoelaces, disposable phones and water.
When his uncle gets back, they share their story. The three, uncle, nephew and the friend of the nephew, had traveled together and were apprehended by authorities in Mexico. They had been working there, planning to stay for a while until they could save the money to move onward to the United States. The nephew says his mom and brother live there. He talks about the influence of gangs and violence in Guatemala, expressing anger and frustration that he had no family left in Guatemala. He is charging his phone as they wait to place a call. The group jokes and discusses the options ahead of them – to stay in Guatemala or go to Mexico by night. They turn to the map to look at where they are.
“Estamos aquí.” The map on the wall shows where they are and the roads that lie ahead and behind them. It is a seemingly small, common action – looking at a map. Nonetheless, it is a critical piece of the puzzle.
When returned to their country of origin, migrants are often uninformed of where they are being taken, have no idea as to how to communicate where they are to their family, and are more vulnerable to exploitation when they are left disoriented and unaware. The stories of disorientation ring together like a chorus – a father lost in the desert, children unable to call home or know when they can place the next call to their family, a young boy trafficked after being separated from his group, a young woman unaware of where to go for help in the middle of the night, when the coyote who is traveling with her tries to enter her room. These are just some of the vulnerabilities migrants face when they do not know where they are.
As I witnessed in El Salvador, Honduras and now Guatemala - globally, the Red Cross provides the critical humanitarian link that orients refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants. As a trusted partner in the community, the Red Cross receives people, providing respite and important information to assist in maintaining and restoring family connection. The work is not done by maps or phone calls alone, but by the people who engage in the humanitarian principles to provide service in a neutral and impartial manner to all who are in need. That is but one way we can say, “we are here.”