After Hard Journeys, Asylum Seekers Find Soft Landing At Hermosillo Home

By Murphy Woodhouse
Published: Wednesday, March 11, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, March 11, 2020 - 8:41am

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Asylum House
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
A neighbor of Natalia Serna's helps out with some of the home improvement work.

Fixer-upper is one way to describe the two-story building near downtown Hermosillo. Piles of rubble are growing steadily on the street out front, and faded paint speaks to its past as a print shop, internet cafe and convenience store.

“Welcome to our chaos!” its owner, Natalia Serna, greeted me recently. “The zone of destruction!”

But it is slowly, messily being reborn as a way station of sorts. Serna, a Colombian-American musician who has been living in the city for several years, let me — and a neighborhood dog — in for a tour.

“That space is thought of as the children's bookstore/library. It's a mixed concept,” she explained. “And then we have two bedrooms that are like thought of for the families.”

Asylum House
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
The roof of Natalia Serna's new home has sweeping views of downtown Hermosillo.

Specifically, asylum-seeker families. Like much of Mexico, Sonora has seen a jump in the number of applicants who apply for refuge, though the original plans for many were to do so in the United States. In 2018, there were eight asylum applications in all of Sonora, according to federal data.

“And last year, just out of the people that I know, that I’ve personally worked with or have spoken to, I can think of 40 people that came out,” she said. “Between December (2019) and February.”

And when they walk out of detention, “they’re really in a city where they don't know anyone, where there are no organizations dedicated to receiving these folks,” Serna explained. “They're really like, at a loss.”

Apart from looking for schools, permanent places to stay and work — which special visas allow for — asylum applicants need to check in weekly with Mexican immigration authorities.

With the support of her family, Serna finished the paperwork for the house last fall. Almost immediately a Guatemalan family moved in. And once finished, Serna hopes to be able to host two families at a time.

“I mean, the house is kind of a mess, but it just seemed like they would be safer here than anywhere else,” she said.

Asylum House
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
Handyman Jesus Higuera scoops up concrete for improvements to the yard's back wall.

Missing Home

During the day, work echoes through the house, and dust hangs in the air.

Out in the backyard, where Serna imagines a garden someday sprouting, local handyman Jesus Higuera was slathering a layer of wet concrete onto the back wall.

“Some think that life is hard for them, but no, they’re in glory in comparison to (the asylum seekers),” he said of what he learned from his conversations with the house’s residents.

In the kitchen later that evening, Salvadoran Jonathan Calacin told me about his winding, hard journey to Hermosillo while putting together a simple dinner of spaghetti and tortillas. He said he misses the food from back home in San Salvador, like pupusas and fried yucca. But he’s grateful to have a safe place to live in Hermosillo.

“Gangs are just around the corner, is one way to say it,” he said.

He met Serna in detention in Hermosillo after being arrested on the border in Agua Prieta last fall. She was going there regularly to play music, teach yoga and otherwise support detainees. He spent more than a month there and was released after requesting asylum. But he had nowhere to go, and few to call but her.

“She was a guide, a compass,” he said.

Since moving in, he’s found work, is looking for a place of his own, and hopes to soon send for his wife and son back home.

A Few Calm Months

On a recent evening, asylum seeker Yaneth Carias was shaving ice for customers at an Hermosillo raspados spot. 

Asylum House
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
Yaneth Carias helps out a customer at the raspados spot where she works.

“At first I didn’t know how to do anything,” she said. “But the owner taught me, and even took my hand to make the raspados. And now I do it super well.”

The Guatemalan mother of two tells me her first three months at the shop have gone well. The owner taught her the ropes, and now she preps the sweet treats expertly. 

Her youngest daughter, 10-year-old Naidelyn was somewhere in the back. Jaslin, 14, was manning the cash register.

“I clear my mind a little bit,” she said of helping her mom after being in class all day.

For Carias, finding work and getting her daughters into school were made much easier by the several months they spent at Serna’s house. The family has since moved into their own place, where she and her daughters headed after closing up. Carias’ husband, Marvin Ramirez, had just gotten home after walking an hour from his job at a bakery, and we all sat down on their front porch.

“I never thought they’d let us out like that, onto the street with nowhere to go. When the time came, they just told us, ‘sign here, and you’re free,’” Ramirez said of his family’s first moments of freedom after leaving detention. “I had only 200 pesos in my pockets.”

Hermosillo had never been in their plans. But having fled threats back home, been kidnapped on the border and spent weeks detained in cramped conditions, the relative stability after moving into Serna’s house was a welcome change.

If not for that house, “I’m not sure what would have happened,” Carias said.

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