PICTORIAL STORY

August 20, 2021

RUNNING TO NOWHERE

THE CENTRAL AMERICAN REFUGEE CRISIS

Photography and words by Christina Simons
Introduction by Melanie Meggs

With a passion for justice and compulsion to observe, award winning international documentary photographer Christina Simons, provides key commentary into the unknown issues, places and aspects of this world. Her work has been exhibited throughout Australia, the United States, England, Spain, Russia and Mexico. Part Icelandic and American, she resides in Australia as a true citizen of the world speaking multiple languages. Having worked in the visual arts industry for over twenty-five years she is a technical master of imagery. Her work traverses many interests including travel, lifestyle and portraiture and is represented in publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian UK as well as working with several NGOs such as Medicines Sans Frontiers and UNICEF.

For her latest solo exhibition and multi-award winning series RUNNING TO NOWHERE, Christina travelled to Central America embarking on a visual journey to pursue, share and expose the...Why? Why…migrants would flee and what are they running from?

Central American migrants have been making the perilous journey through Central America and Mexico for over 30 years. It is an old refugee story but in the current political climate it is not only ongoing but heightened by the family separations and mass deportations from the United States. Yet the numbers of people making this journey has not dwindled.

The journey across borders is made by various means. The environmental hazards of dehydration, food and water contamination, sunburn and disease, as well as the physical dangers of the trains, all come second to the risk of theft, rape, violence, kidnapping, and murder. Why would anyone risk such dangers?

My work on this issue commenced in 2015 with an assignment with Medicos Sin Fronteras (MSF) at their projects in refugee centres in Tenosique and Ixtapec in Mexico. It was profound to me to see hundreds of traumatised people mainly from Honduras and El Salvador, with stories so often the same: all trying to flee the violence and terror they experienced in their home countries. After meeting the individuals…the small children whose parents haunted eyes told me that they only wished for a safe future for their children; what started as an assignment for MSF evolved into a passionate pursuit to share and expose the…Why. Why…they would flee and what are they running from.

In the 1980s ‘Mara’ street gangs originated in Los Angeles. Having fled from civil wars in Honduras and El Salvador, many joined the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) or Calle 18 (M18) gangs. In the 90s, the US government deported gang members back to their respective countries.

Now, decades later, the relocated ‘Maras’ are running poverty-stricken Honduras and El Salvador into desperate circumstances. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in Central America with the hopes for a safer life risking their lives to get to somewhere else, only to face separation, deportation or go into hiding.

It was clear that my devotion to document ‘the why’ would require an expedition lasting a few years and which took me all over Mexico, Honduras and Texas, following refugees on their journey meeting people who want to flee, are fleeing, have been deported as well as those in hiding. I have met ‘coyotes’ (those who transport the refugees across the borders) and I have met the people who the refugees are fleeing from.

I have visited several locations along the route that the migrants take within Mexico. From Ixtapec near the Guatemalan border and the Suchiate River crossing in the south, all the way to Reynosa on the US border. I have visited several shelters all over Mexico with MSF where the migrants stay to recover from physical and psychological trauma. I have traveled north following a group of refugees along their journey. I’ve visited a group of women known as “Las Patronas” who have for over 30 years, thrown supplies to refugees traveling on ‘La Bestia’ (a giant freight train that migrants and refugees hitchhike upon) as it passes in Veracruz.

I have travelled throughout Honduras. I spent time both in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa meeting and talking with Mara gang members, ex-members in hiding and prisoners awaiting release. There I also met with many who hope to make the journey north or who have returned or been deported. I’ve met ‘Coyotes’, those who transport or traffic people across these countries illegally for a fee.

I went to Texas on the US/Mexican border only to see what happens to refugees once they arrive in the United States. I visited the Laredo coroner’s office and the John and Jane Doe gravesites in Texas where hundreds of Central Americans finish their journeys in the worst possible way. Yet the better outcomes are grim when faced with brutal deportation policies and family separations. Between 2015 when I began this story it is now an even more desperate story than when I first started it.

There is a great deal of coverage on the border issues of the United States and Mexico and while covered by the media in parts, there is little enquiry into why Central Americans are fleeing to the United States to begin with. This story is rather the sum of its parts, radiating impact on several countries, crossing many borders. This is my point of difference in my story telling style; a holistic coverage of this issue across all its borders, creating a clear vision of how and why this is happening by focusing on the individuals who are impacted and suffering through this crisis

My work tells the story of what Central Americans face in their home countries as well as their journeys to America, once they arrive and why they would risk their lives to do this. My hope is this body of work would humanize the individual refugees and their circumstances creating exposure and awareness. I seek to generate compassion in an era where compassion fatigue, racism and intolerance ensues and that these refugees are better received in our respective countries with greater understanding and empathy.

During my most recent trip to Mexico in late 2018, the ‘caravan’ from Honduras was moving north through the country towards the US border. There was a lot of disdain for the refugees on social media within Mexico. One of my friends said to me that they were surprised and upset at how many friends they had to delete from their social media accounts because they were so against migrants and refugees. To which, I said "No! Don’t delete them! When we have this exhibition, show them the book, talk to them about it, ask them if they still feel the same way after they get to know these individuals a bit better."

A key theme of this project is that most of us have come from ‘somewhere else’. If not ourselves, then our family, our relatives, our friends, people we know and care about who are a part of our community. If the tables were turned and our circumstances were that of a refugee, then what would we do? Would we not make the same decisions? In this, we are no different to them.