Hugo had been pistol-whipped and given a directive: Leave Colombia or you and your family will die. 

He didn’t know the man who pistol-whipped him, but he knew the man was a member of a faction of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as FARC. It’s a far-left guerrilla group that has existed in Colombia since the 1960s. 

The group visited Hugo in September of last year. The reason, he was told, could be traced back to a Facebook post.

Hugo, who is gay, had recently broken up with his boyfriend. The man posted intimate pictures of them together. The FARC faction, which has been accused of persecuting members of the LGBTQ+ community, had seen the pictures.  

“They threw us to the ground and started holding us at gunpoint with assault weapons. They humiliated us, kicked us, and told me that they were going to kill me for ‘being a f*****,’” Hugo said. “They gave us 24 hours to leave Colombia. We never thought we would ever come here. We knew the U.S. from TV. It never crossed our minds.”

Hugo is now an asylum-seeker living in Syracuse. His story is one of many similar stories of migrants and asylum-seekers New York City officials tried to help move to Onondaga County in recent months. 

In May, County Executive Ryan McMahon issued an executive order effectively banning asylum-seekers from being brought to the county by New York City officials. McMahon’s executive order required other municipalities and organizations who want to move asylum-seekers into the area negotiate with McMahon. 

A judge issued a temporary stay, allowing the executive order to stay in effect until the case is heard.

Hugo came to Syracuse in the early months of 2023, before the issue hit local headlines.  He has retained a lawyer and is a documented asylum-seeker planning to make his case for asylum in court in late August.  

Hugo wanted people to know that the discussion around the region’s migrant crisis lacked critical context: Central New Yorkers already live around migrants and asylum-seekers from Central America, South America and Africa. Syracuse has welcomed Hugo, he said. He just wants freedom from oppression he and his family faced in Colombia.

When Hugo and his three family members left, they had their life savings, a hot plate, some clothes – and uncertainty about what lay ahead. 

“We want people from this country to know what we have lived through,” Hugo said. “We lived through violence and precarity, and we want people to know what goes on in our countries.”

Hugo told his story this May surrounded by a few family members in a backyard in Syracuse. 

Before the FARC dissidents came to Hugo’s door, he ran a restaurant with his mother, sisters and other family members. After, he and three other family members went underground. His mother, sisters and others fled to Ecuador. 

It would take a month after FARC came to his door for Hugo and his three other relatives to leave the country. They pulled their money from their bank accounts in Colombia, made themselves a hot plate of rice and began their trek to the United States. 

The trek from Colombia to the U.S.

A still from one of Hugo’s videos shows the type of jungle terrain near the Darien Gap, one of the most dangerous parts of the journey from Colombia to the United States.

Hugo and his relatives have videos from the jungle in the Darien Gap, a few including the bodies of people who appear to have died trying to make the same journey. Central Current reviewed several of the videos, many of which show dozens of people holding all of their remaining belongings, traversing narrow paths through unsteady terrain with steep drop-offs all around.

The Darien Gap is one of the most dangerous routes for migrants. It is located at the Panama-Colombia border and bisects the Pan-American highway. Migrants pass through a long stretch of jungle that is also home to roving gangs who know those walking through might have money to pay people for help in countries farther north. 

Hugo outlined a path of linear countries: Colombia to Panama to Costa Rica to Nicaragua to Honduras to Guatemala to Mexico. 

But the group’s route was anything but linear. In Panama, United Nations officials screened them for their biometrics and performed medical screenings, Hugo and his family members said.  

In Guatemala, they remember being harassed by police, who took their money and told them: “This is the end of the American dream.” 

It took about one month to reach Mexico. Then it took another month just to cross that country. 

Hugo said the group ran into cartels, Mexico’s immigration enforcement and federal police. Any of the three groups would get on buses looking for money from migrants. 

While in southern Mexico, Hugo and his relatives passed through Ixtepec, where they met Catholic priest Alejandro Solalinde. The priest runs Hermanos en el Camino, a shelter for migrants making the trek to the United States. 

On Nov. 18, 2022, Hugo said the group was held in a notorious Mexico City migrant detention center called Las Agujas, named for the spike-topped walls that form its enclosure. They called the shelter in Ixtepec, and Solalinde helped have them released in two days. 

“When you are in Mexico, INM (National Immigration Institute) treats you like a rat. They hunt you down. They beat people, they put them in cars, and they apprehend them for being migrants,” Hugo said. 

Ultimately, Hugo and his relatives arrived in Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego. 

The group spent days scouting the tide near a retaining wall at the border. They only realized how deep the water was once they swam out past the wall.

Border patrol agents spotted them and asked them what they were doing.

“We told them we were seeking asylum and they told us that wasn’t the way to do it,” Hugo said. “We were told we needed to ‘turn ourselves in’ at the border.

‘They want to look forward’

The group spent two days in a detention center before being released. They were each given phones to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

After their release, they used a patchwork of friends and acquaintances to survive. 

Hugo said that, years ago, he developed an online friendship with a woman who lived in Syracuse but was originally from the Dominican Republic. When he and his family members arrived at immigration in the U.S., they put down the woman’s address and phone number as their U.S. point of contact.

Once the four were granted humanitarian parole, they scrounged up money to fly to Syracuse. 

“We went days without eating and we had no money, so we had to find food in dumpsters,” Hugo said. 

Hugo was the first to fly to Syracuse. He met the woman from the Dominican Republic and stayed with her for about 20 days.

Two of his relatives, however, weren’t so lucky. 

Hugo said that once he arrived in Syracuse, he touched base with Catholic Charities and the Catholic Youth Organization. 

There, Hugo met a man from Africa who he described as being part of the LGBTQ+ community. Hugo told the man they were trying to fly his relatives from San Jose to Syracuse. 

The man and his friends gathered $900 to help fly the rest of Hugo’s family to Syracuse. 

While Hugo was using a dating site, he met a Cuban man who helped the four file paperwork for social services. They’ve been paying for rent and bus fares with the money they get through the Department of Social Services, Hugo said. 

When they entered the United States, they applied for clearance to work, which was not approved. 

Because they can’t legally work, the four have tried to calmly sit in a house a friend helped them rent and watch television. Four nights each week, they ride the bus or bikes to take English classes. 

Hugo and his relatives connected with the Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition and Dale Avers through St. Anthony’s church. Avers became interested in the issues migrants and asylum-seekers face when arriving in the United States after a trip to the border in 2019. 

She said the Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition helped pay for a month of Hugo’s and his family’s rent and would be willing to pay for more if they needed it. 

Avers said the first thing that struck her was Hugo’s and his family’s resilience, that they are “joyful in spite of all they have had to give up,” she said. 

Avers said that when she’s tried to offer sympathy or empathy, Hugo tries to focus on what is ahead of him instead of what is behind. 

“They want to look forward,” Avers said. “… It’s one way of coping isn’t it?”

But Hugo’s concerns from Colombia took the trek with him to the United States. He wonders what will become of himself and his family.  

Hugo knows what’s at stake over the next two months and what could unfold at his Aug. 21 hearing.

He struggles to sleep because he worries about deportation. And he doesn’t just worry about himself: He believes his case for asylum is the strongest and wonders how his three other family members will fare in immigration court. 

He has visited a psychiatrist and a therapist because the concern has exacerbated his depression. They’ve upped the dosage of his depression medication so he can sleep. 

The psychiatrist and therapist have tried to help, but Hugo needs a translator and said “it is hard to accurately convey how I truly feel in a different language.” 

“I spend so much time just thinking about what is going to happen to us and to our families,” he said. 

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story mischaracterized Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon’s executive order about the movement of asylum-seekers and migrants from New York City to Onondaga County. The order prevented municipalities from transporting asylum seekers and migrants to Onondaga County without first negotiating with the county.

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