Yuri, letting go to move forward
A Venezuelan mother arrives with her two teenage daughters at the "Self- care space" implemented by UNICEF; a place for well-being and resilience, a few steps away from the Darien jungle.
It is 9:30 in the morning and the Lajas Blancas Migratory Reception Station (MRS) looks like the Tower of Babel. Built on the grounds of a farm located in the town of Meteti, in Darien, the most rugged of Panama's provinces, the Lajas Blancas MRS is a hive of people - Venezuelans, Ecuadorians, Angolans, Afghans, Haitians, Cubans - looking for water to bathe, waiting in line for breakfast or waiting for their turn at the cell phone recharge booth. The Panamanian government has set up the MRS to offer services to migrants crossing the isthmus of Panama on their way to North America.
A few meters from the entrance, on the right-hand side of the camp, there is a white tent with the sign of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). At the door, on the dirty floor, there is a dozen flip-flops, sandals, and sneakers of all sizes, colours, and materials, all broken or worn out. They are the shoes of migrants. The shoes of boys, girls, adolescents, women, and men who, that day, since early in the morning, have approached the tent where the "Self-care space" program is being carried out. It was opened in mid-2022 with the purpose of creating a space for wellbeing and solidarity.
Sitting inside, among other women, is Yuri Castillo. By her side, her two teenage daughters, Lucianyelis (15) and Camila (14). Venezuelan, 41 years old and a nurse by profession, Yuri left Venezuela in 2018 to Ecuador, and there she was working as a window wiper until she decided to make "the journey through the jungle." "I left Ecuador on January 29th. I arrived in Medellin (Colombia) on a Tuesday and that same day I travelled to Necocli. I am travelling with my two youngest daughters and Valentina, our dog."
Yuri wears a pair of pants and a sweater full of dust and her hair in a bun. "I've been wearing these same clothes for days!" she says suddenly. "Look what I look like!" she adds, touching her hair, as the group begins to share some of the experiences they've had along the way.
How was the trip? Yuri closes her eyes for a moment and opens them to say, "The trip lasted four and a half days. We stopped from time to time, but we didn't want to be alone. And it happened to us once!"; she tells us and puts her hands to her chest. "The mountain is so high that sometimes you feel you can't lift your legs because your muscles don't react. The whole day is walking, walking, and walking. At one point I asked myself: When did I get my daughters into this?".
It was one of her daughters who, amid exhaustion and seeing her mother collapsing, approached her and said: "Mom, you can do it, come on, come on!”. As she recalls the story now, Yuri sheds a few tears. "It was one of my daughters who picked me up, who encouraged me.... Imagine: I'm the head of the family.... If something happened to me, what would become of my daughters?
But crossing the Darien jungle is much more than an immense physical challenge. It also involves overcoming fear and dread. Fear of a river flow, for example, which has already claimed the lives of some people. "My daughters, 14 and 16, were almost swept away by the river. They fell into a water well, and if it hadn’t been for someone who saved them...".
Dread to the little paths opened on the edge of the mountains, where the only thing that holds them to life are roots and ropes placed there by those who passed before. " On those little ledges you barely have room to put your foot.... You take a false step, and you could fall [to the abyss]."
The creation of the "Self-care space" came about precisely when Johanna Tejada, an expert in gender and PSEA (protection against sexual abuse and exploitation) from UNICEF's Darien team, became aware of the need to create a safe place within the MRS where migrants could regain their humanity. Yes, their humanity. Many have been traveling for months from their countries of origin, fleeing situations of violence, insecurity, discrimination, or economic vulnerability, and to reach Lajas Blancas they walk through the jungle trails of Darien, a dangerous route due to its natural conditions, the presence of armed groups, and the assaults to which they may fall victim.
UNICEF, together with its local partners, implements life-saving services for the migrant population in transit through Darien and the host communities, thanks to funding provided by the European Union Humanitarian Agency and the Government of the United States of America.
"Here they find health services to heal wounds, psychological and medical services for the attention of violence, and spaces for emotional venting," Tejada explained. "There are also activities such as letter writing, spaces for self-care, and resilience workshops," she added.
The "Self-care space" is a UNICEF innovation in Panama to provide care for women and adolescent girls, many of whom travel alone and expose themselves to greater risks such as trafficking, sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as other forms of gender-based violence.
A gender approach was the guiding principle in the conception and creation of the "Self-care space" program, which is why this space is intended, above all, for adolescent girls and women: in "La Tiendita" (One stop shop) they can find grooming supplies, personal hygiene products - deodorant, sanitary napkins, shampoo, toilet paper and toothpaste, among others - but also disposable diapers, underwear for girls and boys, and second-hand clothing for the whole family. "Beauty is a launching pad to restore their dignity," Tejada explained, and having a place where they can feel revitalized inside and out "gives them the strength to continue on their way.”
As Claudia Murrel, a psychosocial promoter for RET International, a local UNICEF partner in Darien, explained, "This is a space where they can come to rest and where they can become individuals again, as they themselves say. We also receive men because they are part of the family and it does no good to empower women, to let them know what they have a right to, if they don't have a partner who supports them. So, what we try to do is to promote a new masculinity”.
The space inside the tent soon becomes cramped. As time goes by and more people arrive from a settlement called Bajo Chiquito, four hours away by canoe, a large number of people come up from the banks of the Chucunaque River that is used as a port and, after the authorities have made the necessary checks, look for a place to make a phone call, where to spend the night, how to continue their journey north to the mainland. Many of them come to the UNICEF tent asking for information. They are mainly looking for clean clothes because, after several days in the jungle, they only have what they are wearing: everything they brought with them they left on the way, to make the journey less difficult, or forced by the criminals.
The visit, however, is used as an opportunity to invite them to participate in conversations and workshops. One of the activities carried out, for example, is the reading of letters left by those who have already made the journey and the writing of letters for those still to come: letters written by women, adolescents and men who have passed through Lajas Blancas and who dared to tell their experience, to share their pain, to write their dreams. The messages are rather brief: a single side of text written on coloured paper… Coloured papers that bear witness to the tragedy and hope of migrants.
Murrel and her colleagues often visit the camp area - where migrants spend the night - to invite overnight guests to the "Self-care space”, especially women who are caring for children. The purpose is to invite them to spend a few hours for themselves, but also for children to participate in the "Child Friendly Space", which is another safe place created by UNICEF together with RET, to provide psychosocial support, and recreational and child development activities to migrant children, as well as children from the nearby indigenous community.
The UNICEF and RET team keeps a record of the work done daily, which is uploaded to a dashboard specially designed, detailing the number of people reached, the activities carried out, and other data. Some of the people assisted are also asked to fill out a survey -through a digital system for managing information that combines data collection and visualization, without the need for Internet-, or to write suggestions and drop them in a mailbox, to assess the ongoing quality of the services and identify what further information might be useful.
Yuri, who got shampoo and bath soap at "La Tiendita" in the morning, comes back to the tent a few hours later as a different person: she has washed her hair and is wearing her afro curls, clean clothes, and light blue eye shadow. She feels like herself again and sits down to tell her story. The journey ahead is long, but at least in the "Self-care space" she was able to "drain, let go and move on".
The most wonderful thing is that in this space, built in an emergency context where people of different nationalities converge, exposed to the harshness of a walk that they never foresaw would be so difficult - and for some is deadly - Yuri found something she had not found in weeks: "Here I have felt good. It's nice to be in a space where you talk, and they listen to you. To listen, to have a conversation. That's it.”