Lord, I pray that I am able to tell this story correctly and that I will always remember the emotions I felt, and the details currently ingrained in my mind, and that these words are glorifying to you. Amen.
Last week I met a man, and this man changed my life.
I was in Mexico last Saturday, near the U.S. border of Nogales, AZ. It was a warm day, about 96 degrees with little wind. My team was warned about the signs of dehydration; in the desert, you don’t realize how quickly you’re losing water until it’s too late. We were brought to a men and women’s shelter, which offers a place of refuge. Many of the people there were caught by border patrol and deported. The shelter was located in an eight-story apartment building complex. We climbed about four floors to reach a small room. The room was the length of about two queen sized beds pushed together and the width of maybe 10-12 feet. We sat and gathered twelve people in a circle and introduced ourselves:
“Hola. Soy Lexi, y tengo 22 años. Hablo un poquito Español. Soy de Virginia, pero vivo en El Paso, Texas para mi trabajo.”
“Hi. I’m Lexi and I’m 22 years old. I speak a little Spanish. I am from Virginia, but I live in El Paso, Texas for my job.”
My team continued to introduce themselves while I observed the demeanor of a man who sat directly across from me. He was hunched over and his head hung low, but he seemed to pay attention to everyone. His eyes never broke contact with the person who was talking. He wore a red polo shirt that looked like it had never been ironed, light-washed jeans, and dark brown tennis shoes. His hair was disheveled, curls going this way and that, and it looked like he hadn’t shaved in a few weeks. I noticed that he did not have a left arm; the empty red polo sleeve jostled unnaturally as he leaned over and rested his right elbow on his thigh. He had the prettiest blue-green eyes I ever saw, but there was something even more striking about him. His eyes, although pretty, seemed to be carrying the weight of the world. His eyes were physically open but were glazed over with a look of despair. It was apparent that this man suffered a grief that was incomparable to anything I had ever been through.
At the end of the introductions, someone from my team finally stated, “We are here to learn more about you, your lives, and stories.”
Almost immediately the man spoke up. Unfortunately, I do not remember his name. I know it started with an R, so that is how I’ll refer to him. In Spanish, R began his tale of how he got to Mexico. R is from East Honduras and lived with his pregnant wife. In January of 2017, he was forced to flee his home country due to extreme gang violence. The gangs threatened to kill him, so he decided that leaving and trying to make his way into the United States would offer him better financial opportunities to provide for his family. Taking what little money and food he had, R rode buses throughout Honduras to get to Guatemala. Traveling through Honduras was not an issue for R, but once he made it into Guatemala he realized that the journey would become far more difficult. He walked for many miles to save his money, found shelter within various towns, and encountered people who generously fed him.
I can only imagine the miles his feet walked. Have you ever gone on a hike, and afterwards your legs ache? Or have you ever worn unsupportive shoes and the next day, your calves burn with every step? Now, take those feelings of discomfort and add hunger, dehydration, and tiredness. The only thing that keeps you going is the hope that there is a better future ahead.
R said he was finally able to make it to the trains after a few weeks of traveling north. There are many people who ride the trains, but it can be a dangerous way to travel. Sometimes they are overtaken by gangs that steal everything you have and leave you for dead, or the trains themselves can be perilous. Knowing the possible negative outcomes, R climbed to the top of the train and watched it speed towards the United States.
At night, it became very cold. The wind was brutally slapping R’s face. He didn’t have any extra clothes with him except for what he was wearing. After what felt like hours on the train, R decided to climb down to avoid some of the wind and possibly find some warmth. He had very little sleep, but decided the risk of climbing down the moving train was worth it. As he descended, the train passed some hanging cables that caught on to his leg and caused him to fall off of the train. The force of impact made him dive head-first into the ground. Before he passed out, he watched his left arm became mutilated by the train wheels as they continued to charge into the night.
R awoke to the sound of silence. His vision was blurry, he felt light-headed, and then he saw the damage of the accident. His left arm was completely destroyed – you couldn’t even tell that it was an arm. His blood pooled and sank into the ground. The only thing that was left in somewhat okay condition was his left hand. R, somehow, was able to pick himself up, pick up his left hand, and walk to the nearest house he could find to ask for help. Door to door he went begging for someone to show him kindness and mercy. No one offered their services. R was losing a lot of blood, but he kept walking.
Finally, someone called an ambulance for him, but they left him on the streets. R passed out in bushes along the side of the road before the ambulance arrived. Unfortunately, the ambulance was unable to find him, so they gave up their search. R probably would’ve died if a police officer hadn’t been driving by. The police officer noticed R, got him into his vehicle, and drove him to a nearby hospital. At the hospital, they performed an amputation surgery to completely cut off his left arm. I am not sure how R was able to pay for it, or if he will have medical bills following him, but I do know that the hospital forced R to leave the hospital less than a day after his surgery.
R felt hopeless. He fled his home country by himself, fought his way through miles of heat, little food, and limited resources. He left his pregnant wife of 7 months so that he could hopefully find a job in the United States to send her money and help support the future of his unborn child. Instead, he found himself without a job, stranded in Mexico, without family or friends, without clothes (because they got ruined from the accident), and without a left arm. He wondered, “What is the point of my life?”
Although I am unaware of many details, R was able to get in contact with The Red Cross, who provided him a prosthetic arm. R stated that he doesn’t like to wear because it is uncomfortable and makes him sore underneath his right armpit. It is a painful reminder of what happened to him.
R looked at me almost the entire time while he shared his story. His eyes would swell and tears flooded when he started to talk about his wife and daughter who he hasn’t met yet. I felt like our souls truly connected. I felt the depths of his heart, and although he was speaking in Spanish the entire time, language was not a barrier in that moment. You don’t need to speak the same language to feel grief and loss.
I want to put into perspective how far R traveled. R said he was from East Honduras, but didn’t specify which city. I picked La Esperanza, Honduras on Google maps just to have a place in mind. If R were to have traveled from La Esperanza to the border of Mexico/Nogales, AZ, then that would equal about 48 hours of driving non-stop. That’s a total of 2,434 miles. When I moved to El Paso from Northern Virginia, it was about 28 hours of driving (a total of 1,954 miles). Now remember, R didn’t have a personal car and he wasn’t driving non-stop to get to the border. He rode buses, walked, and rode a train. This blows my mind.
We all gathered around R at the end. He wept as we laid our hands on him and prayed for his life and family. This is my brother, and I will probably never see him again. But I will carry his story and the memory of his face with me for the rest of my life.
In Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline, he states that the “inner sense of compassion is one of the clearest indications from the Lord that this is a prayer project for you” (Foster, 1988). My heart was overflowing with compassion for this man, people seeking refuge, immigration, and the border. I think I am called to pray for immigration issues not only within the U.S. but also worldwide.
If you have the desire to learn more about people who have immigrated/stories similar to this, then I would highly recommend this book.