Great Britain

At 14, I walked through the desert to reach America. My story didn't end there

I was born in Honduras in 1992. My parents broke up before I was born and when I was five, my father left for the United States. I lived with my mother and my sister and we were the poorest family in our small neighborhood. Eventually my mother got together with Faustino, the man who would become my stepfather. She was scared of him because he drank a lot and was violent. He used to hit my mom and throw chairs at her.

One night my stepfather got drunk and came over to my bed and touched me inappropriately. I started yelling and ran out of the house. When my mom came home the next day, I told herwhat Faustino had done to me, but she didn’t believe me. She sent me to another part of the city to work for his relatives. I cleaned their house, took care of two babies, washed clothes. I was their servant.

I was only 12.

When my father returned to Honduras to see me for the first time in 10 years, I asked him to take me back to the United States because I didn’t have anything left in Honduras and I wanted to start a new life.

It took us more than a month to get to the United States. We traveled from Honduras to Guatemala on a bus. There were gangsters on board who put a gun to my head, asking for all my money. I didn’t have any but they didn’t believe me. They took my pants off. I don’t remember their faces. I just remember their hands. I remember hands touching me all over my body and I couldn’t say anything.

I was 14.

We stayed in Guatemala for a day and then got in a van to travel to Mexico. We had to lie down with many people, one on top of the other. The coyotes [smugglers] put cardboard on top of us so la Migra [the authorities] wouldn’t see us if they pulled us over. It was hard to breathe. We then walked through the Mexican desert for days. There were around 20 people in our group from all over the world. Some people got lost and didn’t make it. On the second day, I became too weak, so my father paid the coyotes extra for a little pill to give me energy. After that, we rode in a van from Texas to northern California. There was a hiding place under the floor where they put us. It was a very long trip and we had to stay quiet the whole time.

When we got to Hayward, California, where my father lived, it seemed really fancy. I was blown away by the glass buildings. But reaching America wasn’t the end of my struggles, only the beginning.

I wasn’t able to go to school because I had to work. I got fake papers that said I was 21, even though I was really 14. Then I started working at a laundry doing two shifts a day. I started at seven in the morning and I got out at one the next morning. I was also sending money to my mom. One night my dad got angry and hit me, so I ran away to stay with a friend. I became depressed and lost my job. I didn’t want to work or eat.

A friend took me to San Francisco human services and I was put into the foster care system. The foster mother was old and she barely gave me anything to eat. She made me clean the house, so I was working for her without pay. She put me in summer school, and I passed out three times because I was starving. The foster program paid the foster mom around $600 per month to take care of me, but she’d take me to garage sales and buy me used clothes with holes. Then she used the money from social services to buy things for her daughter at the mall and gave the receipts to the social worker.

I didn’t know how the system worked because no one told me that foster parents are not supposed to treat you like this. Even though the social worker spoke Spanish, she never asked me, “Soledad, how is everything going?” They’re supposed to talk to the child but we never had a private conversation about what was happening in the house. I was scared and nobody was there for me.

When I turned 18, I moved to San Francisco to continue my education. Accessing housing and the education system was difficult. I eventually enrolled at City College and got a job at Safeway, ringing up customers, cleaning the floor. I was working full-time and taking classes but lived in poor conditions.

Many Americans think that migrants come here to take their jobs, to do bad things, to take advantage of the country. These ideas are not right – we are not bad people. I came here to survive, to do better in this world, to help my family and other people. There was no way to survive in my homeland. I was suffering from extreme poverty. I was physically and sexually abused. I didn’t choose to come here; I didn’t have another option.

And it’s been hard here in the United States: learning a new language and experiencing abuse in the foster care system; working multiple jobs and still being unable to make ends meet.

I worked very hard to at school, and I later transferred to San Francisco State University, where I graduated with a degree in liberal studies and criminal justice. I currently work as a housing case manager for homeless youth in San Francisco, supporting them with accessing housing, education, and employment – all the areas I struggled with as a young migrant.

I want everyone to know that the story doesn’t end once migrants cross the border. It doesn’t even end if we are lucky enough to be granted asylum. The story, the hardships, the aspirations continue in the US. Improved immigration policies and humane asylum procedures are critical, but they are only a first step. Everyone needs protection and support. My dream is to become a social worker and improve the foster system so other children in the US don’t have to go through what I did. I want to make our cities safe, livable, healthy places for all people. I walked through the desert for days – to have these opportunities.

On International Migrants Day this month – and beyond – seek out migrants in your community and listen to their stories. There are many ways you can support young migrants, such as donating or volunteering.

Migrant narratives don’t end once we arrive in our new communities. We’re a part of this fabric and our stories aren’t over.

Soledad Castillo is an advisory board member at Voice of Witness, a not-for-profit human rights organization. She shared her story in the book Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders With Youth Refugees From Central America. She works as a housing case manager in San Francisco

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