KEENE, NH – When Kenia Mendez, 23, a native of Honduras now living in Gilsum, near Keene, appeared before an immigration judge in Boston on June 24, the hearing happened on Zoom.
The judge had already reviewed a 183-page file supporting Kenia’s application for asylum.
“I don’t see anything bad here,” she recalls the judge saying. “I see everything good.”
A representative from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the judge agreed.
Asylum was granted.
In less than 20 minutes, Kenia got via Zoom what she’d struggled and suffered for since leaving Honduras and since she crossed the Mexico border at Juarez into El Paso TX in October of 2019. Asylum status gives her the right to a permanent Social Security number, a green card, to many social services and, eventually, the right to apply for American citizenship.
It’s a dream come true for Kenia who works 10-hour days four days a week at the WS Badger Co. in Gilsum, and aspires to build a home and run her own business, perhaps a restaurant.
Twenty years old at the time she left Honduras, Kenia traveled with her son, then 2, her daughter, 5, and three sisters, 14, 12 and 10.
Stress and hardship marked their journey.
Eight months after leaving Honduras, they arrived in Mexico, near the U.S.-Mexico border, and rented a room. It was so unsafe the children weren’t allowed to go out, Kenia says. They were waiting for six months for their number to be called to enter the United States.
On the day their number was called, Kenia, pregnant and due to deliver soon, and her children were sent to a detention facility until they could be transferred to a shelter. Her sisters, lacking parents or a legal guardian, were placed with Child Protective Services.
“I was crying inside,” Kenia remembers. She said she was scared and didn’t know what would happen.
Not only had she been separated from her sisters, but in detention everything Kenia had brought with them – including medicine, clothing, shoes, papers. keepsake crosses — was taken away, she says, and each was issued a shirt, a pair of socks, a pair of pants and sandals.
(No one told her she could get her things back if she asked for them, Kenia says, but, she thought to ask and was allowed to retrieve her bags from the warehouse when she left.)
During nine days in detention she and her children –and more than a dozen other people –- slept on thin mattresses on the floor, she explains, holding her thumb and forefinger about two inches apart.
“The air-conditioning was really bad,” she says, and with only one blanket, she and her children were cold.
Bathroom privileges were scheduled: three times a day, at set times. Showers were scheduled twice a week.
Kenia says she was miserable. And she didn’t know what had happened to her sisters.
A coincidence would change everything.
Soon after being released from detention to the Annunciation House, one of a network of shelters in El Paso, Kenia’s third child was born, a healthy baby boy. He was just three days old when Katie Schwerin and her husband Bill Whyte, arrived at Annunciation House for a week-long visit to see for themselves what happened there.
“We were appalled by the pictures of children at the border,” says Katie, whose early career included teaching in elementary schools.
Katie is involved with the Keene-based asylum support group Project Home. Founded in 2019, it provides care for asylum-seekers in New Hampshire with host homes while they await work permits and asylum hearings. It provides volunteer housing and a support team, including volunteer drivers, child caregivers, translators, pro bono attorneys and doctors.
At Annunciation House, Bill and Katie met Kenia and her children.
Katie, who’d had experience assisting a midwife, recognized a new mother having trouble nursing a new baby.
“She needed help,” Katie says. By the end of the week, “We said we wanted to offer her and her children a home.”
That didn’t happen instantly. A seven-month-long process followed before Annunciation House felt they could trust the new organization, Project Home, and agreed to send Kenia to the couple.
That was more than two years ago, years during which Kenia has lived with Bill and Katie, learned English, learned to drive, learned to eat vegetables, worked with an attorney for many months on her asylum application, put her children into daycare, pre-school and school, gotten a work permit and a job at Machina Kitchen in Keene and recently landed a position as a facility assistant at the WS Badger Co.
“I just mentioned the opening,” Katie says. “Kenia applied on her own to Human Resources and got the position on her own merit.”
Kenia rotates through different departments, doing cooking, cleaning and other tasks. Cheerful and outgoing, she’s become a staff favorite, showered by the Badger team with congratulations when news of her asylum status was printed in the company newsletter.
With three children to care for and a full-time job, Kenia’s leisure time is limited. She loves to shop — “especially at the international market, which sells chips from my country.”
She’s in touch with her sisters, thanks to pro bono attorneys who helped her track them down (they were adopted by a family in California) and she likes to meet her brother, who came into Project Home later and lives in Massachusetts, for dinner at Tipico Hondureno restaurants in Nashua or in Keene. She drives back and forth by herself.
Her happiness is dimmed only by thoughts of many back home who continue to struggle for safety, food and jobs. Any money the United States provided to her country didn’t reach the people, she says.
“Where did it go? The president put it in his pocket?”
She believes fewer Hondurans would emigrate if the country were safer and there were jobs.
“Why would anyone want to leave their home?” she asks. “Who doesn’t love their country? People leave for a better life, to have a job.”.
Other stories in this series
- Behind the success of a Sudanese couple: ‘Sometimes you have to prove yourself’
- A Congolese banker embraces care-giving in New Hampshire
- New in New Hampshire: For Indonesian minister, church is the easy part