Immigrant finds refuge in Chestnut Hill thanks to St. Martin's members

Posted 5/14/20

Tanya Regli (left), a member of Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, with Giuseppe Parra, a refuge from Venezuela. by Sue Ann Rybak It’s frightening to think what might have happened if Whitemarsh …

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Immigrant finds refuge in Chestnut Hill thanks to St. Martin's members

Tanya Regli (left), a member of Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, with Giuseppe Parra, a refuge from Venezuela.

by Sue Ann Rybak

It’s frightening to think what might have happened if Whitemarsh resident Thomas Lloyd, a former Chestnut Hill resident, didn’t offer to give 21-year-old Giuseppe Parra a ride after getting off the train at Chestnut Hill East Station that windy, damp cold Tuesday night on February 25. Lloyd, 80, who now lives at the Hill at Whitemarsh, assumed the young man from Venezuela was on his way to Chestnut Hill College.

Lloyd said after talking to Parra, he quickly learned that Parra had been “badly misinformed.” He thought the train was headed to Los Angeles, “the land of opportunity.” He said the young man had no idea how far away it was or where he was at that moment.

“He had almost no money and nowhere to stay,” Lloyd said. “I didn't know what to do but was very sympathetic, having been in similar circumstances in Istanbul, Turkey, when I was 20.”

He knew that the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, 8000 St. Martins Lane in Chestnut Hill, provided community dinners for those in need, so he took him there.

Barbara Ballenger, the assistant rector at Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, said Lloyd and Parra arrived at the church just as their parish youth were making pancakes for their annual Shrove Tuesday supper before the start of Lent.

“He was cold, extremely tired and really hungry,” she said. “Like most churches in the area, we don't have the proper resources for housing homeless people or translating language or addressing immigration issues. Pretty much all I had to offer him was a plate of hot pancakes and juice and bacon.  We talked through a mix of English, signs, and pictures that he drew, as I tried to figure out where he might best be served, and where he most wanted to go.

“Luckily, we had a parishioner who grew up in Venezuela and had worked many years in advocacy. And, blessedly, she was available and on her way to the church for the pancake supper.”

Ballenger was concerned that they might have to take Parra to the hospital because he was feverish and had chills.

Wyncote resident Tanya Regli said she found out Parra lived in New York and was lost. After giving him some Advil and letting him rest, she said they realized he didn’t need to go to the hospital.

“I think he really just shut down when he got to a place that was warm and got food,” she said.

However, he was adamant about not going to a shelter. Regali said she later found out after calling his pro bono lawyer that he was an immigrant who was seeking political asylum and had been “jumped” and robbed in a shelter.

Regli, who came to the United States by herself when she was 18 as a student, promised she would not send him to a shelter. She said her husband, Brian’s family, has an apartment that he manages in the Northeast.

“My parents and some good friends live in those apartments,” she said. “We found out that evening that some furniture, including a bed, had been left in an empty apartment. So, there was a place for him to stay the night. We bought him food, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and other essentials.”

Regli said they thought he could stay there for three or four days because they needed to rent the apartment out again. She said it would give them a few days to find another place for him to stay closer to New York.

“We needed to get him back to New York because they have a lot more support systems there. He was in the middle of applying for work permits. And as we were in the process, everything started to close down because of the pandemic. We said, ‘Well, he is just going to have to stay here, but leaving him alone to survive this by himself while struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would not have been a healthy experience.

She said, thankfully, they have a good friend William, who is Puerto Rican, who lives there with his grandmother. So, Parra goes to her friend’s apartment for meals, which is good, she added, because he can’t cook.

“So, they are kind of riding it out together,” Regli said.

She said Lloyd, a longtime member of the Chestnut Hill Rotary Club, told the club Parra’s story, and the club raised over $1,000 that it donated to Church of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, which started a fund to help cover expenses.

“Brian and I are covering what we can,” she said. “So many people are helping that are immigrants themselves. They understand what it’s like to be in a foreign country and not be able to go home. I was a full scholarship kid at Georgetown, but both my parents were still in Venezuela,” she said. “I had no real communication with my parents. He is someone who really needs a little bit of community right now until he gets established.”

It’s important to understand that Parra did not choose to leave Venezuela. He was forced to leave by the authoritarian government because he dreamed of a better life in his country.

In May 2017, Parra, who was only 17 at the time, was studying Journalism at the University of Carabobo in Valencia, when he was grabbed by a member of the Bolivarian National Guard for protesting the shortage of food in Venezuela due to gasoline shortages and government price controls. He said anyone who speaks against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro or his administration is arrested or murdered.

He said in Venezuela, people “don’t have free access to food.”

“You might be able to get one bag a flour of month, and that is all you are allowed,” Parra said. “Everything is controlled by the government. What you are going to eat. What you are allowed to do. The universities are controlled by the government. There are very few choices.”

For three days, he was beaten, tortured, and held captive in prison. After enduring horrendous abuse, they released him, but first, they told him to leave the country immediately, or they would kill his family. Still in shock and barely able to walk, he quickly gathered a few things: a pair of shoes, a change of clothes, a flashlight, a compass, two packages of crackers, $7 dollars’ worth of Venezuelan money bolivar.

He never had the chance to go home first and say goodbye to his family.

“I left immediately,” he said, “If I didn’t, they would kill my family. It’s a horrible dictatorship. They are killing a lot of young people and grabbing young people and putting them into these training centers.”

The Trek – From Venezuela to Texas from May 2017 to December 2017

Parra said a lot of people gave him food and money when he was traveling from Venezuela to Mexico. The hardest part of the trek he said was from Columbia to Panama when he was going through the Darien Gap, one of the most dangerous jungles in the world.  

The Darien Gap is a 60-mile roadless, lawless region of dense rainforest connecting Columbia to Panama. The trek is exhausting and often requires hacking through the jungle with machetes, through mountains, rivers and muddy ground teeming with jaguars, wild boar, black scorpions, poisonous reptiles and other dangerous animals. In addition to the wildlife and treacherous terrain, the area is controlled by “Clan del Golfo,” a Colombian criminal organization and paramilitary group.

Parra was hesitant to talk about his trek through the Darien Gap but did share some facts. The experience was too traumatizing to recall. He began his journey through the Darien Gap, with eight other people. They were from Bangladesh and Somalia.

“We were in the jungle for seven days,” he said. “While we were there, I did not sleep at all.”

He said, “nine went in, but only six made it.”

The first person was just too exhausted to keep walking through the jungle in the sweltering heat swarming with mosquitos. He did not say whether it was a man, a woman, or a child, but people of every age attempt to make the trek.

“I do not know what happened to them,” Parra said. “The second one got bitten by a snake. The third was washed away by the river.”

He could only watch in horror as the storm surge swept the person away. One can only imagine what Parra might have been thinking as he stood there about to make the perilous crossing or stood there watching safely on the other side – his heart racing. “It was too horrible,” he said.

Those who do survive the Darien Gap suffer from a variety of maladies, including dehydration, foot mold, skin inflammation, and vomiting. Parra said when he was in Columbia, he had boots, but by the time he got to Panama, they were trashed entirely; And by the time Parra got to Texas, he did not have any shoes at all.

When Parra finally arrived at the border in December 2017, he surrendered himself to authorities and asked for asylum.

Recently, he received some good news regarding his case during the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved his work permit.

When asked if his faith helped him through his journey, he replied: “The travel from Venezuela to the United States was a really hard experience, and one I will never forget. I dreamed of a better life. And despite the hardship and the trials of the journey, God was good, and in the end, that has been worth the suffering.”

Barbara Ballenger, the rector at Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, said Parra's story is remarkable because it illustrates “the broader and deeper challenges and injustices that immigrants face.”

“Our small attempts to offer aid must not be mistaken for a solution,” she said. “Our privilege should not be praised when what we have to offer is so small compared to the response that is required. We can assist all the Giuseppe Parras with an adjustment of our collective will. That's not impossible. I hope that one lesson we learn from this pandemic is that rugged individualism and unfettered market forces do not create an environment that allows everyone to thrive.”

 If you would like to donate to support Parra, call the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Field at 215-247-7466.

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