Via Cargo Ships and Jungle Treks, Africans Dream Of Reaching The U.S.

Jun 22, 2016
Originally published on June 22, 2016 9:39 pm

Costa Rican officials say more than 800 people claiming to be from Africa have come to their country in just the last two months. Most are believed to be from the two neighboring Congo states in central Africa. But in a visit this week, NPR also found Eritreans, Angolans and Nigerians.

Authorities also suspect that some are from Haiti.

Central America has long been the route north for people fleeing violence or poverty in Latin America. Now it's also a route from Africa.

"We say Africa is here now in Costa Rica," says the Rev. Alberto Barrios Gutierrez, a priest who, along with his parishioners, volunteers to help feed the desperate new arrivals. By the time migrants reach the volunteers, they have usually walked at least a week through dangerous jungle.

Some say the African migrants are appearing in greater numbers because it's become more difficult to reach Europe, a more traditional destination. Others say there has always been a small number of Africans traveling this route, but Nicaragua has tightened its borders, creating a roadblock.

The Africans making the journey describe a harrowing trip. Some don't survive. Many pay smugglers in Africa to get them aboard cargo ships bound for South America. Some arrive in South American countries on the Atlantic Ocean and languish there in joblessness until they look for a better future north.

They may be fleeing violence, like Boko Haram militants in Nigeria, or civil strife in Congo or poverty in Angola.

"I had a business that was completely burned down and destroyed," says Ezimwa Chimezie, a Nigerian at a tent camp set up by the Costa Rican Red Cross.

He had a shoe factory that was set on fire by men who he says also stabbed him. Chimezie says it happened because he was advocating for human rights in Nigeria. NPR couldn't independently confirm his account or the accounts given by others.

Chimezie said he flew to Ecuador and paid smugglers to secure his bus and boat travel to Colombia.

Like most of the other migrants, Chimezie eventually came to the end of the road — literally. It's called the Darien Gap, an expanse of jungle with no roads between Colombia and Panama. It's nearly 100 miles long.

"It's hell. It's hell," Chimezie says. "I ain't got no words to describe the experience."

Barely aware of the geography of Central America, Chimezie had been told to expect a three-hour jungle walk. It took days.

"It's like walking five solid days on an empty stomach," he says.

Others say it took them nine days to get through the jungle. They describe eating grass to survive, being devoured by bugs and seeing bodies left behind under the thick brush.

Chimezie made the trip a couple weeks ago. His feet and legs are still swollen, pus seeping from a toe.

Alfredo Delvas, from Congo, says he also made the jungle journey. He shows us his temporary home in the Costa Rican Red Cross camp, pulling back the black plastic tarp on his tent.

He's with about 15 people, sharing a couple of blankets and a few wooden pallets on the ground.

Resources from the Costa Rican and Panamanian governments are scarce. Costa Rican officials say they can't keep housing the Africans. Nicaragua refuses passage northward. And Panama, to the south, won't give them permission to stay.

"If this migration continues, it will be a very dangerous situation not only for Costa Rica but also for the region," says Costa Rican Communications Minister Mauricio Herrera. His country asks for international aid, but he says it has not received any for the three shelters it runs. It plans to add a fourth next month.

Meanwhile, the church led by Barrios tries to lend a hand. Volunteers dole out mounds of rice, chicken, beans and plantains for the migrants at this camp twice a day.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now we're going to hear about some African migrants and refugees who have shown up in Central America after desperate trips by boat, bus and foot. They're running away from violence and poverty in Africa. And they are hoping to get to the U.S. The most dangerous part of the journey is near the end when they have to walk for days through a deadly stretch of jungle. NPR's Carrie Kahn met them at a makeshift camp on the border of Coasta Rica and Panama.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Ezimwa Chimezie says he had heard of Costa Rica and Panama but didn't really know where they were or ever imagined he would be in them one day on the run from his home in Nigeria.

EZIMWA CHIMEZIE: And I had a business that was completely burnt down - burnt down and destroyed.

KAHN: Chimezie says he lost his small shoe factory in that fire set by men who also attacked and stabbed him, he says because of his defense of human rights in Nigeria.

CHIMEZIE: Through the help of a friend, I got to Ecuador.

KAHN: From there he paid smugglers to reach Colombia by bus and boat. NPR was not able to confirm Chimezie's story or that of the other Africans at the migrant camp. Most speak of fleeing violence in Congo, poverty in Angola and brutality at the hands of the Islamic extremists Boko Haram in Nigeria. All tell similar stories of making their way to South America smuggled in cargo ships. And all, like Chimezie, eventually ended up in Colombia at a place where the roads end and the only way forward is on foot.

CHIMEZIE: Then started the long walk.

KAHN: The walk.

CHIMEZIE: Yeah. It's a long walk.

KAHN: Did you know what you were getting into?

CHIMEZIE: Not at all. I never had a picture of it. If I did, maybe I wouldn't have tried it.

KAHN: It's called the Darien Gap, a nearly 100-mile stretch of jungle - desolate, dark and deadly.

CHIMEZIE: It's hell. It's hell. I ain't got words to describe the experience, you know?

KAHN: Chimezie said he was told it would be about a three-hour walk. He didn't bring much food, nowhere near enough for the journey that stretched into nearly a week.

CHIMEZIE: So practically it's like walking five solid days on empty stomach.

KAHN: Many in the camp talk of nine days walking, eating grass to survive, being devoured by bugs and bodies left behind, buried under the thick jungle brush. Once out, the migrants ride buses straight through Panama on word of camps in Costa Rica. Chimezie's feet and legs are still swollen from his time in the jungle. His toenails are translucent. Puss seeps from all sides.

A man from Congo shows me his swollen legs. He arrived in the camp unable to speak. Alfredo Delvas, also from Congo, says he was in the same shape when he stumbled here three weeks ago. His feet have returned to normal, but as we walk through the rocky terrain of the camp, he says nothing else has. He stops at one of the dozen tents set up by Costa Rica's Red Cross and pulls back its black plastic tarp.

ALFREDO DELVAS: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: This is how we are living, he sighs. Several wooden pallets line the ground. Small pieces of cardboard cover the slats.

DELVAS: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: He said 15 to 20 people sleep here with him.

There are only two worn blankets to share. Since May, Costa Rican officials say more than 800 people claiming to be from Africa have poured into their country. The vast majority say they're from Congo, although authorities suspect some are Haitians. I also met Eritreans, Angolans and even a group of five men from Kashmir.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: Volunteers heap mounds of rice, chicken, beans and plantains on plastic plates twice a day for the migrants, all courtesy of Father Alberto Barrios Gutierrez and his Catholic parishioners.

ALBERTO BARRIOS GUTIERREZ: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: "We say Africa is here now in Costa Rica," says Barrios. "Their troubles have arrived in our home." Costa Rica officials say they can't continue housing the Africans. Nicaragua refuses passage northward, and Panama to the south won't give them permission to stay either. The bottleneck is straining tiny Costa Rica's resources, says Communication Minister Mauricio Herrera.

MAURICIO HERRERA: If this migration continues, it will be a very dangerous situation, not only for Costa Rica but also for the region.

KAHN: Costa Rica has asked for international help, but so far none has come forward. Authorities now run three shelters in the country and are set to open a fourth next month. Ezimwa Chimezie, who fled Nigeria, says he hopes a resolution comes soon so he can move on.

CHIMEZIE: I can turn a new page in my life and carry on again.

KAHN: To somewhere, he says, where persecution and poverty are consigned to memory. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, at the Costa Rica-Panama border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.