Christine Dancer just wanted to leave. Right now.
“I started feeling very uncomfortable. It was too overwhelming for me. I was feeling deep emotions that I was not willing to feel at that moment. I just wanted to walk out of there.”
That was last April, in a centre for Honduran migrants who were in transit through northern Guatemala. Dancer was a student in Selkirk College’s nursing program, which takes students on a field experience to Guatemala each year. The visit to Casa de los Migrantes, the migration centre, was just one day on their four-week trip.
Now, with the Honduran migrant caravan much larger and prominent in the news, her memories of that day are intensified.
She said she felt overwhelmed meeting people who had nothing but hope, when their prospects seemed so hopeless. And she felt intimidated by the rough-looking tattooed young men who made up the majority of the migrants, although there were some families with young children too.
“Some of these [young male] migrants had either been in the States or Mexico before and had been deported and were trying again, and some of them had some really significant health complications. One man had fallen off a train — he had a very severe leg injury that was healed but significantly impacting his life still.”
It was his third attempt to get across the Mexico-U.S. border, but he was trying again, with a serious injury and a sense of hope, because he said his situation in Honduras was intolerable.
Dancer talked to a young Honduran man who recounted how he and his brother used to wake up in the morning crying and hungry and go to bed the same way, so as children they had to make it on their own on the street.
“He said there is something there for them in the U.S., but nothing in Honduras.”
Young single men hit the road
Selkirk College nursing instructor Randy Janzen accompanied the students to the migration centre along with instructor Mary Ann Morris. Janzen told the Star that he hadn’t previously thought of young single men as a vulnerable population, but after his visit to the migration centre and some research, he’s had to re-think that.
“In a country like Honduras it is young single men who don’t have a role. They don’t have jobs. They don’t have families. Those are the ones who seek hope by going to the States and finding work because that is the expectations of a young man: you have to help to support your family, your siblings, your parents if you don’t have your own kids.
“These young men were very poor and extremely rough looking and at the same time very vulnerable, and when they met us, it was like they were reaching out to us, wanting so much to tell their story.”
Janzen said young men routinely experience abuse and extortion during their migration.
“All the perpetrators are state officials — border patrol and police or some other state employee. They were not at risk by the general public. And in addition you have a small percentage of young women and they have additional risks.”
Hope is all they have
Talking with Dancer and Janzen, hope and hopelessness came up a lot.
“I felt overwhelming grief for people who have nothing in this world, and that feeling of hopelessness, it was a very emotional experience for me,” Dancer said, recalling not just young men but parents with young children at the centre.
Janzen talked about the discrepancy between the migrants’ hope and the probable outcome if and when they get to the U.S. border.
“It was so hard to really see that vulnerability and hope, and their trust that everything was going to be OK. From my perspective it was sheer hopelessness. I thought: I wonder where you will be in five months, you might be in detention in the States, you might be dead, you might be back home in a state of perpetual hopelessness. I had a hard time dealing with their state of hope and my state of hopelessness.
“But it was not my place to tell them that. The role of health care is to work with people where they are.”
Dancer said she felt that when you are at such a low level, hope might be all you have.
“What I really learned in Guatemala was that hope is born from a place of hopelessness. It sounds paradoxical, but that is what I saw. From hopelessness hope is birthed. When there is nothing left, then anything is possible, so you might as well try something. I have carried that with me from the trip.”
For Canadians, a borderless world
Janzen said Canadians can enter 163 countries without getting a visa in advance.
“We can visit, we can travel, we can get work, and if we can’t go there to work, our money can go there for us and make money. Even our CPP is invested all over the world. Our money has no borders.”
But the world’s poorest people are also the ones most hemmed in by borders that they are often not allowed to cross, he said.
Joining the journey of healing
Dancer said the group also visited a women’s clinic in Guatemala City, where very young girls were faced with going back to the families and communities in which they were abused.
She struggled with questions of how she, as a Canadian nursing student, can change any of this.
“There is an expectation that we go into hospitals and communities [in Guatemala] and teach. And we do teach about diabetes and dental health and whatnot, but I learned just as much about the social determinants of health and what I can bring back and learn in my career. Our job is not to fix and heal people but to join people on their journey of healing.”