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An Interview With Our 2012 Voices of Courage Honoree Olga Cantarero

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After working as a Red Cross volunteer, Olga Cantarero fled her native Nicaragua. She endured a harrowing journey through Mexico and across the border to Texas, fearing for her life at the hands of her smugglers. She now works at the International Emergency Shelter in Los Fresnos, Texas, with juvenile immigrants who faced persecution in their home countries or suffered similar trauma during their own difficult journeys to the United States.

How did you get involved with the Red Cross and why did it become dangerous?
My grandmother and mother raised me to believe in the importance of helping people. So when I was 14, I began working with a priest from Germany to help other children my age in the community; I distributed aid packages and learned how to give immunization shots.

Due to the political situation at the time, my family decided it was too dangerous for us to stay in the country. My brother flew to El Salvador and then fled to the U.S., and I made plans to leave with my uncle.  I was 19 years old.

Can you describe your journey from Nicaragua to the U.S.?
The entire trip took a few months; it was the longest journey of my life. I saw terrible things and constantly feared for my life.

First, we went through Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala by bus, where I had to part ways with my uncle. The trip from Guatemala to Mexico was very scary. I traveled with 16 people, and only two other females: a pregnant woman, and an old lady that we called Grandma. We had to walk for hours throughout the night without food and water. I passed so many dead bodies of women and children. We were terrified, but we had no choice but to continue.

When we arrived at the Mexican border, we were passed to another smuggler who locked us in a shed behind someone’s house. We could only use the restrooms once a day. I met a Honduran girl who told me that she was being forced to have sex with one of the smuggler’s sons as ransom, to pay for her family’s trip across the border.

To get into the U.S., I swam across the river in south Texas, in the middle of the night in my underwear, carrying a plastic bag filled with dry clothes.

What happened when you arrived in the U.S.?
The smugglers set me up with a job as a house maid in Texas. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house, I worked seven days a week, and I was paid $25 a week, but every Saturday the smuggler came to collect his debt of $15. Then, when my uncle arrived in the U.S., the smuggler said that I had to pay for my uncle as well, so I had no choice but to stay longer.

How did you get out of that situation and back on your feet?
When I paid off all the debts to the smuggler, I began to get other jobs cleaning houses and babysitting. I met a person who was the director of the Mennonite Church who was also in charge of some volunteers that were serving at the Refugees of Peace Program. Through this program I received ESL classes. They also helped other people from Central America with donated clothes and food. Later on I also became a volunteer with this program which gave me more experience helping other Central Americans.

Tell us about your job at the International Emergency Shelter.
In 1995, I offered to volunteer as a receptionist at two local legal agencies which helped people in detention centers fill out applications for political asylum. Then I got involved with the juvenile shelter, which is where I still work today. The children we see are between the ages of 13 and 17, and many are from Central America. We help them reunite with their families who reside in the U.S. If there is no reunification they are placed in foster care after their legal case is finalized.

What are some of the common risks these young girls face during their journey and when they arrive in the U.S?
Young girls are often raped during their journey and some become pregnant and are abandoned. Sometimes the smuggler/trafficker promises the girls a job as a waitress in a restaurant, and then sells them into prostitution.

What do they dream of for their futures?
They dream of having the freedom that in their home country they didn’t have because of the violence. They also dream of continuing their education to have a career, in order to have a stable income. It’s sad because these kids were robbed of their childhoods. They worry about adult problems, such as their families’ safety and whether they can get a job and reunite with them. Sometimes they feel guilty that they have a bed and three meals a day while their families struggle to put food on the table back home.

What is your advice for them?
We try to keep them focused on the future. I tell them that I’m from Central America like them, and that I know so many young women who were once in their shoes and who now lead successful, happy lives. We tell them that they are victims, and that they can’t blame themselves.

So many of the women and girls I speak to in the detention center have lost all hope. They don’t think that anybody is listening to them. I want to be the voice for them I want them to know that people care about them, that we are listening and that we can help them.

We will be honoring Olga at this year's Voices of Courage Awards Luncheon in New York City on May 4th. Our annual luncheon helps us raise funds to improve the lives of refugee women and children around the world.