Here is Lucia’s story.

The mud. Filthy water. Trees with branches that scratched and ripped clothing. These were just small obstacles along the Darien Crossing on a greater journey now-high school freshman Lucia endured almost a year ago as she and her family sought to better their lives in the United States.

It was June 29, 2022 when Lucia and her family left their home in Venezuela and crossed the Darien Gap, a notoriously dangerous passage through the mountains and swamps between Colombia and Panama. Making the crossing was a hard decision for the family, particularly because of the life-threatening risks associated with the journey.

More than 151,000 migrants crossed the Darien Gap border between January and September of last year, and a large number of those migrants were Venezuelans leaving their country due to the humanitarian crisis faced there. At least 10% of Venezuelans have fled in recent years due to political instability, poverty, and increasing criminal activity.

Lucia, now a West Chicago Community High School student, endured those obstacles and more in order to better her and her family’s lives.

Crossing the Darien Gap is difficult because of the violence and multitude of threats to those making the trek. According to Lucia, numerous people die from snake bites and drowning. Not only that, but the rainforest extends more than sixty miles, and the human body can only go so long without eating – walking day and night to make it across.

The journey is extremely nerve-racking because individuals are unsure where they are going to be able to get in on the border, Lucia explained. Consequently, the unknowns in this cross are endless, and no one is able to predict the dangers these families could face.

Last summer, Lucia traveled with her immediate family, including her little brother, who was eight at the time.

“He thought it was an adventure and fun. He was actually happy about it,” said Lucia.

However, this was not the case for Lucia and her parents. The fear they felt as they made the dangerous crossing in an attempt for a better life in America was palpable. The environment along the Darien Gap is one of fear, especially for families with small children, babies or pregnant women. Lucia and her family did not know how much walking (65 miles), or what kind of drawbacks they would endure when they reached some of the crossing’s notorious rivers.

“It wasn’t like they told us. They told us it could be very dangerous, high and deep. But really, when we passed, I don’t know if it was a coincidence or whatever, but the water was very low and reached almost to my hips and there was no current. And thank God, there were people who helped us, and it was very easy. I think it was the easiest part of the whole trip. It was just walking around, getting a little wet. When we got to the other side, I saw a man and he was telling us the way to enter,” said Lucia.

Despite potential drug traffickers and terrorist groups, the sense of community along the crossing was evident for her family. Lucia recalled many of the people she encountered through this process, pointing out that each had the same goal: never turning back, and making it to the other side.

“A lot of people are nice, and in the same situation as me. It was really cool to meet many different cultures,” said Lucia.

After reaching the other side of the Darien Gap, Lucia’s family made their way to Mexico. They stayed there for two weeks, resting before crossing the United States border.

When they reached America, Lucia and her extended family were finally reunited – permanently. For a year prior, her father had been living in America, preparing for his family to arrive. As a result, the rest of the family was able to settle into life in America with some ease.

Lucia was enrolled in a number of classes at WEGO, and is working to develop her English language skills in ESL classes. One of her teachers, Mark Poulterer, was struck by her story, which he found both familiar and inspiring.

“Most of my students have crossed. They all came here from different countries, and each of their stories [is] different. Some of them get on an airplane and fly out here, and it is no big deal. Other students have been through really, really traumatic experiences coming up to the United States, crossing through the desert to get here…and some of them, it takes a few times where they can get across the border, so there are a whole bunch of stories,” said Poulterer.

For Lucia, the journey was entirely worth any hardships, and she points to the many ways in which her life has changed for the better.

One of the biggest changes is the chance for an education.

“It is a big difference, definitely. It’s really good. More opportunities and learning more in the United States,” said Lucia.

Although there may be days that she misses those family members still living in Venezuela, Lucia would not change her circumstances: she has the opportunity to strive for a better life, and earn a quality education in America. Whilst the journey was immensely difficult, Lucia says would not change anything. She believes she is now living her best life in the United States.