Many of us in the US take for granted the freedoms we have here – the freedom of mobility, the freedom to pursue an education, the freedom from constant fear. RILA clients come to us with a desire for such freedoms-- and scars from the life they have left behind. “Manuel” is one such client. At age 23, Manuel is seeking asylum in the US because of the cumulative threats against his life in his Central American home. Manuel was raised by his grandparents, who were very strict and limited his venturing outside the house due to the ever-present gangs in his neighborhood. Gunfire and killings were not uncommon on nearby streets, but for Manuel, the most dangerous place was public transportation.
As a high school student, Manuel took the public bus and often witnessed gang members extorting money from passengers. Several times he and his sister were directly targeted. Upon graduating from high school, he was pressured to join a gang. “At first I didn’t understand why they wanted me since I had never done anything bad. I had only focused on studying and going to church…I think they wanted to recruit me because I was trying to forge a future for myself.”
In 2013, Manuel started college in the capital city. The university was surrounded by guards, but outside this ring of protection, gang activity was rampant. One day while riding the bus, a man sat beside him, pulled a gun on him, and took his cell phone and all the money he was carrying.
Even as Manuel continued his studies, he applied for an international program for youth in Central America who live in violent communities. The program helps them apply for asylum. Through this program, he was granted “parole” so that he could travel to the US.
While he was awaiting his travel date from the program, he met up with university friends one night using the bus. The same man who had robbed him previously boarded the bus a few stops later. “The thug took out a gun and called me by my name and said that they had been watching me, that they knew where I lived and where I was studying. He told me not to shout or try to move because if I did, he would shoot me… He also said that he wanted me to join them and if I didn’t, they were going to kill me.” After many tense moments with his head down as ordered and a gun to his side, he began to cry. This attracted the attention of other passengers, and the gang member departed the bus.
At this critical time, Manuel was thankfully allowed admission to the US as a parolee. Now residing in Northern Virginia, his parole status expires soon. RILA has accepted him as a client and is helping him apply for both “reparole” and asylum. Manuel’s interrupted plans for his education and future, as well as the heartache of leaving family and friends behind, grieve us. RILA’s hope, prayers, and work on Manuel’s behalf are directed at the chance for him to safely pursue his dreams in this country.