Rocío Martinez Fajardo is petite and soft-spoken, with an easy smile and long, black hair. Standing in the parking lot of Saint Camillus Church in Silver Spring, MD, in a black zip-up sweatshirt and jeans, she looked younger than her 23 years. "My story is difficult, because maybe people who are reading this can study, or work in what they want to do, but I can’t. I am fighting to help my family move forward, to live in safety," she told Refinery29. For the past two years, Fajardo and her two sisters, Claudia Regina and Maria Jose, have been fighting deportation back to Honduras, the country with the highest murder rate per capita in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. "In Honduras, it’s like this: If you work, the salary is horrible and you can’t survive. And if you have your own business, the gangs ask you for a bribe," Fajardo said. "Every day in the newspapers, the minimum number of murders is 20. The newspapers say, 'They killed five to steal their car, or they killed someone to get their cell phone.' For a cell phone, they can take your life away right now."
So Fajardo and her sisters had a difficult choice to make. With their father living in the United States and their mother dead, the girls were left to live alone in their house in Olanchito de Yoro. "My little sister and I lived in the house by ourselves and we were threatened. People came and robbed us of everything, I couldn’t sleep because someone would knock on the door late at night. It was the gangs," Fajardo said. "We decided to leave the country because of fear; fear of the gangs and crime, fear that they will kill us." Fajardo, then 20 years old, her two sisters, her brother-in-law, and her two-year-old niece, Adara Camila, left Honduras in July of 2013. They hurtled through Mexico toward the U.S. border, clinging to the top of a train. "Sometimes, we had to sleep in the brush. We couldn't go to the bathroom anywhere that was adequate. We suffered, we heard when they killed people. The people who were killed came alone and didn’t have anyone to pay their voyage. People get on the train and charge a bribe, and if they don’t pay, they get killed," Fajardo said. As women traveling with a small child, the journey was especially dangerous. "The men want to touch your body, but thank God we didn’t suffer that. They respected us, but there are women who suffer sexual abuse," Fajardo said. "[But] the little girl was traumatized whenever she heard the sound of a train. She didn’t want to get on the train, because we had to be on top of the train, under the rain. We had to sleep up there. It hurt our bodies to sleep up on the train, but we had nothing else."
I couldn’t sleep because someone would knock on the door late at night. It was the gangs.
Rocío Martinez Fajardo, Undocumented Immigrant
Finally, on August 3, 2013, the group arrived at the Mexican border at Brownsville, TX. After crossing the Rio Grande, they started walking. Within minutes, they were stopped by Border Patrol agents and arrested. Claudia Regina and Adara Camila were held for three days in a detention center before being released. Fajardo and Maria Jose, then 17 years old, were detained for more than a month. "It was the worst place in the world, they treated you like you had no value, like you were not a human being," Fajardo said of the immigration detention center. "I went to two court hearings with the judge and they asked me for $3,000 for bail. I got a lawyer and got out, and they gave me a court date for February 2016." Ever since, Fajardo has been fighting to stay in the U.S., saving money from her cleaning jobs to pay for court and advocating for immigration reform through the New Orleans Congress of Day Laborers. "It’s ugly, because imagine if the court decided to deport me, and they catch me and they make me return, I am going to be alone. My sisters are here, they can be arrested someday and maybe be sent back, too. How are they going to send us back to that? It’s like being sent to the cemetery," Fajardo said.
When she heard that more than 100 other undocumented women were planning to walk 100 miles to ask Pope Francis to advocate for immigration reform in the U.S., Fajardo said she knew she had to join them. She flew from her home in New Orleans and began walking from Pennsylvania on September 15. "We are fighting. That’s why I came on this walk, so that the people will listen to our stories, to what we have suffered. And even here [in the U.S.], we have suffered rejection. They don’t want to accept us because of the color of our skin," Fajardo said. "We aren't directing our actions to the politicians. We are directing our actions to the Pope, who everyone knows and who can advocate for us. We want him to listen to our stories and put himself in our shoes...Maybe with this pilgrimage, we can arrive into the hearts of the people who don’t know what we go through, what we suffer."
I don’t have papers but I don't have fear, either.
Rosario Reyes, undocumented immigrant
Along the way, Fajardo said she learned what other women had suffered because of their immigration status. Ahead of her marched Rosario Reyes, holding a large crucifix draped in rosary beads in one hand, the hand of her 7-year-old son in the other. Reyes said she fled El Salvador 12 years ago. "We left because there are many gangs in El Salvador. The gangs killed my husband’s brother, they shot him 12 times. My husband looks a lot like his brother and the gangs threatened to kill him, too. So my husband decided to emigrate and later, I came too. I was fleeing the crime and violence," Reyes said. "My son was one-and-a-half years old and I had to leave him." Jose Ramon has grown up with family, knowing his parents only through phone calls. "I have a lot of nostalgia, because there have been 12 birthdays that I haven’t spent with him...I want, now that the Holy Father is coming, for him to listen that we are asking for mercy to reunite our family," Ramon said. "I don’t have papers, but I don't have fear, either. Because we need to keep moving forward without fear."
Reyes walked the entire 100 Women 100 Miles pilgrimage with her youngest son, Victor, who is a U.S. citizen. "My 7-year-old asks me, ‘Mami, when are we going to see my brother?’ I tell him, 'Next year, you can go and see him. But I can’t go with you.' He tells me, 'No, I want to go with you.’ It’s very difficult to explain to him that I can’t go because I don’t have documents. But he says, 'No, we can get on the Metro or the train and go and see him!' It’s difficult because even if you have the happiness of your children with you here, if one is missing, you are missing that happiness." Reyes began to cry as she crossed into Washington, D.C., the end of the pilgrimage. "Ever since Pope Francis was selected, I have seen him like Moses. He is a liberator, like Moses, who has been given to my people," Reyes said. "I know my pain is no longer mine, now it belongs to Pope Francis. And I know he will bring our message to the president, to the congressmen, to the senators so we can be heard."
Sometimes, our bodies say, 'enough already,' but the spirit stays strong.
esmeralda dominguez, cancer survivor
On Thursday, Pope Francis did what Reyes and Fajardo had hoped for. As he spoke before both houses of Congress, he urged leaders to respond to the plight of immigrants "in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal." "Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions," Pope Francis said. "On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children?" "We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation," Pope Francis added. But for some of the women who made the pilgrimage, time is running out for Congress and President Obama to act.
Esmeralda Dominguez was one of the 100 Women 100 Miles participants to win a ticket to see the Pope. A U.S. citizen, she has been battling stomach and bone cancer. Her primary caregiver is her husband, who is an undocumented immigrant facing immediate and permanent deportation. "Two months ago, I couldn’t even walk. I was stuck in bed. It’s my faith in God, it’s the love I have for my family that has allowed me to walk these 100 miles," Dominguez said, breathing hard as she made her way up one of the final hills in Washington. "Sometimes, our bodies say, 'enough already,' but the spirit stays strong, because of the love we have for our families, because of this American dream to live in a better country. I think that is what motivates us every day to fight for our families." That American dream is something Fajardo said she has not yet given up on. "People here in the United States are lucky enough to have a safe country. Here, you feel safe that someone isn’t going to show up and shoot you. This is the reason that people leave their countries to come here, not because they want to, or because they want luxury. They come here because they want safety and they want to live in peace with their families," Fajardo said. "And maybe with what we are doing here — maybe — I will have the opportunity to study what I want, not work cleaning bathrooms and houses."