Yormaly loves English-language music, and she believes her affinity for songs by singers like Adele and Rihanna will make it easier for her to learn the language and get a good job once she gets her work authorization.
Born in the coastal state of Aragua in Venezuela, 26-year-old Yormaly, a former accounting student, arrived in New York three months ago with her partner and their five-year-old son—part of a group of 22,000 migrants, mostly Venezuelans, that have arrived in the city since April.
After a long journey by land that started in her hometown, taking them through Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, the family crossed the border into the United States seeking asylum.
Having received death threats from a criminal group in their home country, the family was forced to abandon their country and embark on the dangerous and laborious trip up north.
“My husband was an official, like a military man in Venezuela, and there is a lot of crime there,” Yormaly told Latino Rebels. “After an operation they carried out in the neighborhood where we lived, the criminals accused him of being the one who sent the police to them. We had to leave because they could kill him.”
The first stop on the trek was Ecuador, where the family stayed for one year. Yormaly’s partner worked as a barber to collect the money they would need for the rest of the trip.
“Ecuador was like a bridge. We went there to make money to come,” Yormaly said. “From Colombia to here everything is in dollars. To the person who guides you to cross the jungle, you pay in dollars.”
In Colombia, the jungle crossing starts in Necoclí, which is the closest to Panama a person can get by road. From there, migrants cross the Gulf of Urabá by boat and land at Capurganá, only a couple miles from the Panamanian border—and from Capurganá they begin the hike through the infamous Darién Gap, a thickly forested and boggy stretch of terrain that presents the most dangerous part of the journey for migrants venturing northward.
Not everyone survives.
Yormaly takes a deep breath, remembering her experience marching through the Darién. “Scared—I was very scared,” she said. “We slept in a tent in the middle of nowhere. We spent two and a half days crossing.”
“There were moments when I said, ‘Will I be able to make it to the other side?’ There were days when I thought I was not going to make it. ‘How many hours are left?’ And they said, ‘There is an hour, half an hour to go,’ and it was a lie. There was much more to go.”
Besides the geographic hardships, Yormaly and her family also faced finding themselves without any money left, as happened when they reached Nicaragua.
When asked about what was the worst part of the whole journey, without hesitation Yormaly said México. “Too much crime,” she explained. “The so-called cartel that even Mexicans are afraid of.”
“It was horrible because you had to look everywhere, taking care of everything. You had to keep the children by the hand. You needed to stay with a group—if you stayed alone, you might get kidnapped.”
In Monterrey, a hundred miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, Yormaly and her family climbed on the dangerous freight train used by migrants known as “La Bestia.” Every year, between 400,000 and 500,000 people risk their lives jumping on and off La Bestia while in motion. Once onboard, migrants also have to avoid criminal groups aiming to extort them, or worse.
“We got on the train at around midnight. It left at three in the morning, and we traveled until eight at night,” Yormaly recalled.
“We had to jump off the train because two men dressed in black were coming,” she continued. “Nobody knew if they were police or from the mafia. Everyone on the train jumped. Everyone grabbed their children and we ran in all directions.”
After a long walk, at midnight Yormaly and her family arrived at the Rio Grande in Piedras Negras, just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. The area has become an alternative for migrants crossing into the United States, looking to avoid other spots with greater Border Patrol presence. The water in the river usually rises to people’s waists as they wade across. Migrants struggle to keep their last belongings dry and not be dragged by the current.
“At that point we didn’t care about things,” Yormaly said. “We only had a small bag with our documents and my son’s sweater.”
In the middle of the river, two men came to her and her kid, holding guns and saying they were going to help them cross.
“My husband was a bit ahead of us. He came back and gave the men the last coins he had and they let us go,” Yormaly recalled. “I guess they wanted to kidnap us.”
After surviving that last challenge, the family spent a couple of days in a U.S. detention center known as “La Hielera,” or Icebox, organzing the papers that documented how the family crossed and why, plus the court date for their asylum hearing. From there, they went by bus to San Antonio and boarded an airplane headed for LaGuardia Airport in New York City.
Yormaly said that the biggest hero of the whole adventure was her son.
“My son was a warrior. He was very strong. When he saw someone tired he encouraged them and shared his water with them,” she said. “I asked him to forgive me for making him walk. The worst thing is to bring the children like this. Imagine if one gets tired. It is worse for them.”
Yormaly and her husband want to work, but they will have to wait six months after they submit their asylum application. And then, finding a job might not be easy.
New York is experiencing an increase in the number of migrant arrivals. A lot of them resort to informal jobs in the face of long waits for work authorization and fees of up to $400 that migrants sometimes have to pay to be certified to work in certain fields like construction, food service, and driving.
“In whatever, really,” Yormaly said of her job preference. “I really like working.”
Yormaly and her family were set for their first appointment with immigration officials in September, but due to the backlog of asylum applications that New York courts are facing, the date was postponed till January of next year.
They have found support in New York City programs to assist migrants, securing housing and enrolling the boy in school. Other migrants have received prepaid debit cards and spots in shelters or even one-bedroom apartments. To cover the great demand for housing, Mayor Eric Adams ordered the construction of an encampment on Randall’s Island.
Yormaly’s dream is to one day be able to afford a house for her son.
“I don’t know if that will be in Venezuela,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to go back.”
Juan de Dios Sánchez Jurado is a summer correspondent for Futuro Media. A writer, lawyer, and journalist from Colombia, he is currently studying at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. Twitter: @diosexmaquina