Kenia’s story of her journey to the U.S. comes through the fuzzy lens of a child’s memory. She’s uncertain how long she traveled or even how old she was, but some things she recalls vividly: fear, thirst, hunger and preparing herself to die. It seems those things are harder to forget.
Her story unfolds as a series of unthinkable events when she teetered on the edge of death to escape the violence in her native Honduras and cross the U.S. border at an age when most American students are sitting at their school desks or headed to basketball practice.
Now a 19-year-old East Kentwood High School student, Kenia, who did not want her last name used, tells of the horrors she faced as a young girl traveling more than 2,000 miles on her own. The entire trek took months and she said along the way she was kidnapped, abused, threatened to be sold and hunted down by men who killed her father.
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“It was very hard. I didn’t want to leave my country, but they killed my dad because he was black,” said Kenia. “I saw him covered with blood. I said, ‘Dad wake up, wake up,’ but he was dead.”
Her mother, who was native Indian, ran away, but eventually was killed as well.
So Kenia fled, walking for days and then riding bus after bus, before jumping onto a train that has been given the monikers “The Beast” and “The Train of Death” by those who have survived it. She climbed atop a rail car, where she experienced the blistering hot noontime sun and the cold dark of night, day after day. She doesn’t think she ever slept, because if you do, she said, you fall.
“I had to come without thinking,” she said. She left behind her grandmother, also now deceased, and other family members. “You just think, die or live? You come to U.S. or you die.”
‘Boom, He Was Gone’
She jumped on the train in Chiapas, Mexico, more than 400 miles from her home. Hundreds of thousands of migrants, most from Central America, take the route each year. Many of them are children like Kenia. As they pass by cities and towns, some people throw bread and others throw rocks at those on top of the train.
Kenia tells her story in a straight-forward tone. It is graphic. She remembers a friend whose grip slipped while trying to hold onto the train. “He yelled, ‘Let me go.’ … I screamed, ‘No!’ and boom, he was gone.”
When they weren’t riding, the migrants walked. Kenia said she remembers tearing open cactuses for drinking water. The only time she bathed was when they came upon a lake. She said she became very thin.
She remembers a group of men grabbing her. She was among several girls captured by human traffickers. Kenia is unsure how long she was with them, but said it was a long time. One day, however, while in a park, a boy realized she was in danger. He distracted the kidnappers and she took the opportunity to run away. It was just before she was to be sold. “It was planned already,” she said. “The man who wanted to buy me, he had the money ready.”
Another incredible occurrence was when Kenia had to cross the Rio Grande, which stretches south of Texas. It was a “very angry ocean,” she remembers. Unable to swim, the currents pushed her down. “I decided I would die there,” she said. “I woke up and said, ‘Am I alive?’ A boy was holding me.” Another boy had saved her.
She and the boy crossed the border into Texas, she recalled. Immigration authorities soon caught them. She begged them not to send her home. “I was like, ‘Please let me go! Please kill me now. Don’t bring me back there.'”
She was allowed to stay. She entered a home for refugees in Texas, and then began living with foster families. She was ultimately sponsored by Bethany Christian Services and moved in with a family in Kentwood.
At School in the U.S.
Kenia never went to school in Honduras because her family couldn’t afford it. Now, she plans to graduate next year from East Kentwood High School. Her native language is Garifuna, and three and a half years ago, when she arrived, she spoke no English. Now she speaks a total of six languages, including English.
She gets very frustrated with algebra, but likes biology and learning about animals. She gets good grades, recently staying up all night to study to earn a B- in biology.
She works at a nursing home. “I do that because I couldn’t help my grandma,” she said. She wants to go to college and become a nurse. Kenia said she still has a hard time trusting people.
Teacher Erin Wolohan works with many refugee students who have backgrounds as horrific as Kenia. They’re survivors, she said. “Kenia is hardworking and has tenacity,” Wolohan said. “I think she will do well if she keeps her eye on the prize: education and full employment.”
Kenia’s not sure how she’s come so far.
“I’m alive but I don’t know how I’m alive,” Kenia said. “I’m so glad I’m here, I don’t know what would happen if I was still in my country. My country is beautiful. The people is bad.”