Forty-eight hours after arriving at the Texas-Mexico border, Magalie Nzalakanda was boarding a bus to Austin with just $60 in her pocket and her 18-month old son Gabriel by her side. She was also six months pregnant.
Seven months prior, Nzalakanda chose to embark on a journey to America, to abandon her home in the Congo and to leave behind her extended family. All to escape escalating violence. As her bus departed from the Greyhound terminal in Laredo, Tex., she was now leaving behind her husband, Roberto, at a detention center.
“We’d never heard of detention center or being detained,” she said. “We thought we would ask for papers and get them. When they told me we had to be separated I wasn’t scared. I didn’t have any choice but to go.”
Nzalakanda is one of 13 women living at Posada Esperanza, a family shelter that houses immigrant women and their children who have escaped vulnerable situations. In a cluster of four homes in the middle of an East Austin cul-de-sac, Nzalakanda, 25, greets me at the door wearing a diamond-patterned turquoise dress. Gabriel’s curious eyes peek out from behind her.
She’s due to give birth in less than a month. The house is loud — when Gabriel isn’t riding around the living room on his Fisher-Price tricycle, other children in the house are scurrying outside.
It’s late November and Nzalakanda has been staying at Posada for a little over two months. Normally, women and children are given three months of free rent and utilities with the goal of helping them become self sufficient enough to move out.
But Nzalakanda’s case is different — she arrived to the country in poor health.
When her family left Congo’s Kasai province, tensions between militia and local police had already claimed the lives of thousands. By the time Nzalakanda and her husband were on a boat to Brazil with their son, they were among 1.4 million Congolese refugees.
From Brazil they began a nearly nonstop journey, alternating between walking and taking the bus and making use of the little money Nzalakanda’s brother had given her to make it through the nine countries she would travel to before reaching the United States border.
It would have been a remarkably strenuous journey for anyone. But along the way, Nzalakanda found out she was pregnant.
“It was a complete surprise,” she says. “I wasn’t happy, but abortion wasn’t an option because we’re Christians. We weren’t sure what we should do. We knew we had to keep going, but everything since then has been extremely difficult.”
A risky pregnancy
Like many of the millions of refugees experiencing an unplanned pregnancy, Nzalakanda was at an increased risk for complications. According to the research of Victoria University professor Mary Carolan, pregnant sub-Saharan women experience higher rates of infant mortality following their resettlement in developed countries.
For Nzalakanda, months spent without prenatal care compounded by her constant exertion resulted in a potentially serious complication. Her placenta was covering her cervix, putting her at risk for bleeding throughout her pregnancy and making a natural delivery impossible. Upon her arrival to the U.S., she was separated from her husband and taken to the hospital.
“If I would’ve known I never would’ve done it,” she says. “We were living off bread and crackers, but sometimes there was just nothing. We’d sleep anywhere — at bus stops, hospitals, churches and Catholic centers. There were times that I couldn’t keep going and we had to stop, but other than that, we were always moving.”
As missionaries in Kinshasa, Nzalakanda and her husband bonded over their Catholic faith, and married in 2015. Now, they were 250 miles apart.
“I need him,” she says. “I’m having a really, really hard time without him. I want to visit him, but if I don’t have money to pay for the bus out there. He’s the most important thing to me. If he were here, he could help out and we could pay for a place of our own.”
Still, her and Gabriel’s futures aren’t as uncertain as her husband’s. At the border, they were released on parole, which means they can remain in the U.S. legally and apply for a renewal in a year. Her husband, however, has to wait for an asylum trial.
“Even though the consequences of these proceedings are matters of life and death in many cases, you have no right to a council appointed by the government,” says Barbara Hines, founder of the University of Texas immigration clinic. “You have a right to present your case in a language you might not even speak and if you’re in detention, it’s usually through a video conference. That’s why if you look at the statistics, these cases have the lowest approval rates when they’re argued without lawyers.”
At Posada, women are provided with case management services that can sometimes include nonprofit lawyers who help them navigate their immigration cases. Nzalakanda says she’s attempted to get her husband help through these nonprofit services, but the distance makes it difficult.
So she’s at a standstill. With her health complications and her pregnancy so far along, work is out of the question. Without work, paying for a lawyer for her husband or saving up money for her own apartment is next to impossible.
A new beginning
On New Year’s Day, Nzalakanda safely delivered a healthy baby boy. At six pounds, six ounces, Eliakim Joseph is named after Nzalakanda’s father. Just as she began to plan out her future as a single mother of two, she heard that after six months apart, she and Roberto would finally be reunited. On March 1, his case for asylum was approved, and the next day he boarded a bus to see his wife, son, and for the first time — his baby boy.
Sitting in the backyard with Gabriel in her lap and Roberto by her side, Nzalakanda was beaming.
“We’ve been separated for so long I didn’t know what to feel when he told me he was being released,” she said. “I was sad that he couldn’t be here for the birth, I was happy that he was coming back, it was an emotional time.”
While they can’t live together at the moment – Posada Esperanza only provides housing for women – her husband is making plans to find a job and an apartment where they can move in together. And though so much of their future is still uncertain, they’re beginning to rebuild their lives.
Just two houses down, the outlook isn’t as bright.
‘We can’t go back’
Seventeen-year-old Esmeralda Argueta shares a home with her mother and little brother. They traveled together from El Salvador on the infamous Tren de la Muerte, or “Train of the Dead.”
Argueta had been married to her husband, Elvin, for just a year and was pregnant with twins when he began receiving threats from local gangs.
“They told him that they would kill us,” she says. “We couldn’t stay. We had a target on our back and it was too much of a threat, so we left.”
They got on the train, avoiding the people who check for stowaways and begging for food each time it reached the next stop.
It was here that a group of men boarded the train and tried to assault Argueta. When her husband intervened, they were separated. For the rest of the month-long journey she had no idea where he was. The rest of the family had to press on, eventually walking until they reached the border.
“When we got to Mexico, I felt so much pain I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “I was at risk of losing the babies. I couldn’t walk anymore, but we couldn’t turn back.”
Eventually, they made it to San Antonio where she was held with her family at a detention center before they were all released on parole. After arriving in Austin, she found out that her husband had been detained along the border. Now she, too, will have to wait for his trial.
Argueta still has one month left of her pregnancy, but since arriving to the U.S., her twins are in much better condition. She already has names picked out for them: Patricia and Elvin.
Argueta and Nzalakanda are eight years apart, from cities more than 7,000 miles apart, but in two homes on the same East Austin cul-de-sac, they found themselves living as single mothers, awaiting the fate of their husbands.
Not much is certain in their lives, but Argueta says one fact is: “We can’t go back.”