I expected to be in tears; instead I was in awe. For years, I’ve written about refugees’ struggles, pains, and losses, so I thought I knew what to expect when I visited FM4 Paso Libre, a shelter in Guadalajara for Central American refugees seeking asylum and migrants seeking a better life.
But I left the shelter dry-eyed and feeling small.
A humble staff of nine people provides beds, showers, meals, clothes, medicine, laundry facilities and hygiene kits to 100 weary, desperate refugees and migrants every night, and in the process restores dignity and hope. Legal, medical and psychosocial counseling are also provided. So are Internet access and free calls home – not an insignificant service as Guadalajara’s public phones are among the most expensive in the world.
In response to the U.S’s increased restrictions on refugees (who flee persecution due to their political activism, ethnicity, or sexual or gender orientation), the number of people seeking asylum in Mexico has nearly doubled over last year, according to Janet Valver de Hernández, the shelter’s Advocacy and Networks Coordinator. Many of them seek help from FM4 Paso Libre.
Additionally, tens of thousands of migrants (who leave their country to pursue better economic prospects) seek help at the shelter, which also serves Mexicans and Central Americans deported from the U.S. who are traveling south.
To make the 2,300-mile journey from Chiapas to Mexicali, many migrants hitch la bestia (“the beast”), the fast-moving freight trains that traverse Mexico. They run alongside a moving train, jump aboard and climb to the top, a dangerous feat they will repeat on a dozen trains before they reach the U.S. border. Although many suffer injuries or the loss of limbs from accidents hopping on or falling off trains, this route is still safer than scrambling through the lawless jungles.
Alone, undocumented, unprotected by the Mexican government, and afraid of deportation, migrants are vulnerable to extortion, robbery and beatings from the police, private security guards, sex or drug traffickers and gang members – and even from local homeless people who see los trampos (“the freeloaders”) as a threat to their meager resources. Transgender and gay people are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault. Migrants risk being kidnapped for ransom, sex trafficking or organ harvesting.
They arrive at FM4 Paso Libre traumatized, often sick from respiratory infections from sleeping outside and exposure to severe weather. Exhaustion is common. People fall from the trains because of lack of sleep or are pushed by gang members if they can’t pay bribes. Nearly 10% of migrants arrive at the shelter with broken or missing limbs.
One block from las vías (“train tracks”), the shelter blends into an upscale residential neighborhood. Inside, however, it’s a cavernous warehouse with two floors of bedrooms in the rear and an open floor plan with banks of public sinks for grooming and washing clothes, an industrial kitchen, a large game room with exercise equipment, a TV room and a library.
The non-profit, non-governmental organization relies as much on volunteers as it does on donations. Greeting me when I visited recently, was Jakob, a young German who is spending a year volunteering at the shelter and living with a local tapatío family.
“Isn’t it ironic that your country is dealing with a huge refugee crisis and you’re here?” I ask.
He wants to help those who aren’t getting as much attention. He mentioned that the German government pays 75% of his expenses – and those of five other Germans – to volunteer at FM4 Paso Libre.
The name FM4 Paso Libre (“free passage”) comes from forms given to foreigners who enter Mexico. Although Migration Form #4 does not exist, “we wanted to allude to a crossing that is violence-free, just and respectable,” the organization declares in its annual report. Thus, the organization also works to change and improve Mexico’s policies toward migrants and it partners with other NGOs (Doctors Without Borders maintains an office) and is connected to regional, national and international networks of shelters for migrants and refugees.
I also met Paola, a 21-year-old single mother who left her son in Honduras with her mother in order to find work in the States.
According to the World Bank, Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world and the highest level of economic inequality in Latin America with 66% of the population living in poverty. In rural areas, 20% of Hondurans live on less than US$1.90 per day.
Paola simply wants to provide for her son. Her mother begged her not to leave, not to take such a dangerous trip. She was the only woman I saw at the shelter.
“Yes, the journey is difficult,” Paola said. “But I suffered in Honduras. I think it’s better to suffer trying to make things better.”
(Ed. Note: Kelly Hayes-Raitt is launching her new book How to Become a Housesitter: Insider Tips from the House Sit Diva at Yves’ Restaurant in west Ajijic on Friday, November 17 from 2:00 – 4:30. The event is a fundraiser for the shelter to celebrate this spirit of finding a better life elsewhere, as many of us have. Free margarita, chips, salsa and guacamole, compliments of Yves and Nettie. 100% of your 200 peso donation goes to FM4 Paso Libre.)