‘We Can’t Continue,’ But I Did

Esther has to flee political violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo after her parents are killed. She travels across many countries to the U.S., where she finds refuge.

by Esther M.

In December of 2015, my father was killed by the police. The same day, my mother disappeared. I was 14 years old.

I made the decision to leave my country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, because the military was looking for me. I crossed many borders and an ocean with relatives and people I didn’t know, 150 of us in total, to get to the U.S.: Angola, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia. I had to cross the jungle of Colombia to get to Panama.

That jungle is referred to as “la vie ou la mort,” which translates to “life or death,” because it is immense and many people die in it. I was afraid to cross the mountains, but remained hopeful that I would make it to the U.S. alive.

We were in the jungle for eight days, hiking for six hours a day, but only had food for two days. During the third day, while drinking water, I saw something on the ground and realized it was a dead body. I, along with the rest of the group, ran away in panic.

The other travelers said, “We can’t continue. We will not survive. We are all going to die.” But I convinced myself not to give up on my journey and to remain strong. After the sixth day, five travelers were dead. I saw them die, but I told myself that I was going to make it out alive. After eight days in the jungle, 15 of us made it out. I was the only person without injury.

I then had to cross other countries: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and finally, Mexico.

When I finally arrived in the United States, I thought things would be easier. However, I was apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border and sent to a detention center for two days. Then I was transferred to a shelter in Chicago for seven months without going to school. After the shelter, I was placed in a foster care program for unaccompanied minors in New York City, run by the Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA).

New York City was completely different than where I came from. Everyone was always busy, and there was endless traffic. Once again, I had to start all over. At JCCA, I was able to attend high school but I was afraid. I’d watched movies back home where the popular girls and boys bully those who are different—and I was different.

I was determined to do well in classes instead of worrying about my social life. I worked hard and was among the top 15 students in my grade at the end of freshman year. The first three months were the hardest because I couldn’t understand what the teachers said and I still had my immigration case to fight. My lawyer helped me apply for asylum, and as I waited for my interview, I was afraid of being deported. However, I had support from my foster parents, case manager, and therapist. This helped me stay strong and determined.

Making the decision to come to the U.S. on a dangerous journey; living in a shelter and in foster homes whose cultures are very different from mine; and navigating New York City and its schools while I prepared for my asylum case—doing all these things made me realize that I am a strong and determined young lady. I am proud of myself for staying strong and moving forward and telling people my story.

As I wrote this essay, I got the call that my asylum case was approved, effective the day before my 18th birthday. I will be able to stay in the United States.

After eight days in the jungle, 15 of us made it out.
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