One day about two years ago, my older sister came home and said, “Pack a bag. We are leaving the country.’’ We had lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) our whole lives.
I asked her, “Where are we going?”
She seemed in a hurry. “It’s not the right time to know. We have to leave.”
I was 16. My sister was 34 and worked for a political party called the Lamuka Coalition, which was trying to gain power in the elections of December 2018. I was living with her because I was studying at a high school in Kenge in Kwango province. Our parents lived in Kinshasa, the capital, an eight-hour drive away.
I did what she said and quickly packed my small bag with some clothes and shoes. We got to the bus station where we met two men I’d never seen before. One said, “You don’t need to know where we are going; just follow us.’’ It was like a movie. We followed them.
I nervously asked my sister, “Where are we going? Who are they? Do you know them?”
She said, “Do whatever they say. It is for our safety.’’
“Can we go to Kinshasa?”
“We will not be safe there. Please, don’t ask a lot of questions.”
The two men drove us to an empty house in another city. We stayed there for about a week. They brought us food and let us take baths, but we were not allowed to step outside. It was like a kidnapping. No TV or radio. My sister couldn’t even make a call.
The two men left us at the airport and my sister and I flew to Ecuador, with plans to make it to the U.S. I thought of the United States as a safe place in the world for refugees or immigrants who are persecuted in their home countries.
Not until weeks later, when we had made it to Mexico, did my sister tell me the details of what was happening in the DRC. Another party was threatening members of the Lamuka Coalition who had worked on the elections. (In the end, neither party took power.)
When we arrived at the airport in Quito, we asked people on the street in our broken English where the other Africans headed to the U.S. were. My sister and I spoke French, and I knew some English; neither of us spoke Spanish.
An old Ecuadorian woman with white hair took us to a dirty, poor-looking place with muddy water running near the houses. There were a lot of Africans there.
The old woman called a man over. He was from Cameroon and spoke French. He told us, “You came at just the right time. We are about to go to the U.S.A. If you have money, you can come on the bus with us to Colombia.”
I let my sister do the talking. That night, we slept on the ground outside this place with all the Africans, on top of our small blankets.
The next day, the man from Cameroon directed us to the bus to Colombia. He warned us to be careful with soldiers at the border, as we didn’t have documents. We made it into Colombia by paying a guide $50. (We had brought U.S. dollars from the DRC.) There were about 50 of us, so we each had to pay only $1. We were from Cameroon, Guinea, Ghana, and the DRC. There were also people from Haiti.
At each border, we needed that country’s immigration officers to give us a paper that showed we are immigrants. Each time I thought, “This time, they’re not going to give it to us.’’ But I was wrong; at every border, we got our papers and were allowed to cross.
I Felt Like a Dog
The bus ride across Panama only took a day. We stopped in front of a big fence with a gate that said “Costa Rica Immigration.” About 50 people were sitting at the gate, including pregnant women and children. I felt so tired, like a dog searching for a place to be safe.
After about an hour, a security guard led us into a huge, windowless shipping container holding about 100 single beds. A kitchen was right next to the beds. The bathrooms were outdoor portable toilets. Toilet paper and diapers and bloody menstrual pads were scattered on the floor. It was so disgusting, I could not look twice.
A young officer wearing a black uniform asked my sister and me a question in Spanish and we told him we didn’t speak Spanish. A guy who spoke Spanish and French translated for us: “Fill out this form, and then you can rest or take a shower.’’ I gave mine to my sister to fill out for both of us.
When we crossed from Panama into Costa Rica, it was a Sunday. We had been traveling for about seven days.
What About My Dreams?
I started thinking about my life. The challenges felt overwhelming. Even if I did make it across all eight borders between Ecuador and the U.S., how was I going to live? What about my dreams of being a writer and a teacher? I had just finished high school and was ready to go to university in the DRC. I had no family in the U.S. Who would help me study?
Why did political fights in my country have to snatch away my dreams?
Questions, doubts, and fears filled my mind. I didn’t know anything about where we were going. I thought about suicide.
It was hot in the container, so I decided to go and get some fresh air. I sat under a tree outside the immigration building. A young man walked over and asked, “Are you OK?”
I could not answer him because I was devastated. I was feeling traumatized by the whole situation, starting with being taken by two men and sent to a country where we knew nobody.
He said, “I know what you might feel right now. You are asking yourself, Will I be able to make it?”
“What makes you think that I am going to make it? I’m not even halfway. Please leave me alone.” The young man left me, and I stayed under the tree by myself.
His Words Helped
But his encouragement got me thinking, What if I need to be more positive to take this journey? Maybe I can’t afford negative thoughts now. I thought about the things I want to achieve, like being a writer and a teacher or a counselor. I realized that I had to take control of my feelings to be able to achieve my goals. I thought about everything I’d been able to do so far, reminding myself that I was strong, focused, brave, and determined.
The man who encouraged me left on Monday. On Wednesday, 20 of us took a bus toward Nicaragua. It was a big bus, not fancy, but comfortable, and the countryside was beautiful. I talked to other travelers and wondered what my parents knew about where my sister and I were.
Before we crossed into Nicaragua, we had to climb over a wall. It was tall, and we had to jump off it over a ditch to get to the other side of the border. I was carrying two bags, one on my back and the other in my hand.
The men jumped first and stood on the other side to catch the women. My elder sister jumped, then told me to throw my bags, and I did. I was scared, and I waited for other women to jump. Then it was my turn. I convinced myself that I could do it because I saw the others jumping. Finally, I did. A man caught me. I breathed and thought, I’m alive. I laughed.
After crossing into Nicaragua, I thought more about the young man’s advice. I gave myself a pep talk: “Girl, fear won’t make your dreams come true or help you achieve your goals. You better make that leap of faith. You came all this way; please don’t give up. You can go on.’’ These words came alive in me and gave me courage.
Please Help, Immigrant
But I had a long way to go. At the Nicaraguan border, we had to pay $150. The officer called my sister and me over and spoke to us in English. I told him that we had $200 for both of us. He said, “No, you need to pay $300, not $200.”
I looked at my sister, and she nodded her head. I got the message and handed over $300. I was bargaining because we needed money to buy food. The little we had could get us to Honduras. We had brought $1,500 with us, and this was the first (and only) border where we had to pay this much.
By the time we got to the northern part of Mexico, my sister and I were almost out of money. Other people staying in our shelter in Nuevo Laredo, right on the border with Texas, told us about begging on the street. They told us to make our faces look sad, which for some reason made me laugh.
I wrote on a box, “POR FAVOR AYUDA, INMIGRANTE (please help, immigrant).” My sister and I stood in separate spots on the side of the highway begging from the cars coming over from Texas. I got $20 worth of pesos, and my sister got $15.
That night, my sister said, “I’m sorry; I can’t do this anymore.” Thinking about where she’d come from in Congo, she felt so humiliated by begging that she cried.
“We don’t have any money! What else should we do?” I asked.
She said, “I’m going to braid hair. You can speak a little English, so you can interpret for me when I get a customer.” She wrote on a sign, “COME BRAID YOUR HAIR.’’ We set up near a park where women came to get their hair done.
My sister braided hair for three days, making about $16 each day. We were able to buy food, and then we crossed into Texas.
Finding Myself in the U.S.
It was different from the other border crossings because the U.S. was our destination. Officers looked at our bags and asked us lots of questions. Then they took my sister to adult detention and me to the minors’ detention center.
It was cold, with no blanket and just a mattress on the floor. I couldn’t brush my teeth. Military officers were handing out tacos and beans. I was lonely and scared; I didn’t know my sister and I would be separated.
After three days in detention, I was sent to a shelter in Chicago without even saying goodbye to my sister. She stayed in Texas, where she still lives. We had no contact for three months; then my case manager called the detention center and tracked down my sister’s number. I cried when I heard her voice over the phone. Now we speak about once a week, when our lawyers can arrange it.
In Chicago, I learned that the U.S. government would pay for me to go to school. I thought I’d have to work all the time to live here. I didn’t know people would support and encourage me so much.
I also talked to a therapist for the first time about everything I’d been through. Finally, I cried about everything I’d been through and everything I’d left behind. Her support let me do what I couldn’t do on the journey—feel it.
The therapist helped me discover what was in me that I could not see. She showed me my positive personality traits and my talents and encouraged me to believe in my dreams. I want to be a good writer and write lots of books. I would like to write about my life experience.
She helped me think about pursuing the life I want in the U.S. I realized that the world needs someone exactly like me.
- What do you think the writer was feeling in the beginning of the story when they were leaving the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
- What kind of effect does the journey between Ecuador and the U.S. have on the writer’s mental health?
- The writer starts to think, “Maybe I can’t afford negative thoughts now.” What do you think they mean by this?
- At one point, the writer talks about making “a leap of faith.” When is a time you had to make a leap of faith? What did it take?
- What effect does therapy have on the writer at the end of the story?