by Sr. Mary Ellen Brody, Sisters of Mercy
Originally printed in the “The Catholic Light” a paper of the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
As a former resident of Honduras, the reconnection theme seemed very important to me. As our purpose was to understand the root causes of migration, I think that it was also important for all of us immigrant North Americans — even those who had no former Honduran connection.
In our welcome, Jesuit Father Ismael Moreno (affectionately called Padre Melo) told us that Honduras is a country of about nine million people with about seven million (currently) residing there. Migration isn’t something new for them; however, today it is forced. Of those millions of remaining residents, 150 families are mega-millionaires, with five individuals possessing an equivalent income of two million Hondurans. Of every Lempira (local currency) in the economic system, 96 cents go to those 150 families, leaving only four cents for the rest of the populace. Immediately we understood one root cause of migration –– poverty.
The size of our group necessitated dividing us into three smaller segments to visit different parts of the country. One group went to an area oppressed by an extractive industry where they heard of deaths, threats, and beatings of human rights defenders. While these delegates connected with the locals visiting an endangered river, a group of armed military came to the other riverbank where they stayed for 20 minutes with their guns ready. Violence threat — another reason that people are forced to leave. The second group connected with communities in an area where a hydroelectric dam is endangering the people. Some of the threats are not only those that result from the presence of the dams, but also those against protesters who are criminalized for the act of protesting.
My group stayed in San Pedro Sula and Progreso, an urban area. Some of the areas we visited included three communities that were being threatened with displacement from their lands, a women’s forum with members in 16 areas of the country, a group that monitors and educates about labor rights (EMIH), a home for children with the HIV Virus (Casa Corazon), and a Catholic school (kindergarten to high school). All this in three days! Afterwards, we joined the other two groups for a night vigil outside the U.S. embassy, five hours from where we were staying! While in the country’s capital we also had the opportunity of meeting at the U.S. embassy with the Charge d’Affaire about what we had seen and heard, followed by a press conference outside the embassy. The stories that I’ll tell now are obviously only a small part of what we experienced but give us a clear idea of what underlies the thousands who migrate each week: Militarization of the country, criminalization of those defending human rights, violence (particularly against women), organized crime and a government fraudulently elected. The increase in migration of women and children from Honduras is due to a failed state where people leave to seek a life free from violence and threats, and to find health, employment and respect for human rights.
Karen, in one of the three communities facing displacement, told us how one night the police came and violently began to put them out of their homes. When her daughter’s face was cut, they began to run toward an exit. There they found a machine ready to tear down the buildings. She jumped onto the equipment with her daughter and began to demand to know why they were doing this, earning her the attention of the media! What an opportunity to tell her president, Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH), of this situation. Her message? “What do you want us to do? Where are we to go? Are we too to join the caravans?”
In still another community threatened with displacement, a woman told us how they’ve lived on this land for several years after being displaced from another area and are again being threatened. Nearby condos want the area for parking. The reporter from Radio Progreso/ERIC introduced us to a young woman whose son suffers from hemophilia. She told how he was denied treatment by the public hospital in San Pedro Sula until a lawyer from ERIC helped them get the needed treatment. At the women’s forum, we heard how abuses against women (rapes, disappearances, murders) often go unreported, and, if reported, remain unprosecuted. In a report published in 2018, based on data from state organizations, 6,111 femicides were documented between the years 2000 and August of 2018.
Yulisa, a domestic worker, told us how through EMIH (Equipo Monitoreo Independente de Honduras) an independent labor monitoring team, she has learned much about labor law or lack thereof. There are 134,000 domestic workers in the country; 100,000 are women. Most work seven days a week from 4 a.m. until 8 or 10 p.m. and earn the equivalent of $120/month. There is no law protecting domestic workers who suffer all types of abuse: verbal, labor and sexual. Lorena, a factory worker told us that EMIH is for them like a school where they’ve learned labor law, health and safety rights. Even though there is a law that gives workers the right to organize, that law is not respected. Most workers make less than $300/month and must endure problems with bosses, work-related illnesses, sexual assault/harassment as well as harassment if they try to organize. Many abandon these jobs and migrate.
Bete at the “Foro de Mujeres” (women’s forum) talked about the increase in violence since the 2009 coup in Honduras — a coup that was condemned by the United Nations, OAS (Organization of American States, and the EU (European Union). Honduran women now experience fewer job opportunities, a fear of sending girls to school because of the increased militarization of the country, fear of gang violence in their neighborhoods, and the killing of women with impunity (femicide). The killing of 6,300 women has been documented since 2002. Many abuse cases are not documented, not reported because women don’t trust police, many of whom collaborate with the fraudulently elected government.
Kenia, a young woman at Casa Corazon de la Misericordia (Heart of Mercy House for children with the HIV virus) told of her gratitude for the opportunities that growing up at Casa had provided her: food, clothing, medicine and most importantly a family. Kenia now studies media at the University in Honduras. Twenty-six children (ages one to 22) reside at Casa attending schools in the neighborhood or participating in job training programs until they can achieve some degree of independence. One who recently left, although well prepared to work, joined one of the caravans because there was no work available. How does someone dependent on meds survive that experience of travelling almost 2,000 miles through dangerous conditions? We also noted that although Casa seemed a very safe and hospitable refuge, they had to build walls around residence space to protect the children from neighborhood gangs, and assure children aren’t alone walking in the neighborhood.
Wendy, a teacher who gave us a tour of the school we visited, told us that some of their students had to migrate, but they would only learn of their leaving by their absence. As I entered each classroom I asked if anyone had family members who had migrated. Each time there were only one or two students who didn’t raise their hands. Transforming Experience
This pilgrimage has been transformative for me offering many opportunities for reconnecting with others in the group, myself, mystery and the depth of life. We stood in solidarity with those telling their stories, those demonstrating outside the embassy with banners reminding others that land, water and people aren’t to be sold but to be cared for and defended. We prayed with communities resisting displacement, with women and children living in precarious positions, with workers barely subsisting, with a mother and sister of a young boy immigrant killed in Mexico. All these experiences have connected me with a part of myself that says “no more.” What have I learned through these reconnections? I’ve learned that the face of resistance (often a woman’s face) is also the face of hope, not terrorism. I’ve learned that I’d rather connect than divide, build bridges not walls. I’ve learned that one can be patriotic and still question.
Praying with one of the communities facing displacement, they sang their national anthem with a phrase that aptly illustrates the depth of life: “Many, Honduras, shall die for you but all will fall in honor.” How am I to respond? I’m challenged to help others see and hear what I saw and heard, and to visibly live the values that all faiths and our country were founded upon, and to challenge untruths as I hear them spoken. The increase in migration of women and children from Honduras is due to a failed state where people leave to seek a life free from violence and threats, and to find health, employment and respect for human rights.
Sister Mary Ellen Brody