INTERVIEW: 'I’ll never forget it as long as I live. It was very dangerous.’

Fleeing persecution, Hui Muslim recounts the risky trek his family made through Central America to the US-Mexico border.
RFA Mandarin
2024.03.09
INTERVIEW: 'I’ll never forget it as long as I live. It was very dangerous.’ Migrants “walk the line” through the Central American rainforest en route to the U.S. border with Mexico.
(Li Kai)

Last year, Li Kai and his family were among 24,000 Chinese nationals who made a grueling trip through Central America to the Mexican-U.S. border as part of the "run" movement of ordinary people seeking political asylum in the United States. 

A member of the Hui Muslim minority from the northern city of Tangshan, Li took his family and fled the country after a standoff with the authorities over changes to his mosque – part of the ruling Communist Party’s “sinicization of religion” policy. 

In a recent interview with RFA Mandarin, Li, 44, described his family's experience of “walking the line,” as the risky journey is known in Chinese.

RFA: Can you describe the route you took through the jungle to get to the United States?

Li Kai: Our journey required us to navigate the renowned tropical rainforests of South America, which included a boat ride. We waited two days in Necoclí [Colombia], by the Caribbean Sea, for our transportation. Local people smugglers, or snakeheads, visited our lodging to discuss and plan our path, after which we paid them and prepared to board the boat.

RFA: How much did this part of the journey cost?

Li Kai: For the boat ride and the trek through the jungle, adults were charged US$1,100 each, my eldest child $600, and the youngest $500, totaling $3,300 for my family.

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Migrants gather in Necocli, Colombia, a stopping point for travelers taking boats to Acandi, which leads to the Darien Gap, Oct. 13, 2022. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

RFA: What was your experience crossing the Caribbean Sea?

Li Kai: I’ll never forget it as long as I live. It was very dangerous. The boat was small, made of fiberglass, which made it especially vulnerable to the unpredictable sea conditions and weather of the Caribbean. We had to travel at night without lights. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt for putting my kids in such danger because I had gotten into trouble in China. 

I heard that one of these boats had capsized and people had drowned. The whole boat juddered from stem to stern, and we were drenched in water. My children, who had no idea of the danger, fell asleep while I held them tight, one in each arm. After two hours, we reached a landing point at the edge of the rainforest.

RFA: Were there other Chinese people on the boat with you?

Li Kai: Yes, about 90% of the passengers were Chinese, along with a few South Americans. The boat could carry 50 to 60 people, and most of them were from China.

After we landed, we rested overnight, and at 6 a.m. the next day, we took the mountainous trail into the rainforest.

RFA: What was it like trekking through the rainforest?

Li Kai: It was extremely challenging. The terrain was treacherous with cliffs and steep slopes, easy to fall from. I led my kids through it -- they did fine, just followed along. We took brief rests, about 15 minutes each, and it took us around 10 hours to walk it. 

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Migrants walk across the Darien Gap from Colombia to Panama on their journey to reach the United States, on May 9, 2023. (Ivan Valencia/AP)

I wasn't prepared. I was worried that it would be inconvenient to carry food on such a mountainous trail, so I only brought water. The water ran out before we were halfway through, leaving us all thirsty, including the kids.

The first half of the rainforest trail is in Colombia, and the second half is in Panama. When we got to the end of the 10-hour trek, the guide took everyone to an official Panamanian refugee camp.

RFA: How did you wind up at an official refugee camp in Panama after such a clandestine journey?

Li Kai: Due to the large number of people walking the line into the United States … it was likely a humanitarian gesture, to give us somewhere to stay.

RFA: After entering Guatemala, you were picked up by a people smuggler you had contacted earlier to transport you to Mexico, correct?

Li Kai: Yes, after arriving in Guatemala, the previously contacted snakehead was there to meet us. They planned to transport us to Mexico. Seventeen of us were crammed into an 8-seater Honda. Halfway along, they transferred us to a vehicle used for transporting livestock.

We were standing or squatting inside, a mix of Chinese, Blacks, South Americans, every kind of person you can think of. We crossed a river by road into Mexico.

RFA: In Tapachula [Mexico], you bought tickets to Mexico City, but then you were stopped by Mexican immigration en route.

Li Kai: On the bus were us four, along with a few other Chinese and South Americans. During a passport check, they found out we were heading to the U.S. and wouldn't let us go any further. People with children were pulled aside and taken to an immigration facility, while the singles were taken elsewhere. We stayed there for a day until the afternoon of the next day, when we registered and signed some form of promise or agreement, and then they released all four of us.

RFA: At that point, you didn't know where you were or what your next steps would be?

Li Kai: We had no choice but to go back to Tapachula, where we found a snakehead from Guangdong [China]. It became clear that the Chinese snakeheads might have been middlemen, responsible only for Chinese migrants. In Tapachula, there's a restaurant run by a woman who is also a snakehead. The cost for us, two adults and two children, totaled $12,600.

RFA: What was this money for?

Li Kai: It was to get us from Tapachula to Mexico City.

RFA: What happened when you got there?

Li Kai: The snakehead responsible for getting us to the border wall was also Chinese. He charged $700 per person, regardless of age. The next morning, two vehicles picked us up to take us to the next city, Reynosa, very close to the border. Upon entering a hideout, it was filled with Chinese people who had arrived before us. 

After waiting a few hours, everyone got into vehicles headed for the Rio Grande. It took 4 hours to get to the riverbank, guarded by local armed gangs. We crossed the river in the latter half of the night and then walked through what seemed like dense grass or a small forest, with vegetation over a person's height.

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Li Kai and his wife and children after their arrival in the United States are seen in an undated photo. Faces blurred to protect childrens’ privacy. (Li Kai)

RFA: What about your children?

Li Kai: They went separately; their mother took them because it was too dangerous for women and children to go through the dense vegetation, with the risk of snakes and poisonous spiders. They took a different route.

After emerging, there was another river to cross, leading to flatter ground. Our guide told us we had reached the United States, and then they left us.

RFA: Then you were picked up by U.S. Border Patrol on June 1, 2023?

Li Kai: Men were separated from women and children for checks — bags, clothes, everything except for mobile phones and chargers had to be given up. 

Single individuals and families with children were transported in separate buses to a temporary immigration detention center, where men and women were segregated. The mothers stayed with their children, and the men were in another room. After two days, during which time they gave us some food, we were released.

RFA: But your journey wasn't over, was it?

Li Kai: We were taken to a church reception center. We wanted to go to New York, but I was unaware of the free bus service from Texas to New York until I arrived at a local church, which was filled with people from various countries all waiting for transportation. Later, I found out that Texas was sending illegal immigrants to New York by bus as a protest over illegal immigration.

RFA: What happened when you got to New York?

Li Kai: We were dropped off at the Roosevelt Hotel early in the morning. All in all, it was a pretty moving experience. 

In China, the narrative about the United States is filled with conflict, evil, chaos and racial discrimination. But the reality was the complete opposite. I'm incredibly grateful for the kindness we were shown upon arrival; it was unimaginable after such a difficult and bitter journey.

RFA: What prompted you to leave China? There was a protest by local Muslims on April 24, 2023, about the mosque in your village. Can you tell us more about that?

Li Kai: Yes, the government was about to demolish it. That Monday, many people went to the mosque to seek advice from the imam. The authorities were ready for us, and there was some physical contact — it got quite chaotic. The crowd was dispersed within an hour, and I rushed back home in a hurry. 

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Migrants from China emerge from thick brush after being smuggled across the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico in Fronton, Texas, April 7, 2023. (Reuters)

RFA: What exactly happened to cause the conflict between the police and Muslims?

Li Kai: The police accused us of causing a disturbance. They claimed the decision to demolish the mosque and move to another location had been made in consultation with the imam. 

The younger members of our community had been barred from entering the mosque, which had caused dissatisfaction, but hadn't led to an outburst until that point. But this time, led by a prominent Muslim from our group, we ended up in a scuffle with the police.

RFA: Were there any injuries during the incident?

Li Kai: I'm not sure.

RFA: Why did you decide to flee immediately afterward?

Li Kai: I was worried that the authorities would target me after the incident, and that there would even be repercussions for my kids, based on a similar thing that happened a few years ago. Children had been barred from entering mosques. Only over-18s were allowed in, so my kids weren’t allowed in either. So I took my wife and kids and left immediately, getting a friend to drive us to Shenzhen.

RFA: Did you have any specific plan when you decided to flee?

Li Kai: No, there was no plan. My main concern was the authorities would come after me because my children were registered as being of Muslim faith at primary school. I had long had a sense of impending crisis about our situation. 

The mosque incident was the last straw. I left on a Monday night, and by the time the police visited my mother's home looking for me, I was already gone.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

Radio Free Asia has been unable to confirm Li's account of his journey independently. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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