By Rob Curran and Andrew Nelson
The last time we saw Eritrean asylum seeker Kidane Okubay, we were in a little port town on the border of Colombia and Panama and he was heading off into the night on a motorboat with 10 of his compatriots. We received emails from him on the road to the U.S., but they abruptly stopped in late August. What happened to him?
In late February, at a Houston café near the Catholic shelter where he was staying, Okubay filled us in. He described an incredible three-year odyssey across four continents. He had hoped the journey would end in a reunion with his wife and the son he has never seen. Instead, it ended with a three-month stay in the Port Isabel detention center in South Texas and a rejection of his asylum application.
For most of Okubay’s 32 years, Eritrea has been ruled by former freedom fighter Isaias Afwerki. The dictator demands indefinite national service from his citizens and restricts issuance of passports. Okubay earned a degree, qualifying as an archivist. He served 18 months in the army and was then transferred to national service in the civilian sector.
In 2015, Okubay’s wife became pregnant and he decided to make a life for his family overseas. First he stayed for three months in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, then eight months in Addis Ababa, then he headed to South Sudan via Kenya and Uganda, traveling by bus and motorbike taxi. He took an almost perfectly circular route to avoid the patchwork of conflicts in the region.
Initially, Okubay’s situation in South Sudan was promising. Then civil war broke out. A woman got shot in the leg in the store where he worked, caught in the crossfire. Business dried up
In 2017, after 20 months in South Sudan, Okubay decided to make his way to America by way of Dubai. He had to pay a smuggler in the UAE $16,000 up front for an Eritrean passport, visas, plane tickets and the assistance of coyotes in Latin America. In his first attempt, he flew from Dubai to Havana via Moscow. His visa was rejected. In 2018, he tried again, this time flying to Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
Here is Okubay’s description of his journey, starting in Capurganá, Colombia, where we met him, through Central America to Houston, in his own words. His account has been edited and annotated for clarity.
This column is a follow-up to a two-part series published in November about a common migration route from Africa and Asia through South America to Texas.
Read the first two columns here. How immigrants from the impoverished corners of the earth find their way across the border to Texas
We went on the boat for about three hours to the Panama coast — Pito. The boatmen just dropped us there and left. On the beach waiting for us were three people, naked, except for short pants. At first, we were afraid of them. They had primitive guns, shotguns. At first we were trying to hide from them, hide in the trees, the jungle. I went to them and said: “What do you want?”
They said: “We can guide the way for $50 each.” We argued with them. There were 38 people, mostly us and a lot of Cameroonians, some Ghanians and three Ethiopians.
The guides said the guns were only to hunt. We walked for three hours with these guys. I don’t know how they knew the way. They had flashlights. Almost everyone was wearing gumboots. My gumboots were lost — maybe in the boat — so I had to wear normal shoes. We walked for three hours. Then the guys leading us told us to sleep.
We slept at the bottom of the mountains until 5, 5:30 a.m. But we didn’t really sleep. Very little. The ground was wet, it was raining. We were sleeping on a riverbank. We were also afraid of snakes. We’d be flashing our phone lights all around if we heard something. Everybody feared everything. But they were very strong. In your mind, you think to yourself: there are men and women here. You think physically this woman is weaker than the man. But she keeps going. Then it energizes you to keep going.
The Darién Gap, where they were hiking, is a rainforest and sees heavy precipitation year round. Rain is particularly prevalent there in July.
The guides left us. Starting at 5:30, we climbed a very high mountain. It was also very muddy, full of jungle. The hardest was the first day, the climb. There are mountains in Eritrea, but you didn’t get mountains like that. I’d never seen mountains like that.
We had one bag of food. Mixed food. We didn’t eat much. We knew each other; if I didn’t have food, my friend will share. Cream biscuits, we ate only that. I had Red Bull in my bag. We drank water from the river. We didn’t have any problem with the water. We didn’t care how clear it was.
It was very hard to be climbing the mountain. At that time, I was last. You look straight up and you see the person ahead of you. If the first one fell, you can fall — all of you.
It’s muddy, slippery. You fall down. You misplace your foot and you fall. On the way down, everyone was falling.
People in Capurganá warned us it was madness to enter the Darién without a guide. It’s one of the easiest places in the world to disappear without a trace. Okubay and his group used a mixture of digital and physical signs from migrants traveling ahead of them to trace the path.
They [Eritrean migrants who had previously traversed the route] put everything in texts. If we wanted to find the way again, we looked at the texts, or the recordings they had sent. Some of them were in Mexico. Some were elsewhere along the route. They just used their memories. If one crossed, they put it down: “At the end of the path, you get to the waterfalls. When you see the waterfalls, turn right.”
We knew the path from signs of people crossing. You’ve got many things along the path, clothes, trash, all these things can act as a guide. Even clothes and shoes, you don’t just throw away. If I couldn’t carry my clothes, I tied them to a tree, put them as a sign other people coming after us can use as guides. In the jungle, there aren’t any road signs. There were no villages along the way, only one trail.
You also see footprints. In front of us people might be one day, two days ahead. You can still see their footprints.
We finished the climb at 11:30 a.m. and took a rest. I felt cramps because it’s a very high mountain. I was scratched a little bit, but the rest had some wounds.
In the forest around us, there were small monkeys, but their voice was very big.
When we were climbing the mountain a lot of people were tired. Two women from Ghana were totally exhausted. They couldn’t carry their bags. We helped. In Eritrea, when people come, we help them. Finally, they couldn’t go on. They threw the bags away. We were moving very fast because we expected that we had to cover a long distance.
Where we stopped for a break there was some flow of water. We washed our bodies and it felt good. You were refreshed.
We covered the path in two days. People had told us seven days. We couldn’t walk at night time. We slept only one more night in the jungle. After we slept, we lost phone contact. The second day we walked all day except maybe 10 or 20 minutes. We didn’t see any one.
On the second day one of our friends was bitten by a snake. He was very fast. We called him Kenenisa [after Ethiopian long-distance runner Kenenisa Bekele] because he was always walking in front. They were crossing the river, walking through the water. The snake was going on the bank. He stepped on the snake. If he had a gumboot on, the snake couldn’t have bitten him. The Cameroonian people were trying to kill it, but they couldn’t. They tried to kill it with sticks and a machete when it came out on the other side of the river.
Kenenisa carried a rope around his waist. He removed the rope, and tied it on his leg.
He cut the place where the snakebite was, trying to remove the poison. He tied the rope very tightly.
We were very lucky. There were some people with a small boat, a canoe. I don’t know why they were there. We saw them at a little distance. We called them and paid them. They asked for $20 each. After a conversation, we gave them $10 each. We told them: “This guy was bitten by snake, we must go very fast. We can give you the money.”
He couldn’t tolerate his pain. But if we untied the rope, he could die. After three hours by boat, we reached a military camp.
Even in the camp they didn’t have anything for snake bites. They called traditional doctors, who gave him traditional medicines to drink. They loosened the rope a little bit, and the leg got big, swelled up. The next morning, Kenenisa left the place by boat, and the rest of us stayed for four more days. During the dry season, cars could come there, but at that time only boats.
We met Kenenisa again in Mexico. He still had a little limp. He’s a good guy, always makes us laugh.
After four days, we left the camp by boat. We paid $20 each to an immigration office near the river.
Just keep moving
Okubay and his friends were driven to a camp for migrants, likely near Yavisa, Panama, where the Pan-American highway picks up again. Okubay described a policy that was consistent with much of what we’ve heard about the treatment of migrants in South and Central America: You may travel through our country, just keep moving.
We saw officers, gave them our fingerprints. They took photos. We stayed four, five days. They gave us our papers, and told us to pay them for transportation. They sent us by bus to Costa Rica.
In Costa Rica, they are very good people, they were not accosting us. There was no corruption, no bribes. The Costa Rican police woke us. Costa Rican immigration took fingerprints and photos. They sent us to a small Red Cross camp. We had soap, toothbrush. Also the food was good. There was a place to sleep.
Our papers in Costa Rica said we could stay for 25 days. We could have asked for asylum there, but no one did.
We paid for our bus, our food with our money. It was a small camp. They gave us some maps where we could get buses, and told us how much it costs. Starting from the border, we took a bus to San Jose City for about $15.
From San Jose, we reached La Cruz near the border where we met smugglers. We had to pay the smugglers $340 to cross Nicaragua. It was not a good situation.
A curfew imposed by President Daniel Ortega’s administration made Nicaragua a dangerous place for anyone moving around at night without government approval.
The Red Cross workers also worried about the place: “Please be careful.” The smugglers must cross Nicaragua by night. We walked three hours from the border then went by boat. The boat was very safe, not too large. Then when we came down from boat and went about 20 minutes on foot. Some cars were waiting for us. I had the money for the cars with me: about $3,500 for the group. The others gave it to me when we reached Nicaragua. They sent my photo to the Nicaraguan smugglers.
It was at night. They shined a flashlight and looked at me. When they saw my clothes, they knew it was me.
We started our journey 6 or 7 p.m. They drove us for about 3 hours. We felt that we might crash. I was sleeping on the open side of the pickup truck. My friend was in the front seat, so he saw how fast they were going — 200 kilometers per hour [about 125 mph]. Our friend told us that if they hit some rock or something, they could have turned the pickup over. The road was good.
At the end of the drive we met another set of smugglers under a bridge. They had some horses. We know horses. My village is known for its horses, they keep horses. Another person had our photo.
They only had four horses, only for people who are injured or tired. People from Cuba. Some people have small children, just four months, it helped them to be riding on horse.
After walking three hours we got the border, when you cross this river you’re in Honduras. It was morning time; in one night we had crossed Nicaragua.
Parts of Nicaragua are full of mafia. If they find you, they take all your clothes, because they know you hid money in your clothes. Indians told us they found mafia and they took everything.
In Honduras we went in a school bus to a small city. We followed the Cubans who knew the way to the immigration office. They said to come back the next day. It took three or four days to get in. They took fingerprints, photos and then we could leave on a bus.
We stayed in a hotel for $4 per night. The town was closed down at night, even the bars were closed, completely shut down. We would go out at night wandering around. Later we found out it was a very dangerous place.
On the bus at one check point we were asked for $20 each. We refused. We had papers, we were documented so we refused to pay the bribe. The bus took us to the capital, Tegucigalpa. There we caught another bus to the Guatemalan border. Police wouldn’t allow us across, so we met a smuggler. The people ahead of us had told us what he looked like, with long hair: “He will wait for you, and just ask him for help to cross.” We got off the bus and found him.
With the smuggler, we walked one hour through the jungle. We had to pay $20 each. The border was marked by a small fence, but it was opened for us. The landowner asked the smuggler for money to cross. We didn’t have documents. We debated the price. He asked for $20, but we gave $10. We needed to keep moving. When we reached the road we called a taxi to drive us to the city. We got a bus to Guatemala City where we got another bus to the border.
In Nicaragua and Guatemala, we just wanted to keep moving, we didn’t have documents. At the border with Mexico we got a bicycle rickshaw to the border. The river was full, we needed a boat. It was an inner tube with wood attached. We rented the boat and used a stick to move across the river. It cost $5. It was nighttime, not a legal crossing. The legal crossing was at a bridge.
Across the bridge we were in Tapachula, Mexico. We went to the immigration office. There were so many people there. Central Americans, Indians. We had to pay money to get papers. It cost a $100 each to get into the office. We waited 12 days, so we happily paid. In Tapachula we stayed in houses in the camps. The houses had AC, wifi, lots of people, maybe 700. We were in Mexico for 15 days. There was a Mexican mother who learned how to make Ethiopian food so we ate with her.
Over the last few decades, Tapachula has become a cosmopolitan nexus for thousands of extra-continental migrants. Until recently, it was just a transit point toward the U.S. border, but this year, Mexican immigration authorities, under pressure from the Trump administration, have slowed the processing of transit papers and increased deportations. But for the many Africans and Asians from countries without diplomatic representation in Mexico, deportation is not possible.
In Tapachula we bought a plane ticket to Reynosa. We could use our papers to buy the ticket. There were five of us in Reynosa. The other six went to the California side. We stayed in touch over Messenger. We heard that it is easier to get asylum in California but the wait is longer. It takes one month. In Texas we heard there was no wait.
We crossed at the far bridge with lots of big cars, it was unsafe for pedestrians. By taxi, we went about 2 miles and then on foot, about 4 miles total. An immigration officer came to us and said show me your papers. A police car came and told us walk inside to where the border sign was. There were dogs to check bags. Then we were transferred to Port Isabel.
The border agents were good at their jobs. We had no problem with ICE in the center. Port Isabel is a big camp. It has four sections: A for Alpha, B for Beta, C for Charlie, and D for Delta, only for women. We went to Charlie. Then in C there were four sections, C1, C2, C3 and C4. We were in C3 with about 75 people. In every hall there is one officer.
First at the bridge we sought asylum. Then we had a second interview by phone. A third one with a judge. I stayed at Port Isabel for three months, they then ordered my deportation. But, Eritreans can’t be deported until conditions change. They are not sending anyone since one deportee committed suicide in Cairo.
In the center we got haircuts, cut our nails twice a week. We had three meals per day in our rooms. It was a large room with washroom, restrooms, shower. Cameras were everywhere. It was mostly Cameroonians and Eritreans, the rest were Central Americans. All of the Eritreans were together. We met people from Guinea, Ghana, Congo, Gabon.
Twice per day we could go outside. There was a basketball court, gym equipment. Surrounded by barbed wire. It was full of services. The AC was so cold, they gave us sweaters. We can use the phone. I called my brother in Ethiopia. When I tried to call my wife, she didn’t answer. She didn’t press 1. The call was recorded.
When you enter they record all of your possessions, money, belongings. You can buy things at the shop, they take money from your account.
You must be in your room 3 to 4 times a day for counting time. Same time every day. For phone calls, they take money from your account.
The process for asylum is: fill out form, collect evidence, and do interview. I didn’t choose to get a lawyer. The judge said: “No one can change my mind, if you have a lawyer or not.” They have free lawyers but also expensive ones.
The advocacy group America Team for Displaced Eritreans claims that the main reasons Eritreans lose their asylum cases is because they lack legal representation or their cases were heard by immigration judges indisposed to granting asylum to anyone.
His judgment was that I could return [to Eritrea]. But it’s a misunderstanding. I left before my son was born. I would return if I could. I would have returned from South Sudan. The problem was a misunderstanding. He asked me if I was using phone and internet in Eritrea, which is provided by the government. The judge assumes you wouldn’t use phone or wifi because of the government, but everyone works for the government. I was using my own phone and internet. But when he asked “do you use government phone and internet” I said yes because they own it.
In Eritrea, I had 18 months of service, but it is indefinite service. If you earn a diploma, you must join service. I did five years in the national service. But they did not pay me. Just pocket money. I can stay in the U.S. for 10 years if there is no change in government. I was given a deportation order, but I am not forced to leave.
According to the America Team, those denied asylum are not sent back to Eritrea due to the threat of imprisonment, torture and death for returnees. Further, the Eritrean Embassy refused to issue travel documents to deportees. In September 2017, the Department of Homeland Security began detaining Eritreans who were denied asylum with the intention of removal. However, as Okubay said, after one deportee committed suicide en route, removals stopped.
My parents live alone. My wife lives with her parents. We couldn’t pay for a separate home. For my trip, I had $20,000 from Africa, from family members. My nephew gave $5,000. I was fine working in South Sudan, but then the war broke out. I can send money by giving to an Eritrean in Houston who sends money home. For $1, you can get 1,500 [nafka], 1,800 on the black market.
We left Okubay at the Houston shelter, uncertain how and when he would see his family again.
Rob Curran is a writer in Denton. Andrew Nelson is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Texas. They wrote this column for the Dallas Morning News.