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Healing Through Helping

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A tireless Texan fights for Nicaraguan refugees while confronting her own ghosts

“My memories of the war had been buried for so many years. Then, in 2018, everything came back,” says Nicaraguan-American Muriel Saenz. Saenz came to the United States in the early 1980s as a teenager during Nicaragua’s civil war. Surprisingly, the country and conflict she fled decades ago would find her in Texas in 2018.

In April 2018, thousands of Nicaraguans protested against the ruling Sandinista government for their negligence that caused a fire in a wildlife reserve and government cuts to retirement pensions. The government and their allies responded with deadly force which left thousands dead and wounded. The government’s violence further inflamed protests which led to more violence. Many Nicaraguans who protested fled to Costa Rica, the United States or Europe.

Helping as a Way of Healing

Saenz became an American citizen years ago, speaks fluent English, and is married to a U.S.-born man. Texas is her home and she has no desire to live in Nicaragua again. The Nicaraguan conflict of 2018, however, clarified for Saenz her past and future purpose.

She realized that the anxiety she lived with for years was in fact PTSD from her war-time experiences as a child in Nicaragua. “As children we were exposed to terrible things but we did not realize it was terrible at the time. In fact, we thought it was a wonderful childhood. When I always pretended that the gunshots from the battles we heard in the distance were actually fireworks. I did not want to think that people were actually killing each other. We witnessed the bombings in Managua as kids. There were snipers in the streets and we always had to hide from them,” says Saenz. “I had always been anxious as an adult. What I did not know is I had PTSD from my childhood and that this caused my anxiety.” To fully heal, she needed to recognize the source of her PTSD and then treat it. To treat her PTSD, she helps Nicaraguans fleeing from the same situation she and her family did in the early 1980s.

Texas is the entry point for many Nicaraguans dissidents who apply for political asylum in the United States. Saenz connected with Nicaraguan-Americans throughout the state and they organized to assist new arrivals. They help Nicaraguan asylum seekers connect with families they may have in the United States, find legal assistance, housing, counseling, employment and anything the Nicaraguan refugees may need.

Saenz, a trained nurse and occupational therapist, had been working full-time with her husband in their family’s radiator business. Given the large demand for assistance from refugees, however, she stopped working in the family business and devoted herself full-time to assisting recent arrivals from Nicaragua.

Fighting COVID-19 in Nicaragua From Abroad

The political situation has not improved in Nicaragua. Freedom of expression, assembly and elections are all restricted. Those against the Sandinistas are still targeted by the government and denied medical services in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. To fill the gap, Saenz works with a group of exiled doctors who give free video consults to people in Nicaragua denied medical care. Many of these doctors fled Nicaragua in 2018 because the government targeted them for treating wounded protesters. Their degrees and expertise were rarely recognized outside Nicaragua. Many now work in low-income, precarious jobs as exiles. The organization, formed in March 2020 as the Health Commission of the larger organization Nicaragüenses en el Mundo (Nicaraguans in the World), fundraises, has multiple departments, and follows a set of rules.

Through the medical consults, the exiled doctors prescribe medicine for the COVID-19 patients. Saenz has a network of volunteer couriers in Nicaragua who deliver the medicine to patients. The medicine is bought with funds raised by Nicaragüenses en el Mundo through GoFundMe and other individual donations. There is a great demand for the services and Saenz wishes the organization could reach more people. However, Saenz says that “if everyone who needed us found us we would be overwhelmed beyond capacity. Our patients find us through word of mouth.”

Although the Health Commission of Nicaragüenses en el Mundo was created to help those denied medical care in Nicaragua mainly because of their political affiliations, the organization is staunchly apolitical. “One of our rules is that we do not talk about politics in our organization. I do not care if you are a Sandinista. If you ask us for medical help, we are going to help you,” emphasizes Saenz. (Saenz noted that other departments of Nicaragüenses en el Mundo do have political aims but these do not infiltrate the Health Commission.)

Terrifyingly, in August 2020 the Sandinista government started to arrest some of the couriers who help Saenz deliver the medicine on fabricated charges of possessing weapons. “I feel sick that these kind-hearted volunteers are being thrown in jail just for helping people,” Saenz recounts with emotion.

A poster for Nicaragüenses en el Mundo

Challenges for Nicaraguan Asylum Seekers in the United States

According to the American Immigration Council, to win asylum an individual must prove there exists a “‘reasonable possibility’ that he or she will be tortured in the country of removal or persecuted on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” As of 2020, however, the Trump administration is turning away many asylum seekers on the U.S. border without allowing a hearing. Many Nicaraguans who were tortured by the Sandinista government come prepared with folders of paperwork to make their asylum case to the U.S. government. U.S. border guards, however, often do not open the folders and simply put the asylum seekers on planes back to Nicaragua.

Saenz has worked with many Nicaraguans who were not allowed to apply for asylum or who lost their cases. “These cases where people are sent back to Nicaragua [to face possible death or torture] just break my heart,” she says.

Not willing to give up, Saenz is pressing her case to the U.S. Congress. In 2019, with the help of U.S. Representative Mario Díaz-Balart of Florida, Saenz and other Nicaraguan-Americans attempted to pass a law to give Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Nicaraguans. Díaz-Balart’s bill in the House of Representatives, however, did not gain the necessary support to move forward. TPS would give Nicaraguan refugees freedom from deportation in the United States for the duration of the conflict in Nicaragua.

Despite the Trump administration’s harsh asylum policies and the lack of broader support in Congress for TPS, Saenz remains undeterred. “It is what it is. We still need to do everything we can to help these people. There is an overwhelming demand for what we and other volunteers do. However, this overwhelming demand just means there is more opportunity to help others.”

Saenz is ultimately hopeful for the future of Nicaragua. “Many Nicaraguans have suffered so much but I have no doubt that they will change the course of Nicaragua soon. They have such an honest and down to earth approach to life and they do not give up,” she says. Thanks to Saenz, many of these Nicaraguans will survive the political and health crises and in the future contribute to a better Nicaragua.

Saenz and other Nicaraguan-Americans who fought for TPS for Nicaraguans alongside U.S. Representative Díaz-Balart

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