Goodbye at the Border

01/01/2024
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    Niko, a pet squirrel, stands on Yeison’s shoulder in their tent at a migrant camp on September 20, 2023, in Matamoros, Mexico. (AP/Valerie Gonzalez)
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    Niko and Yeison in their tent (AP/Valerie Gonzalez)
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    Yeison feeds Niko. (AP/Valerie Gonzalez)
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    Yeison made it to the U.S. border, but he must say goodbye to Niko. (AP/Valerie Gonzalez)
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    Migrants cross the Darién Gap from Colombia to Panama in hopes of reaching the United States in May 2023. (AP/Ivan Valencia)
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    Migrants, mostly Venezuelans, traverse the Darién Gap in 2022. (AP/Fernando Vergara)
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Yeison and Niko traveled for weeks before finally reaching the United States border. There, it was time to say goodbye.

Yeison is a human. Niko is a squirrel.

News reporters wrote about the unusual pair in September. Yeison didn’t tell those reporters his last name to protect his family back in Venezuela. Millions of Venezuelans flee oppression and poverty, many taking the 3,000-mile journey to the States with only what they can carry.

What would you bring? Yeison chose Niko, a squirrel with a black stripe and flecks of white hair. Yeison found a newborn squirrel after nearly stepping on it one day in Venezuela. Yeison took it home, named it Niko, and let it nibble tomatoes and mangoes. The rodent made the long trip nestled in a red knit cap stuffed inside a backpack.

Other migrants wish to cross the U.S. border with their pets too—usually cats and dogs, not squirrels. But animals aren’t normally allowed across. “It would practically be like starting with nothing, without Niko,” Yeison says.

Why have 7.3 million people become so desperate to leave Venezuela, a lovely nation where waves crash on Caribbean beaches, snow caps mountains, water tumbles down the world’s tallest waterfall, and wealth-bringing oil waits underground for drilling?

Life in Venezuela has been difficult for a long time. Government officials selfishly mismanaged wealth. People began to starve as food prices rose and businesses failed. The Bible says that “when the wicked rule, the people groan.” (Proverbs 29:2) Venezuelans are tired of groaning. So they leave the beautiful country they call home.

Most refugees settled in neighboring Latin American countries. But during the last three years, many came to the United States. Such a large number came, in fact, that Venezuelans have become the fastest growing group of Hispanic people now in the country.

Like thousands of migrants, Yeison made the trip through the perilous jungle known as the Darién Gap, hiding Niko in a backpack when they boarded buses and had inspections at checkpoints. Once they reached an encampment in Mexico, the duo settled into a routine while they waited. Yeison cut hair by his tent to earn money. He often fell asleep sharing the same pillow with Niko at night.

“I hope he gets to be happy,” Yeison says. “And that he never forgets my face.”

Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. — Deuteronomy 10:19

Why? A new wave of migrants from Venezuela arrives at the U.S. border. Many are individuals with unique and sometimes painful stories.

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