World Refugee Day and My Place in it

On Saturday June 20, World Refugee Day was commemorated.

By Arielka Juarez

HAVANA TIMES – Today, there are almost 80 million people forced to flee their homes and communities to safeguard their lives and seek safety. This figure was reported by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), setting a record, after several years of constant increase.

Since 2018, more than 100,000 Nicaraguans have fled their country because of the political and social crisis caused by the government of Daniel Ortega and his wife/VP Rosario Murillo.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations reminded all countries that it is their responsibility to provide protection to refugees. For its part, UNHCR called on people around the world to show empathy with refugees.

I have been part of the long list of refuge applicants in Panama for a year and three months. The process to request asylum here is simple in terms of the steps to follow:

  • You show up early with your passport at the National Office for the Care of Refugees (ONPAR).
  • If you are a woman, do not wear a garment that shows the shoulders. (I don’t understand why)
  • You wait patiently for your turn to be attended. They ask for your passport, your information and they take you to a room to complete a questionnaire about the reason for requesting asylum (the more details the better).
  • They take your picture
  • They will give you a sheet of paper with your photo and a QR code that will be your identity document from that moment.
  • You will be given an appointment for an ONPAR person to interview you to verify your testimony, this may be two or three months after your first visit to ONPAR.

With that you are officially an applicant for asylum. While you are in this process you cannot leave the country, you cannot work, you cannot rent a place to live, you can only exist.

Emotionally it is hard, taking into account that you come from a painful experience, that you have left your family behind, that you have lost everything you had and what you were.

On top of that is the treatment from the people who attend to you. I felt hostility, people with an air of superiority, visibly uncomfortable to assist me, from the man at the door who does not answer “good morning” to the person who interviews you without looking you in the eye and when they do, you can feel their contempt.

I am clear that I am a privileged asylum applicant, having finished my university studies and having professional experience that gives me work tools in several areas. I also have friends, allies, lawyers and human rights defenders who have guided me. I cannot imagine what people who do not have these conditions feel.

Despite my privileges, with this beginning as a refuge applicant comes informal jobs, exploitation, scams and discrimination. I worked months for a project that in the end I wasn’t paid. I have applied for online jobs in my country where despite my work abilities, they concluded that working with me means a risk they don’t want to take. I have been months at the mercy of financial support from family and close friends. Again, privileged to have this possibility, not like many who have a very rough time, as is the case with my friend D.C.

D.C. came to Panama after Ortega’s bloody operation clean up in 2018. Before this he lived in Diriamba, Nicaragua and was studying dentistry at UNAN Managua. He had a year to graduate, in fact he already had a small dentist’s office at home.

D.C. is an intelligent, sensitive boy with many dreams, dreams that I have seen buried during this time, I have seen his aspirations transform into subsistence wishes and I have seen his hands bleed from working collecting scrap metal.

He lives in a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city and tells me that he is stressed leaving home because the police constantly stop him on the street. Some officers do not recognize the temporary document that ONPAR gives us and have simply taken him to the station, where after a few hours and verifying the information in your file through the QR code they let you go. However, without a doubt, these are experiences that wear on you, and that deal a blow to you dignity.

On Saturday we spoke. He told me that we could not commemorate World Refugee Day since we are still asylum seekers, we do not have “refuge” status and we laughed. It is true, although human rights include us in the same package, as asylum applicants we cannot exercise many of our rights and in moments of crisis like the current one with the pandemic we become forgotten, there is no one to answer for us or provide us with assistance.

We talked about the things we have experienced, the coronavirus and our fears. More than the fear of getting sick it is the fear of what may happen to our families, to the people we love, who are being victims of the abandonment by the Nicaraguan government, victims of the poor measures taken to face the pandemic and the lies and misinformation around the subject.

We talked about the wounds of our history as a country, the ones that are opening up right now, and the difference between the grief of the deaths of the 1980s and the deaths of 2018 and the deaths of 2020 due to coronavirus. I ask, does the government showing no concern for the population facing the pandemic count as premeditated genocide? Nothing is beyond that government.

D.C. and I dream out loud of returning to celebrate the fall of the dictatorship. We promised ourselves to tell our children everything we have lived, to not forget history, so as not to repeat it.

Being an asylum seeker is not something to be ashamed of. Life gives us more of a beating and the pieces of the soul hurt more, but they also form calluses, that I hope will help write these memories.