The 20-year-old woman’s dreams are on hold
HAVANA TIMES – “I’m just one more young person in exile,” Michell Quezada begins her story. “Another student forced to leave Nicaragua after over a year of harassment, abuse and threats.”
She shares the predicament of so many whose dreams were suddenly uprooted after the 2018 civic rebellion. However, Michell is currently more in limbo than most. She waits in Norway for the Supreme Court to her final appeal for asylum. Denial could mean deportation into the hands of those persecuting her.
Michell tells her story
“I oppose the Ortega dictatorship. In my town, our family’s longstanding anti-Ortega stance is no secret. In 2018, I and another member of my family participated in the protests. As a result, the Sandinistas targeted us for what they call “follow-up”. That’s something that’s very typical of them, especially in my home town of San Marcos. The area is considered a cradle of the paramilitary for the department of Carazo.
“When the protests broke out, I was studying English at Keiser University in San Marcos. The Taiwan government had offered me a scholarship and the universities had accepted me. I wanted to study environmental engineering.”
Michell joined in the protests taking place in nearby towns. “What motivated me to participate was the injustices that the regime commits in Nicaragua. I felt that every day more people were uniting to have their voices heard.”
However, the massive protests that swept the Carazo department and other cities were violently squelched starting July 2018. Shortly afterwards, Michell began to feel the repercussions of the repression that followed.
Threats and lost opportunities
“The threatening messages began a few days after the protests. By August and part of September of 2018, the threats became physical. We had to move to another house.”
Michell’s hopes were pinned on the scholarship she’d won to study in Taiwan, beginning in July 2019. She was making her travel plans. Unfortunately, before the date arrived, she learned that the scholarship for her and 15 other students had been cancelled.
According to the Taiwanese Embassy, the cancellation stemmed from problems with their Cooperation and International Development funds. They deny there was any political bias involved. Nevertheless, Michell is convinced that she lost the scholarship in reprisal for her participation in the protests. Taiwan has been a staunch ally of the Ortega government, she notes, and several other cancelled students had also participated in the protests. Subsequently, in fact, the embassy awarded 14 new scholarships to teachers at the government’s technical schools.
Michell’s uncle, Dennis Bayardo Espinoza, also active in the protests, had confronted similar difficulties. He was expelled from the Nicaraguan National Autonomous University in Managua where he’d been studying Chemical Engineering. Also under threat, he fled to Europe at the end of October 2018.
Attempted kidnapping the last straw
For Michell, then 18, things only got worse. Her house was repeatedly marked with the word “Plomo” or “Lead”, an implied death threat. Armed paramilitary visited her mother’s house. Then, in September 2019 came the last straw.
“I was headed to the town center to buy dinner. It was a Saturday. A pick-up truck full of paramilitary pulled up in front of me. They told me they were going to take me for a little ride. That they were going to rape me. There were very few people around at the time. I ran, and hid in a house for around 3 hours. They were outside, and they told me they knew who my uncle was,” Michell recalls. With this attempt, her sense of security totally crumbled. On November 25, 2019, she left Nicaragua to join her uncle in Norway.
Life in exile not easy either
Once in Norway, she immediately applied for asylum. By that time, her uncle Dennis Espinoza had been granted asylum and was receiving some state assistance.
Michell however, had to remain in Norway’s special camps for refugees. In these camps, the asylum-seekers are provided with food and a place to sleep while their applications are being processed. She was in three different camps, then was allowed to join her uncle in Trondheim, on Norway’s west coast.
Her asylum case, though, wasn’t prospering. “Here in Norway, I’ve given them photos and videos of the harassment against me and my family. However, they haven’t considered this sufficient proof. They say the fact that you’re arrested and intimidated doesn’t mean that they’re going to kill you. They also say that I don’t have a high enough profile on social media to get [the regime’s] attention.”
“They’ve denied me protection four different times. Now I’m on the verge of deportation.”
Michell has one last chance. She’s hired a private lawyer and they’re appealing to Norway’s Supreme Court. The case amounts to a suit against Norway’s chief immigration agency for denying her protection. “It’s very expensive to bring a case to court, but I’m going to these extremes because of the risk I’m facing.”
Few Nicaraguans in Norway and little information about conditions
Landinfo is a Norwegian organization charged with providing reports to aid the Immigration Office and Appeals Board in their decisions. The organization expressly states: “Landinfo doesn’t speak for the Norwegian authorities.” These make their own decisions. For their part, though, Landinfo admits, “We haven’t received many consultations about Nicaragua in the past. Few Nicaraguans have come to Norway to request asylum. Landinfo has never visited the country and, as such, our base of information is somewhat limited.”
Michell agrees with the statement. “I believe that a little more information about Nicaragua is needed in Norway. They need more news in English or Norwegian to find out about the crisis being lived out in Nicaragua.” A total of 38 Nicaraguans have requested asylum in the country since 2018. Only 4 have received it, while twenty were denied. The others are pending.
Amid fears and hopes
Due to her undefined legal status, Michel can neither work nor study. Still, she says, Norway is growing on her, little by little. “Life in the refugee camps was pretty depressing. But since I came to Norway, I feel that I can walk without being afraid. I don’t worry that at any moment a truck could pull up beside me and kidnap or kill me. That safety I feel in the street is what keeps me pressing forward here.”
Her sense of security is tempered by strong fears of deportation. The information from a number of Nicaraguans who were deported worries her. Speaking anonymously, they say that the Norwegian government put them on a plane directly bound for Nicaragua. Their passports were held, and returned to them only when the plane landed. They were thus denied the opportunity to seek protection in a third country.
“My great fear,” Michel admits, “is returning. Norway doesn’t let you go to another country. (..) I don’t want them [the regime] to harm me. The idea terrifies me. We women have gone through a lot of suffering because of the dictatorship.”
Other organizations pledging support
Michell’s case has been taken up by human rights advocates, journalists and the self-organized movements. They’ve asked the Norwegian government to grant her the asylum she seeks.
Her story was first posted on the independent digital site “Republica 18”. (https://www.republica 18.com) Based in Costa Rica, “Republica 18” is the work of exiled Nicaraguan journalists. One of those who read the story and was moved was Jhoswel Antonio Martinez. He directs the Human Rights Observatory of the Nicaraguan Association for a Better Future.
Martinez’ group has offered to help Michell provide evidence and validate her testimony. They can do this through a process of denunciation, analysis and resolution, in both Spanish and English. That way, “we hope she can demonstrate to the Norwegian government that her testimony and all her experiences are real, confirmed and supported by human rights organizations.” The advocate feels that Michell is “being unjustly abandoned by the Norwegian authorities.”
Jhoswel Martinez added: “There’s a false perception that upon coming back to Nicaragua, the risk level is low. They [returning exiles] are actually at a high risk. Proof of that is the existence of more than 100 political prisoners today.”
Other groups offering solidarity include Nicaragua’s Permanent Human Rights Commission, the Blue and White Unity, and human rights defender Bianca Jagger.
A waiting game
Meanwhile, with dreams on hold and a heavy load of uncertainty, Michel Quezada waits for her final appeal. Her story echoes the story of innumerable other Nicaraguan exiles, scattered across Europe and the Americas. In Michell’s own words:
“I’m just a young woman of twenty seeking safety. I know there’s no guarantee if I return to Nicaragua. At any moment, they could kidnap me, kill me or imprison me under false charges.
“I was a student with dreams and goals. These were ripped away from me for thinking differently and not supporting the Ortega regime. Now, uncertainty invades my mind every day. I’m emotionally exhausted. But it’s my future and security that I’m defending to the end. I believe in the justice of the Norwegian authorities. My case is real and I’m going to defend it.”
Editors note: There’s a Gofundme campaign to raise money for Michel Quezada’s legal defense. https://gofund.me/0b82b293. On the page, she indicates: “Even a small donation could help. And if you can’t make a donation, it would be great if you could share the fundraiser to help spread the word.”