Migrant Lives

A Migrant Odyssey: Haiti To Chile To Mexico's Border, And Beyond

Shella Jean was part of a new migration path from Haiti to the relatively prosperous nation of Chile. But she has since left behind her "Chilean Dream" on a perilous journey northward toward the U.S.-Mexico Border. This is her story.

Photo of people walking alongside the border between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana

At the Mexico/U.S. border in Tijuana

Arturo Galarce

I met Shella Jean in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in July 2017. The first time I saw her, she was standing next to a gas station in the blazing sun. I remember her face: the almond-shaped eyes, the thick lips, and eyebrows as thin as two strands of thread. Shella took me to her home.

We climbed a steep stone street until we reached a concrete room. It was used as a dining room during the day and a bedroom where she slept with her mother, a cousin and a nephew whom she had to take to Chile to reunite with his parents.

Indeed, accompanying her nephew was not only the mission entrusted to her by her relatives but also her chance to start a new life, away from the misery of her homeland.


That year, Shella Jean was one of the 105,000 Haitians who entered Chile, according to data from the Chilean Investigative Police (PDI). That was the year in which more immigrants from the Caribbean nation came to the relatively prosperous South American country, prompted in part by the tightening of immigration policies in the United States after Donald Trump entered the White House, which put a brake on the main migratory destination.

The Chilean Dream

Tales of the so-called "Chilean Dream" began to spread from the first group of Haitians who arrived in Chile after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and by the furor of moneylenders and travel agencies that multiplied like mushrooms, offering trips, and even part of the necessary documentation, to enter the country as tourists.

Most of those flights were from the questionable airline Latin American Wings, which would shutter the following year after a series of accusations about administrative scandals and scammed customers.

But back that July afternoon in 2017, Shella and I boarded one of the new airline's old Boeings in Port-au-Prince. Upon arrival in Santiago, her nephew was reunited with his parents who had been in Chile for a few months. I watched as they embraced.

Since then, we had sporadic contact with Shella on WhatsApp. So I learned that a few weeks after arriving, she sought her own destination and went to Talca, 255 kilometers south of Santiago, with a friend.

A few weeks ago we spoke again. I asked her if she knew of any Haitians planning of migrating from Chile to the United States, alerted by the increasing flow of Haitians detected in unauthorized passages in the north, in transit to Peru and Bolivia, but with a common destination: that of the better known "American Dream."

Several organizations and governments have highlighted the phenomenon. In Chile, the Undersecretariat of the Interior already reports an 81% increase in Haitians who have left the country through authorized borders. NGOs are also concerned due to the dangerousness of the route, which exposes men, women and children to long stretches by bus, lack of food, and a walk of several days along the border that separates Colombia from Panama. Known as the Darién Gap, this route extends for 108 kilometers of the jungle where migrants must make their way through vegetation, wild animals and criminal gangs.

Shella saw the message and answered almost immediately "me, my friend. I'm not in Chile. I got to Mexico now. I'm going to the United States".

Shella Jean is 33 years old now and is in Tapachula with her 25-year-old husband Herby Charles, and their daughter who has just turned one year old. Herby is a former employee of Chilean food companies conglomerate, Agrosuper.

Tapachula, Mexican port of entry

Tapachula, on the border with Guatemala, is the first city of entry for migrants to Mexico. The National Migration Institute (Inami) of that country already estimates there are 147,000 undocumented immigrants stuck there, including 18,883 Haitians who have submitted requests for humanitarian asylum to the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid (Comar).

That now makes Haitians the second most numerous community seeking entry in Mexico, surpassed only by the Hondurans. Obtaining a refugee card is the only way to move freely and move towards the border with the United States, without being deported to Guatemala.

Shella and her family are still unable to apply. She says that they have been living for a few days in an empty room, where their only belongings are a pillow and the blanket that they put on the floor to sleep on.

From there, over WhatsApp, she reconstructs her life in Chile and explains the reasons why she finally left.

In the fruit-packing enterprise where she worked in Talca, she met a man named Samuel. Shella says that she fell in love with him and that when he proposed to go with him to Rosario, south of the Chilean capital, she accepted without hesitation.

That's when my struggle began.

However, the relationship quickly collapsed after a series of episodes of psychological abuse. Shella says that Samuel would not let her work and kept her in a room dedicated to housework. The only reason he didn't hit her, Shella says, was because of her partner's fear of the police. One day without any notice, Samuel left.

"He left me alone during winter," says Shella. "He never came back. That's when my struggle began, because there came a time when I couldn't pay my rent, and I couldn't eat because when it gets cold in Rosario there isn't much work in the fields. I only had a few savings that I saved to send to my mother, instead, I had to spend it on food ".

The community helped her support herself while doing small jobs that paid for her room. Until Herby Charles arrived, a Haitian with big eyes, a wide gap-toothed smile, who came from Santiago in search of work.

Herby rented a room in the same house where Shella lived, and they soon fell in love. In April 2020, when Shella was five months pregnant they got married at Rengo's civil registry, where they had lived since 2019, in a shared but larger house.

Herby Charles worked as an industrial cleaner at Agrosuper. According to Shella, if he worked extra hours, her husband's salary was around 600,000 Chilean pesos a month ($725). The pandemic, she says, did not affect them financially: Herby continued to work with a permit.

A photograph of Herby and Shella smiling at the camera at a party

Herby and Shella

Arturo Galarce

Migration began before pandemic

Carlos Figueroa, director of Incidence and Study of the Jesuit Service to Migrants (SJM), believes that it is important to discard the belief that the majority of Haitians have left Chile exclusively because of the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus.

"This migration to the United States has been taking place before the pandemic," says Carlos Figueroa. Of course, being a migrant is not the same as being a Chilean in a context in which there are social benefits that they cannot access.

In the United States it's not easy either, but at least you earn more.

One of the main motivations is the renewed promise of the "American Dream," a myth that is widely shared among Haitians, with hopes now that the Joe Biden's administration will be more open to migration than Donald Trump's.

But the migration north is also because of difficulties in Chile, including racism and the difficulty in accessing rights

Herby Charles takes Shella's phone in the room in Tapachula. He says that the idea of emigrating to the United States from Chile began when several of his Haitian friends successfully made the trip. A key motivation was also the 2021 migration regularization required by the Government of Chile to all migrants who entered through steps enabled before March 2020 and whose migratory status was irregular.

Herby Charles adds, speaking from Tapachula: "Many Haitians were never well in Chile. Many did not find a good job and lived under poor conditions," he said. "My problem was not being able to have a residency document. I was undocumented for four years, imagine. Without documents, you cannot project a family, even if you work as I did. In the United States it is not easy either, I know, but at least you earn more".

Facing the Darién Gap

In June of this year, Herby Charles quit his job. They prepared for their trip quickly. As a child, Shella Jean dreamed of this moment: heading to the land of opportunity — the real one. So Herby took what they had saved in the last year, they bought plane tickets to Arica, suitcases and a tent. In the house where they lived, they only received words of support, despite what the news constantly says: that the route is dangerous and that those who do not lose their lives in the Darién leave the jungle wishing they had never entered.

"You were aware of that, weren't you?" I asked.

"Yes. But I didn't believe it. it Haitians are like that. When I spoke to those who had passed through the jungle, they told me not to go, that it was very difficult, and I thought "ah, what you want is for me not to go, not to take your place… But after being closer to death than to life I no longer think that way."

Shella Jean tells me that they crossed into Peru at 3 a.m. Guided by coyotes they hired in Arica, thanks to the information of a Chilean woman. They arrived in Tacna after more than two hours of walking through the desert. In her bag, Shella Jean carried fried meat, fried chicken, potatoes and cookies. Her intention was not to spend money until they reached Ecuador.

The journey took almost 24 hours, and then another 20 to reach the next border. There, Shella says, she paid a guide $120 to cross them into Ecuador in a taxi. That night they slept in a hotel. The next day, they boarded another bus for a 40-hour trip to northern Colombia. The Darién was close.

"All the way through Colombia was very difficult," Shella tells me on WhatsApp. "We spent a lot of money on guides to get to Necoclí."

I just remember the fear.

That town, on the Gulf of Urabá, is the penultimate step before entering the jungle. There Shella and the other migrants boarded some boats that took them to the town of Capurganá, a tourist point, a beach, which is part of the 570,000 hectares of jungle that separate Colombia from Panama and that prevent the Pan-American highway from going from Alaska to Patagonia without interruptions.

It was a week of travel with the expectation to reach the Darién Gap. Shella Jean, Herby Charles and their daughter made their way into the jungle. They were accompanied by a group of 30 migrants, the majority Haitians from Chile, a few Cubans, and Africans. Colombian coyote traffickers, Shella says, led them.

"I just remember the fear," Herby Charles says on the phone. "I thought that my daughter was not to blame for what we were experiencing and that I would have never forgiven myself if something happened to her, she was fine in Chile."

It was six days of walking, often under the rain. "We walked in wet clothes from morning to night. At one point I was so exhausted that my daughter fell from my arms and I had to pay a guide to take her," he recalled "I didn't have the strength and neither did my wife. Our food ran out after a few days and the only thing we fed ourselves with was some powdered vitamins that we mixed with water."

Photo of Haitians demonstrating in the streets of Tapachula, Mexico

Haitians demonstrating in the streets of Tapachula, Mexico

Arturo Galarce

Corpses and assaults

During the nights, Shella says, the roar of jaguars could be heard prowling near the tents and during the day they had to avoid the snakes and insects that appeared on the road. The most complex step was the so-called "mountain of death." Three hours up and three hours down through narrow paths that overlook a ravine.

Stories of migrants who saw others fall over the edge in that place are common. Shella and Herby did not see it, but they did see the bodies of deceased migrants scattered along the entire path through the Darien.

The only thing they didn't lose was the cell phone.

"We saw the bodies of injured people that couldn't keep going and they died," Shella tells me on the phone. "Haitians, Cubans, Africans, eaten by animals. I cried a lot, I suffered a lot. Some dared and approached to check the bodies and see if they had money or any document with which they could notify their relatives."

Exhausted, and a few kilometers from the first makeshift shelter for migrants in the town of Bajo Chiquito, in Panama, Shella and Herby's group were assaulted by a group of seven Panamanians. The situation is common. Groups of criminals already recognize the routes of the migrants and await their arrival to try to rob them of all their belongings.

"They pointed guns at us," Shella recalls. "Our money and wedding rings were stolen from us. Then they stripped us all to see if we had hidden money. It was humiliating. They raped a 14-year-old girl in front of her parents."

The only thing they didn't lose, adds her husband, was the cell phone. Before entering the jungle, Herby broke the protective screen that covered the phone to say, in case of a robbery, that it was useless. Without strength, without courage, the journey continued. They arrived at the Bajo Chiquito shelter with their daughter with a fever.

Bus to Costa Rica

From that place, hundreds of migrants were deported to Colombia, after protesting demanding to continue their journey to the United States despite the closure of borders due to the pandemic. Shella and Herby were luckier, with the border open, they were able to take a bus to Costa Rica.

According to the Government of Panama, more than 20,000 Haitians have passed through that country so far this year. But it is not the only figure on the rise: 2,833 Chileans have also crossed. Carlos Figueroa, from the Jesuit Migrant Service, assumes that this is the number of children of Haitians born in Chile. Like Shella and Herby's daughter. Like the minor raped in the jungle, who, according to them, also came from Chile.

They've spent $4,000 since leaving Chile, and they still have a long way to go.

The days in Tapachula go by slowly. Shella says that the transit from Costa Rica to Mexico was the easiest, but also the most expensive. In total, she says, they've spent $4,000 since leaving Chile, and they still have a long way to go. Without money, the only way to pay for the trip is with the help of family members. Her own mother, Shella says, has had to send her money from Haiti to help.

They have been in Tapachula for more than a month, waiting to obtain the refugee card, which has become a headache not only for them but also for the Mexican government.

Wilner Metelus, sociologist and president of the Citizen Committee in defense of the Naturalized and Afro-Mexicans, explains the problem: "The Comar is the one that decides whether the person can achieve refugee status or not," says Wilner in a slow voice. But that institution today does not have the capacity to respond to the 147,000 immigrants in the city. Many have been waiting for months, and others received an appointment to start the process in March".

Wilner adds, that the situation is causing a bottleneck that threatens to collapse a small city without sufficient services to receive all these migrants. Tapachula belongs to the state of Chiapas, the poorest in Mexico, and activist organizations already register discriminatory actions against Haitians by Mexicans who see their jobs threatened. There are 36,000 policemen from the Mexican National Guard who guard Tapachula, controlling that migrants do not leave the city. And according to Wilner, this is just an action to show the United States Government that they are collaborating with them.

Selfie of Shella Jean, one of the 105,000 Haitians who entered Chile, wearing a "Haiti" badge

Shella Jean, one of the 105,000 Haitians who entered Chile

Arturo Galarce

Kidnapping and crocodile risks

Wilner Metelus, president of Chile's Citizen Committee in defense of the naturalized and Afro-Mexicans, has called on Haitians in Mexico to be wary: two months ago a bus with 51 Haitians that left Tapachula for the city of Acuña, on the border with the United States, overturned halfway and 18 Haitians were kidnapped after being discharged from the hospital. Data from the National Human Rights Commission of Mexico (CNDH) speaks of 20,000 undocumented people kidnapped per year by organized crime.

He wouldn't do it again.

He asks Haitians in Chile for calm: "Please don't take the route to get to Mexico," Wilner says, raising his voice. "Right now the situation is very difficult. There is no opportunity for Haitians on the southern border. Don't go to the U.S., brothers, look for any option in Chile and hold on."

In Tapachula, Herby Charles knows that those words will not convince his fellow Haitians. If it were up to him, he says, he would not repeat the trip. Above all, for his daughter, and for the news that comes from the north. In February of this year, in Ciudad Acuña, a two-year-old girl was found alive on the banks of the Rio Grande, which separates Mexico from the United States. Among her clothes, the police found her birth certificate and her country of origin: Chile.

Weeks later, she was reunited with her parents in the United States. The girl had fallen from their arms as they crossed the river. In June this year, another minor wasn't as lucky: her body was found floating in the river, with signs of having been attacked by crocodiles.

Shella Jean, despite her fear, just wants to get out of Tapachula and keep moving north. She spends her days waiting, spending her last dollars on diapers and food, or navigating the Internet when she gets a WiFi signal that allows her to talk on WhatsApp or update her social media. A few days ago she did. She uploaded an image to Facebook: a bald eagle on the American flag.

*This article was translated with permission by the author

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Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

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🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

• A battle axe for a tail: Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a newly identified dinosaur species with a completely unique feature from any other creatures that lived at that time: a flat, weaponized tail resembling a battle axe.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never."

— U.S. actor Alec Baldwin spoke to ABC News, his first interview since the accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust last October. The actor said that although he was holding the gun he didn’t pull the trigger, adding that the bullet “wasn't even supposed to be on the property.”

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

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