On their way north to their final destination, which for some is Mexico and for others, the US, migrants may encounter the migrant shelter, Casa del Migrante Jose. The Casa is located in Esquipulas, Chiquimula, Guatemala, a unique border town, neighboring Honduras and El Salvador. The Casa del Migrante Jose is managed by a team of 11 volunteers and 4 staff. Latina Republic interviewed the coordinator, Ana Judith Ramirez to learn about the daily life of a migrant shelter coordinator in Guatemala. We were looking to learn about a shelter. We found a lot more, like the incredible abilities of a woman who coordinates a migrant shelter as a single mother of five children and a business owner.
Casa del Migrante Jose
Latina Republic: Thank you for your time, Ana. Can you tell us a little bit about the shelter you coordinate? How does the Casa del Migrante Jose assist Migrants?
La Casa del Migrante Jose is a passing house. On their way to their destination, migrants can rest for one night. When migrants first arrive, we attend to their immediate needs, like offering a bed to rest, having a warm meal, getting legal advice, and learning about the process to apply for asylum in Guatemala. If they are sick, we give them attention. The problems that they bring are the problems they want to leave behind; these include economic necessity and escaping threats of violence.
Latina Republic: Are you located on the edge with Honduras and El Salvador?
Yes, we are located in Equipulas, Guatemala. We are a frontier town where 3 countries meet. Honduras is 17 kilometers away, and El Salvador is about 40 kilometers’ distance. As you are approaching our shelter, from the outside, this is what you would see:
Most of the migrants who stop by are Hondurans, Salvadorans, Cubans, Haitians, and migrants from the country of Ghana, and various African nations.
Latina Republic: Does everyone speak Spanish?
Haitians very little. They speak French.
Latina Republic: What ages do you see?
Migrants range between the ages of 18 and 40, mostly men, but we are also seeing whole families migrating together, and single mothers with very young children.
Latina Republic: When they arrive at the Casa del Migrante Jose, do you have an intake process?
The first thing we do is attend to the most urgent humanitarian need. Many migrants arrive without having eaten for days. Many arrive sick. Once they feel better, then we interview them.
Latina Republic: What types of questions do you ask them?
We ask them where they come from, what is their reason for migration, where are they going, we ask for an emergency phone number for them, and what needs they may have, such as where to go to access remittances; we provide them with maps, information about other shelters and geographic information.
Latina Republic: How many people operate Casa del Migrante Jose?
We are a group of 11 volunteers. I am the house coordinator. I am a volunteer and I also have my own business, operating a bakery. I am also a widow, mother of five. My youngest is 11 and the oldest is 21. I come to the Casa in the morning, at noon and at night. Thank God, the Lord has given me the ability to carry out every one of my responsibilities. I help coordinate the daily activities of the Casa and we work with the support of the Catholic and Evangelical communities. We are part of the Pastoral de Mobilidad Humana, and we receive their support, and guidance, through their executive secretary, Padre Juan Luis Carbajal. Through Padre Carbajal and his team’s efforts, we have received support and donations that are fundamental to our work, especially to our new construction.
Latina Republic: What inspired you to open a bakery?
I have always wanted to own my own business. Some time ago, I migrated to the United States with my husband. We lived in Los Angeles for five years. Our idea had been to go to the US, work hard, save money and come back to Guatemala to open a shop. We accomplished our goals, but upon our return to Guatemala, my husband died in an accident.
It was difficult, but life has prepared me to give myself to others and that is what I do.
Latina Republic: How did your experiences in the US prepare you to run your business?
I have wanted to have my own business since youth. My business ethic was inspired by living in the United States, where I learned the value of discipline. I learned to work diligently and to take advantage of every minute, of every possibility to learn, because every minute counts in business.
Latina Republic: How was La Casa del Migrante Jose started?
It emerged as a group effort and was inspired by the large wave of African migrants from the Congo that passed by in 2016. We witnessed how these migrants were hungry, could not communicate and were detained for 6 hours. A group of Catholics and evangelicals saw the need for assistance and started this work.
We also realized that our migrating Central American brothers and sisters had similar needs, and that building a migrant house could offer them valuable support. This is how the Casa del Migrante Jose was founded, and the Lord has continued to provide for us.
We are in the process of building our own house because the one previous one was rented.
With construction under way, migrants have been staying inside the tents.
Once the modules are completed, we will be able to temporarily house about 100 migrants.
Latina Republic: How many people work at the shelter? Is everyone a volunteer?
We have 4 people who work full-time, including an attorney who advocates for and advises migrants of their rights. She informs each of the migrants that they can apply for asylum in Guatemala if they choose to, or that they have a right to continue with their journey. We also have a cook who is a full-time staff, and there are 11 of us who are volunteers. Fortunately, we always have food to provide; the Lord provides.
Latina Republic: Do you have any security problems?
No. We are doing well.
Latina Republic: Do migrants want to stay in Guatemala?
Very few of them do.
Latina Republic: Is their final destination the US or Mexico?
Latina Republic: How do those who come from Congo reach the Casa del Migrante Jose?
It is a long journey for them, and it’s done in stages. Some have been traveling for about two years. They start their journey in Chile or Argentina. They work, save money and they continue moving up, working in various countries along the way.
Latina Republic: How long can they stay in the Casa?
It is usually, overnight, but If they run out of money or have to wait for a remittance, then they can stay longer. We have nearby doctors in the community, places to cash remittances and places to get clothes, and food items.
Latina Republic: Once the buildings are completed, will Casa del Migrante Jose have any particular needs?
When the chapel is finished, we will need furnishings, like tables, benches, silverware, glassware. Here you can see the work in progress:
Latina Republic: Are migration patterns affected by the seasons?
Actually, no. There is a consistent flow of migrants, year-round.
Latina Republic: What inspires you to work with migrants? You are a widow, mother of 5, you have your bakery to run, why do you do it?
Because I think we are all children of the same Father, and we are all brothers and sisters. All of us will, at some point in our lives, need a helping hand. I was a migrant myself, so I know a little about their struggles and their needs. Being away from home, trying to start over in life is not easy. It helps if someone greets you with a smile and offers you a plate of food. These small gestures help make a difficult trip a little lighter.
Latina Republic: When migrants leave Casa del Migrante Jose, where do they go?
When they leave Guatemala there are many migrant houses along the way and we have maps, and names for them. Before they leave, we orient them depending on their destination.
Latina Republic: Do you manage to stay in touch with some of them?
Sometimes, yes. Some of them settle in Mexico and are unable to continue with their plans. I don’t share my personal contact information with them because along the journey to their final destination they face countless difficulties, and all of them will need money, which is something I cannot provide. What I can do for them is provide the assistance here, with a place to sleep, a warm meal and information for other migrant shelters and needed resources. They do have the phone number for the Casa and some of them stay in touch.
Latina Republic: To travel from Honduras or El Salvador into Guatemala, is a passport needed?
Not for Central Americans.
Latina Republic: What about for migrants from the African countries?
They do need passports, but many do not carry them. Many African migrants avoid the borders because they lack the proper documents.
When migrants go through the migration process, they receive a ticket which is like a migration permit, and if they do not carry it, they can be stopped and asked for money.
Latina Republic: Where do they get money for the trip?
They bring some with them, and families in the US support them on the road.
Latina Republic: Has any person or family left a particular impression on you?
There are so many cases and each of them, in their own way, impact and motivate us to continue our work. There are many people who arrive very sick. There are young mothers that arrive with very young children and there is youth who reach us, unaccompanied, fleeing violence. A young man who arrived at the house last week had been fleeing violence in his country by the maras. Shortly after he arrived, he received a call informing him that the maras had killed his father. Seeing the pain that this young man of only 17 is going through is so sad. He was counting on his father and now he is on his own. And so are hundreds of cases that I could mention. The person who migrates leaves because they don’t have enough to eat but they also leave to escape violence and protect their families.
Latina Republic: What are the best options for unaccompanied youth like the 17 year old you mentioned?
At 17 they are considered old enough to make their own decisions. He is supported by the PGN, an organization that watches over unaccompanied children. He has started the process of applying for shelter here in Guatemala.
Latina Republic: What do your children think of the work you do?
They understand that my life has not been easy. I have had to fight a lot. As a family, we have good communication. They have learned the meaning of surrendering to a cause and answering the Lord’s call for their life.
When it comes to my work with Casa del Migrante Jose, I try to involve them as much as possible. It’s a bit difficult because they study. One thing they have learned is that we are here on earth not only to serve ourselves, but to serve.
Casa del Migrante
Carretera a Honduras, Esquipulas, Chiquimula, Guatemala