Finding a Family and Finding Home

Note: This is the full version of the article that appears in shorter form in our Summer 2014 Newsletter.

Gerson David on the way to meet family members.
Gerson David came to Amigos de Jesús in February 2008. Even in a home with so many children, all of whom come from unique backgrounds, Gerson’s arrival was exceptional. While most of our children are from cities and towns within a few hours drive of the hogar, Gerson came from the Moskitia, clear across Honduras and only accessible by boat or plane. And as a native Miskito, he did not speak a word of Spanish. Needless to say, the adjustment was difficult for Gerson. His temper flared up when he could not understand or be understood. Nobody really knew how he ended up in western Honduras, and much less from where exactly he had come. By the time he could effectively communicate in Spanish, he did not remember many of these details. As the years passed, he continued to adjust to Amigos de Jesús but forgot even more his family, his past and his native language.

Now 18 years old, Gerson is fluent in Spanish, learning welding in the mornings and studying in 8th grade after lunch. His formerly explosive temper has been replaced by a fun sense of humor and what is known as “The Greatest Smile at Amigos de Jesús.” But for all of the years that had passed, still we knew very little about him, and it was unclear what he himself remembered. So when a great opportunity presented itself to accompany a group from North Carolina on a mission trip to a Miskito orphanage, we jumped at the chance. The goal for the trip was to get Gerson back in touch with his culture, and if at all possible with family members as well.

We arrived by plane in Puerto Lempira on a dirt landing strip that is the gateway to the Moskitia. The whole town is about the length of this landing strip and is situated on the shore of a lagoon bordering the Caribbean Sea. Everything must arrive by air or by sea, so even the most basic necessities are rather scarce and expensive. There are two power companies, but between them there are still only 6-8 hours of electricity each day. All residents speak Miskito, and while in the city most people also speak Spanish, many have clearly learned it as a second language. We would stay here for a week.

The information we had to begin the search was very limited – Gerson only remembered a handful of first names and could not remember the name of the community where he grew up. He also was overwhelmed the first few days (understandably), so we took it slow and spent most of our time at Mama Tara’s Miskito orphanage with the kids and the group there. On day three, we hit the pavement to really start the family search. After a morning of collecting phone numbers and information in town from people who wanted to help, but were ultimately unable to do so, we stopped at a street corner that Gerson, upon arrival, had recognized as the place where his grandmother would sell fruits and fish. Unfortunately, hers was not one of the names he remembered. I waited for someone to ask what I wanted, to be sure that the person I was speaking with knew Spanish, and then phrased my inquiry something like this: “I’m looking for a woman whose name I don’t know who used to sell things here, who has a daughter named Felipa and a grandson who was taken out of the Moskitia sometime before 2008. Do you know who I’m talking about?” After a brief discussion in Miskito between a few of the older vendors on this corner, the woman looked back and told us in Spanish “That’s his family over there.”

The two family members on that corner turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. They were siblings of Gerson’s great-grandmother, the one he remembered as his grandmother. Gerson did not remember them, but the more they talked to him, the more his face began to light up as he remembered some people and stories. Then they mentioned that he has a lot of family in Puerto Lempira, and a lot more in Pranza, the community in which he grew up. They helped us get in touch with more people, and that evening almost 15 extended family members, plus Gerson’s former teacher, came by the hotel to say hello. They invited us over the next day, saying they’d pick us up at 8:30.

Gerson David, reunited with family members.
That following day was full of excitement both for Gerson and his family. What was meant to be only a morning get-together turned into an all-day event. His family is spread among three houses in Puerto Lempira, but all of them came together that day to one house. There were about 30 people total: cousins, aunts and uncles, great-aunts and uncles, second cousins. Slowly I started learning and Gerson started remembering more and more about his life prior to Amigos de Jesús – about parents who had abandoned him, the great-grandmother who took care of him, and how a man claiming to also be family had convinced her to send Gerson to the other side of the country with him in 2006. His great-grandmother regretted her decision, they told us, and just before she passed away three years ago had left his birth certificate with an aunt with the instructions to keep looking. They had heard he was in Tela, in La Ceiba, and that he was dead. Most of the family was resigned to never seeing him again.

After talking about the painful part of his past, we began sharing happier details. We told them how well Gerson is doing in school and in his welding work, that he has learned Spanish, and that he has grown up to be a very polite and friendly young man. They, in turn, told us stories (some of which he remembered after hearing them) about a Dennis the Menace-like child, one who once burned down his great-grandmother’s house while trying to cook in secret. We were able to continue meeting up over the next few days with both the mother’s and father’s side of Gerson’s family. But as much as Gerson was enjoying his time in Puerto Lempira, one thing was still missing – he wanted to get out to Pranza.

Gerson’s family put us in touch with a woman named Ingrid, who owns the only car that goes to Pranza, a community on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. At five o’clock in the morning, we loaded into the tarp-covered bed of a pickup truck and set off for what ended up being a five-hour drive down a bumpy dirt road through the middle of nowhere. And I mean nowhere – the only sign of civilization along the way is a military outpost about three hours out of Puerto Lempira. We rode in accompanied by goods such as gas and soap that are only available in Puerto Lempira; on the return trip Ingrid brings the plantains, fish and other harvest to sell in town. Being in Gerson’s original home, things that used to seem odd started to make sense, for example watching him scale a coconut tree with just his hands and feet and then peel the coconut with his teeth.

Upon arrival, close to 30 more family members, including his grandmother, were already waiting for us. About half spoke only Miskito, and the other half spoke Miskito and bad Spanish. We again repeated the story telling and Gerson got to see the community where he used to live, a collection of 40-ish homes and a church and a school, all spread through the same general area of the forest. It was an exhausting day, both physically and emotionally, and by four o’clock in the afternoon we were back on the road to Puerto Lempira, where the following day we would wrap up our trip before flying back out.

As daylight was fading and with the car stopped, Ingrid was cutting up some spare wire to hook the car’s headlights straight to its battery. She had no replacements for a blown fuse, so this was the only way to turn the lights on and get back that night to Puerto Lempira. She looked up at me in the truck’s bed and said, “You are going to have a good story to tell.” She could not have been more correct, although she did not know how great of an understatement she had just made.

For her, the good story was about the car and the travel of the day. But the good story is really about a boy who did not know where he belonged or what would become of him, but now has direction and goals in his life. It is about a successful search for one of our children’s past and the belief that it will help him in the future. It is about a young man who travelled across the country to find his family and his home, and at the end of the week travelled back to his family and his home at Amigos de Jesús.

-Alan Turner, Leadership and Independent Living Coordinator