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Rabiu Musah spent a long time getting to Tijuana.
“I took a flight from Ghana to Brazil. From Brazil I took a bus to Peru, then Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, then Mexico,” said the 23-year-old Ghanaian native. “So I passed through 10 countries to make it up here.” He traveled by bus and on foot for more than two months.
Musah wanted to apply for refugee status in the United States, fleeing an increasingly unstable situation in his home country. Like thousands of others, he didn’t know of a better way to do it than to make his way to the U.S.-Mexico border and ask for help.
“I had some problems with my colleagues, when they tried an assault on me,” said Musah, who worked as a graphic designer in his home country. “So staying there might be a problem for me, so with the little money I had, I decided to leave.” He decided to try to get to New York, where some of his family lives.
Musah didn’t have anywhere to go while his application was processed by overwhelmed and backlogged United States border authorities.
“I slept at the park for five days,” he said, resting while he waited in line. Residents of Tijuana give him and hundreds of others waiting for a decision food and water. Now, he’s staying at the Desayunador Salesiano Padre Chava facility, one of the many migrant shelters in and around Tijuana that generally caters to deported people and those waiting to find out whether they can cross into the United States. The shelters are seeing an unprecedented surge in people stranded from all over the world as they await an answer from the U.S.
In these shelters, which are supported by donations and help from the Mexican government, refugees and migrants from Ghana are sharing tables with Haitians, Hondurans and others. Many of the migrants are Mexicans themselves – a large number of people from the violence-plagued states of Guerrero and Michoacan are among those trying to get to the U.S.
The story of Ghana’s diaspora is very much like the story others asking for humanitarian relief from other countries tell. Ghana has experienced political, economic and social instability for decades, resulting in widespread violence and lack of opportunity, particularly for trained professionals. Traditionally, Ghanaian refugees have tried to travel to North Africa or Europe, but as the refugee crises in both regions have worsened, more are traveling longer distances out of desperation and necessity.
The United Kingdom’s surprise decision last week to leave the European Union could mean even more people fleeing violence in their home countries choose to seek shelter in North America. Already there are people from eastern Europe showing up alongside those from Haiti, Mexico’s interior, Central America and across the African continent — refugees and migrants who might otherwise travel to Europe, but are either denied or choose instead come to the U.S.-Mexico border, where they can take their chances on the immigration systems in the U.S. but fall back on staying in Mexico.
More than a thousand migrants have arrived at the San Ysidro crossing in the past few weeks. Most of the people coming to cross from outside Mexico appear to be from Haiti. Some people here want to get to their families in the United States, said Father Jesús Árambarri, director of Desayunador Salesiano. Others are just in Tijuana because it was easier to get here rather than one of the other ports of entry. He said his facility, like other shelters in the region, is overwhelmed and in need of donations.
“Men’s clothes, men’s shoes, razors, other toiletries, there are hundreds of people coming through here every day, every day who could use those things,” Árambarri said. “Thanks to God, we’re getting through this difficulty.”
People staying in Tijuana say they’re not opposed to asking for humanitarian visas from Mexico’s government, should they be denied the opportunity to travel to the United States; people from Ghana say they are not certain whether they will be able to learn Spanish sufficiently to get a job. It is a concern not shared by Rabiu Musah, who said he has already picked some up.
“If I’m denied, maybe I will choose living here,” said Musah. “If I go back, it could be something like … it might end up with my life in danger. So going back to my country — maybe in a future time, but for now, no.”