“I’m Still Trying to Understand Life in Exile”

says one Nicaraguan who fled Ortega and his dictatorship

On June 20, World Refugee Day, two young Nicaraguans reflect on their lives in exile in Costa Rica and the United States. Neither had planned to emigrate.

By La Prensa

HAVANA TIMES – June 20 marks World Refugee Day. Experts have noted that until 2018 Nicaragua wasn’t a country of mass migration; however, between that year – when the sociopolitical crisis erupted – and the end of 2022, the Nicaragua Nunca + Human Rights Collective estimates that 604,485 Nicaraguans have left the country. Of that number, 328,443 were documented as migrating last year.

Prior to April 2018, Nicaraguan youth weren’t deeply invested in the idea of migrating. Although they wanted to improve their economic situation, they believed that they could find greater stability in Nicaragua, close to family and in their country of birth.

Beginning with the protests, there’ve been increased arbitrary detentions, a closure of spaces for free thinking, the confiscation of the private universities, imprisonments, harassment, hounding and other human rights violations that have been denounced by international organizations like the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. All these factors have made emigration the number one option for the majority of Nicaraguans.

“To me, migration has been a deep process of uprooting, since it wasn’t something that I wanted to do. Truly, it wasn’t in my plans, and it’s meant a rupture with my culture, with my friends, with my family, with everything that made up my daily life and my safe spaces,” commented a 23-year-old activist who fled Nicaragua a little over a year ago, due to problems with her security and fears for her physical integrity.

Similarly, Ariel Soto, formerly a student leader with the Blue and White National Unity (UNAB), affirmed that he hadn’t been prepared to begin a life outside of Nicaragua, much less in such a sudden way. “I never imagined myself leaving the country, making a life outside. I thought I was going to dedicate myself and give my best to Nicaragua, but this decision caught me off guard. I’m still trying to assimilate it, trying to understand life in exile, and with the deep hope of one day returning,” to Nicaragua.

This is the story of two young adults who are in the process of obtaining refugee status. As they mention, their process of applying for asylum has been complicated by the large quantity of people like themselves, seeking safety outside of Nicaragua. On this June 20, World Refugee Day, we commemorate all those who, like these two Nicaraguans, have had to flee their homes.

Refugee life from within

According to the international human rights organizations, the two principal destinations for Nicaraguan migrants and asylum seekers have been Costa Rica and the United States.

The young female activist telling us her story preferred to omit her name, for fear of reprisals against her family in Nicaragua. She had to plan her departure from the country on very short notice and chose Costa Rica as the country from which to begin all over again. She initially thought about Mexico, but that option was dangerous because she’d have to travel overland and her physical safety could be at risk.

In the context of the repression, she had to flee the department she’s a native of. She had participated directly in the protests, and the dictatorship’s repressive forces had begun looking for her. Before leaving, she said she lived as a refugee in her own country, moving to a different house every so often, going out only when necessary, and unable to live a normal life for fear of being deprived of her liberty.

Before April 2018, she had dreamed of being able to attend a Master’s course outside of Nicaragua, but had planned to be out of the country only temporarily. “I really wanted to be able to work inside Nicaragua and be able to contribute to the social and political changes in my country. To be close to my country, and that political reality I wanted to contribute to,” she affirmed.

San Jose, Costa Rica, January 26, 2023: Amid the stench of feces and urine, in the chill temperatures, dozens of Nicaraguan, Cuban, Venezuelan and Colombian migrants stood in line for five days in order to file their requests for asylum in the Costa Rica Immigration Offices. On December 1, via presidential decree, the laws for those seeking refugee status in Costa Rica had been modified. Photo: Oscar Navarrete / La Prensa
Photo: Oscar Navarrete / LA PRENSA.
Photo: Oscar Navarrete / LA PRENSA
Photo: Oscar Navarete / LA PRENSA.
Photo: Oscar Navarrete / LA PRENSA.

A few months ago, she marked her first year in exile, which she describes as a complicated process. She explained that as part of the process she’s had to recognize herself as a victim of the Nicaraguan State, a declaration that caused her some emotional effects.

“I’ve been a victim of discrimination on the part of [Costa Rican] institutions because you know they’re treating you as a second-class citizen, and it’s really very palpable in your day-to-day life. Apart from that, the population also regards me strangely, because they never believe that I’m Nicaraguan. They always tell me I must be from anywhere else except Nicaragua, and at times that insistence becomes tiresome, or that they make cutting remarks about my nationality, or they suddenly comment “but you don’t talk like a Nicaraguan,” or “you don’t look like a Nicaraguan,” stated the asylum seeker.

Another of the difficulties in her adaptation, she emphasizes, has been her youth, which represents different barriers to accessing the institutions and the daily challenges. She’s had to begin a new career, because her studies weren’t recognized by the Costa Rican universities. “That directly impacts the time I dedicate to work, because I need to prioritize my studies to obtain something better. But that then affects the kind of life I can offer myself now.”

She’s holding down two jobs, in order to pay the rent, the utilities and cover the rest of her necessities. She doesn’t receive any support from her family in Nicaragua, which makes the situation still harder.

Fleeing a sense of “prison hanging over me”

For his part, Ariel Sotelo has been in exile for nearly two years. He highlights the work of the US institutions their responsibility, the empathy and the treatment he’s received as a migrant. “The process is slow and complicated, but the work on it goes on. Some of the processes are simple, like requesting a work permit, but there are others that take more time due to the volume of requests for political asylum the country receives.”

Being an immigrant in the United States represents a total change in the system, one you’re not accustomed to in Latin America. “One important barrier is that of language – that opens or closes doors for you, depending on what your situation is,” Sotelo commented.

He stressed another type of situation that can become complicated, such as access to health care and education. However, he noted that the institutions for immigrant support are always willing to offer accompaniment. With respect to education, he indicated that there are always opportunities, but it’s difficult, because you have to choose between working or studying.

Ariel Sotelo

“It’s hard, but you can get by, especially when you have the desire to struggle and keep working; for yourself, because in the end if you’re working for yourself, you’re working for your country. You come first, so you can have something to offer to your country from wherever you are, whether you’re inside Nicaragua or in exile.”

Sotelo commented that in exile, “you feel your solitude more deeply”, due to the distance. He added that the loneliness from the time you arrive, over the course of time can have serious consequences, like depression and low moods.

He himself had to leave Nicaragua in 2021, with the increase in detentions of political leaders that began in May of that year and continued [until the presidential elections] in November. Previously, he had participated in the UNAB Political Council.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times