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Three images tell the journey of this Nepalese migrant, who went through 15 borders to reach the USA.

For many migrants, Puente América, was the last stage before hell. This hamlet of 30 houses is located in Chocó, the poorest province in Colombia. The village is less than 25 kilometers away from the border with Panama if you draw a line between the two points. However, there are no such things as straight roads in this thick jungle.  

Usually travelers who are seeking a better life in the northern countries of the Americas are not allowed to go by regular means of transportation from Colombia to Panamá (even though there are several, including direct flights, speed boats, and ecological paths). 

Hence, they are forced to take dangerous paths through the jungle, like the one that goes by Puente América. From this place, people have to make a trip of several days, sometimes on speed boats sorting out mangroves, or sometimes walking on slimy trails, to reach Juradó, a bigger town on Colombia´s Pacific Coast, and then again, on a boat to navigate by river into Panamá to arrive at Yavisa, a town where the paved highway that connects to Panamá City starts.

Puente America’s school, an empty ruin made of large wooden planks, has become a makeshift shelter, where many migrants spend a night in their daunting trip. In 2015, a Colombian reporter José Guarnizo, who has also participated in this journalistic alliance, traveled to Puente America, following the migrant path. He found signatures and greetings left by them on the flimsy walls, like a Tower of Babel. There were messages written in Hindi, English, Nepalese, French, Bengali and Arabic, some of them with a date or a year next to a name. 

 “I was here Ahmed Salah, Ethiopian”. “Alhaji Abass from Mamobi”. “Bilal Warrakh, Pakistan”. “Zakari Ganiou le Beninois”. “I love Bangladesh”. “May almighty Allah guide us”. “We are on the way to USA”.

Faiz Almed Jewel, of Dhaka, Bangladesh, who explained he was travelling with two other fellow countrymen, left, pasted on the wall, a hand-written message in the basic English he could communicate: 

“Our destination is U.S.A. When I took this decision that time, I didn’t know it’s a riskable way. This is the especially request to my brother: don’t believe to broker. They are cheaters, they are liars. They don’t want to explain to us what real history about this way (…) you should remember my advice every time. Just remember Allah (…) Try to pray Holly Quran. This especially request to warn my brother (…) really it’s very danger just to ride the speed boats across the jungle. Finally just pray for us for safe journey. We also pray for you. Allah save us. Don’t waste your money…”

The journalistic transnational alliance of Occrp, the Center for Latin American Investigative Journalism (CLIP) and other 16 media outlets, which produced the joint investigation Migrants of Another World*, set out to find what had happened to these migrants who had passed such treacherous path. For months we tried unsuccessfully to look for them.

In 2019, Occrp contacted Nepalese freelance journalist, Deepak Adhikari, to help us on the search. He was able to find a Nepalese migrant who wrote his name in the Puerto America’s school, and next to it others had written the date 2015.  

We are not revealing the migrant’s real name, as he preferred not to be interviewed, because he fears it can hamper his immigration process in the United States. But we interviewed his family, some friends and people who know well the life of Nepalese town where he lived.

Here is his story.

1. 2014: Kushma, Parbat, Gandaki province, Nepal

A view of Kushma, the headquarters of Parbat district in mid-western Nepal. Credit: Deepak Adhikari

In the spring of 2011, when Ramesh Pradhan, then 28, married a young woman, he hoped that the bond would last for a lifetime. He had returned home in Kushma, a small town nestled in the rolling hills in Nepal’s Gandaki province, after five years as a migrant worker in South Korea. Five of his friends drove over 150 kilometers on their motorbikes to Narayangadh to attend the wedding ceremony. 

But in less than a year, their marriage began to unravel. “The two parted ways in a bitter and abrupt manner,” recalled Binod Pokharel, a friend. Before getting married, Pradhan had built a cement and concrete house near the town’s main junction. He built the house on a plot he received from his father, who married another woman and is living with her in Kathmandu. It cost him 1.2 million rupees (US$ 15,800). 

As he settled down, dozens of young people made their way out of this town blessed with twin rivers called Modi and Kaligandaki. 

Official figures aren’t available for migrants who left for the US, but it spiked between 2012 and 2015, according to a local social worker, who tracks the migration trend. He asked not to be identified as his work could be hindered. Data from the United States Border Patrol shows that between 2014 and 2019, 5.200 Nepalese were apprehended in the country, nearly all of them in the south frontier. In one neighborhood of Kushma, 27 men from about eight families have made the trip to the US. 

Around 500 migrants have migrated to the US from Kushma, the social worker said. “Around 8-10 traffickers operate here. Each has trafficked migrants from a few dozens to about 200,” he said. While the lynchpins of the trafficking networks live in Kathmandu and New Delhi, local traffickers, part of the international networks, exploit their connections with and trust of the would-be migrants. 

“First, it’s a close-knit society and second the traffickers may have sent one of their family members to the US,” the social worker said. “So everything remains a secret despite it being so widespread.”

Only one person, Raju Paudel, who ran Manakamana Computer and Multiservice Institute in Kushma, has so far been convicted of crime related to trafficking. On June 17, 2019, the Parbat District Court jailed the 39-year-old for a year and fined him 10,000 Nepali rupees ($88).

Kushma’s population is around 12,000, but it hosts a large number of financial institutions including 9 private commercial banks, three state-owned banks, 250 cooperatives, five development banks and three investment companies. There are also informal credit and savings systems such as Dhukuti. The unregulated or loosely regulated financial system is used both by traffickers and the migrants’ families. Migrants turn to them for credit and travel.

To raise the money for his perilous journey, Pradhan turned to the local moneylenders, who charged him an 18 percent interest. The entire trip cost him 5 million Nepali rupees, but he convinced his family that it was worth it because of the possibilities that lay ahead in the United States, according to his cousin Surya Shrestha. “He still owes around 1.2 million rupees to the money lenders,” he said.

Parbat isn’t the only district with large number of migrants taking the risky route locally called Tallo Bato (literally down the road, but more accurately the route from south to north). A dozen districts in Nepal’s mid-western region have emerged as centers for human smuggling to the US. 

Police officials in the capital Kathmandu said in January that there were 5,000 Nepalese on their way to that country, via Latin America. “We have come up with this figure based on our investigations including the testimony of migrants who have been deported from the US, the traffickers we have arrested, among others, ” said Ishwar Babu Karki, head of the Anti-Trafficking Unit of Nepal Police.  His colleague, Narahari Regmi, a deputy superintendent of police, called trafficking one of the gravest crimes facing Nepal. “Because of trafficking, international airlines sometimes refuse to board a Nepalese in their planes. We have paid a heavy price due to human smuggling,” he said.

Sitting on the stairs of the house Pradhan built before the trip to the US, Mithu Pradhan, his mother, said her son was inspired by friends who left before him. “One by one, his friends left for America. They returned with money. I think he wanted to follow in their footsteps,” the 69-year-old woman said. 

“He would tell me he had big dreams and wanted to go to big countries,” she said “No matter what, I want to reach America,” she recalled him telling her. “It was a matter of life and death, but I couldn’t stop him (from going to the US).”

The failing marriage, lack of employment and his desire to earn quickly seemed to have driven the young man to the US, said his friends and family members. “He had an expensive lifestyle. He used to party and go on tours,” his friend Pokharel, who owns a jewelry shop in Kushma, said. Shrestha, his cousin, agreed. “His expenses were very high, but he didn’t have any source of income. So he decided to go to the US,” he said. Pradhan left Nepal in October 2014.

2. 2015: Puente América, Chocó, Colombia

In March 2015, five months after he began the journey, Pradhan had stayed at Puente América, where this alliance found his name written on a wooden wall of makeshift shelter for migrants.  

To reach this point, Pradhan had already paid more than 5 million rupees (USD 44,000) to the traffickers. He had crossed borders of India, Thailand, Russia, Spain, and Brazil and then travelled overland to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. 

By the time, the route had already become a well-trodden path for desperate migrants fleeing unemployment, poverty and political instability in Nepal. Sunil K.C., a 22-year-old from Kushma, who travelled through the Darien Gap and was deported from the US a year ago, said he had watched a documentary on the route produced by CBS News on YouTube.

Nabin Gurung, a neighbor and friend of Pradhan, took the same way in 2018. Crossing the rainforest between Colombia and Panamá was one of the hardest points of his journey. It took him and his group eight days to cross on foot. Along the way, he saw a corpse and an Indian man with a broken leg, stranded in the jungle. They were robbed by armed men. 

Gurung vividly recalled the grueling trek through the 50-mile route. “The jungle was so wet that you couldn’t walk without wearing rubber boots. It was so dense that I couldn’t see sky for a whole week,” he said. “If you fell ill and didn’t have any medicines, your fellow travelers left you to die alone,” he recalled. “We feared death, arrest and robbery. We subsisted on biscuits, chocolates and water.” He had carried a packet of roasted barley powder called Satu in Nepal, which he mixed with water and drank to fight hunger.

Migrants cross everyday clandestine trails near Peñas Blancas (Costa Rica) towards Nicaragua. Credit: César Arroyo / La Voz de Guanacaste

Pradhan, as Gurung did after him, had arrived at Panama in 2015. (In 2019, 243 Nepalese had registered at the border point until November, according to official statistics) Then, as his friends told us, he continued to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. He was robbed in Central America. He was arrested in Mexico. Then, he paid an additional 500,000 rupees to traffickers to cross into the US, where he arrived six months after he began his journey in Nepal.

3. 2020: New Jersey, United States

During the first years after he made it to the US, Pradhan worked at department stores in Baltimore, where he fell victim to robbery a couple times, according to his mother. About a year ago, he moved to New Jersey. 

A search through his social media posts on Facebook and Instagram provided glimpses of his life in the US. A cover photo on Facebook showed him posing in New York with skyscraper as the backdrop. A search through his Instagram account revealed more: doing barbeque and hanging out with friends in the city. A hint of his life came from a comment on Instagram on a photo posted on May 2, 2018: “You look splendid! Now you may get married!” In one photo, he poses under cherry blossom. In another, he is hanging out his friends. Posing for photos wearing branded clothes and strolling along the beaches, Pradhan seems to be living his American dream. 

However, some people in Kushma said such photos not only presented largely false impressions about life in the US, but also fueled further migration of the youths back home. “You can monitor their life on Facebook. They post photos of their trip to Nepal and their outings in the US,” the social worker who has studied the trend, said. 

Nevertheless, he argued, migration has had a positive impact on the town. “Half of the young people who migrated have already received green cards. Many of them have taken their family to the US,” he said. “If a family member manages to cross the border into the US, it is a success story. The family builds a cement and concrete house from the money (sent by the migrant),” he said. “They send their children to private English schools. They buy new cars and go on vacations.”

Others such as Binod Pokharel, the jewelry shop owner who tried to migrate to the US, but was dissuaded by his father, see it in different way. “It takes you 3-4 years to pay back the debts incurred after the trip. Actually, it’s the traffickers and local money lenders who have profited from this business, not the migrants,” he said.

Indeed, Pradhan’s family members said he still owed part of the money he used to get to the US.

Pradhan had received Temporary Protected Status, which was granted following the 2015 earthquake that killed over 9000 people Nepal. After fighting his case in immigration courts for several years, he recently received a Green Card, according to his friend Nabin Gurung. “He told me he is planning to visit Nepal during Dashain (the annual festival for Hindus in Nepal, which falls in September/October),” Gurung said.

Back at Pradhan’s home in Kushma, his mother longs for the day the agonizing wait for her son is over. “He went through a lot of hardship. He’s everything I have in life. He’s my only child,” she said. “I would have liked him to stay with me in my old days.” 

Probably the Coronavirus will not allow them to reunite in many months.  

***

*This story is a part of Migrants from Another World, a nine-month-long cross-border joint investigation by  the Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística (CLIP), Occrp, Animal Político (México) and regional Mexican media Chiapas Paralelo y Voz Alterna for the website En el camino, of the Red Periodistas de a Pie; Univisión digital (US), Revista Factum (El Salvador); La Voz de Guanacaste (Costa Rica); Profissão Réporter de TV Globo (Brasil); La Prensa (Panamá); Revista Semana (Colombia); El Universo (Ecuador); Efecto Cocuyo (Venezuela); y Cosecha Roja (Argentina) in Latin América. The Confluence (India), Record Nepal (Nepal), The Museba Project (Camerún) and Bellingcat (Reino Unido) also collaborated with the investigation. This project was possible thanks to the generosity of Fundación Avina and Seattle International Foundation.

By Deepak Adhikari, with the reporting of Nathan Jaccard and José Guarnizo*