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article image'Twelve Apostles' help migrants cross Mexico

By Sylvain ESTIBAL (AFP)     Aug 15, 2018 in World

It is pouring rain, but Norma Romero is standing by the train tracks as she does every night, ready to hand food to migrants crossing Mexico on the freight train known as "The Beast."

In a few minutes, hundreds of undocumented migrants chasing the American dream will ride by atop the train as it passes through her village, Cordoba, crossing the eastern state of Veracruz on its way to the United States.

Romero is part of a group of 12 women who pass bottled water and bags of food up to the migrants to help them on their dangerous journey.

For years, she thought the men clinging to the cars were Mexicans train-hopping their way to another town instead of taking the bus.

Then one day "The Beast" ground to a halt in Cordoba, and the men jumped to the ground and begged her for help.

A migrant runs next to the freight train heading toward the US border
A migrant runs next to the freight train heading toward the US border
RONALDO SCHEMIDT, AFP

"They had Central American accents," says Romero, 48.

"They were hungry. I had some bread and milk I'd just bought, and they asked me if they could have it."

When she got home, she told her mother the story, and the two decided to cook the clandestine travelers a meal.

That was 23 years ago.

Every day since, Romero and a group of like-minded women dubbed "The 12 Apostles" have handed out food to the migrants to help them flee the poverty and gang violence ravaging their home countries.

- Danger on the tracks -

It can be a dangerous undertaking.

The train moves through the night slowly, but with brutal momentum.

A nun who volunteered to help hand out the provisions once nearly lost three fingers when they got caught in the parcel she was passing up to the train.

Migrants riding "The Beast" regularly lose their limbs or lives in accidents -- not to mention the attacks they face from criminals and sometimes police seeking to rob them.

"The criminals often attack in the tunnels," says David Ramirez, 23, a Honduran migrant.

As the train passes through Cordoba, migrants hang precariously from the sides to grab the sacks held out to them. Some jump off and run along the tracks, then hop back on.

"Mexico!" shout some. "Thank you, sister!" others say to nuns, as the train disappears into the darkness.

"It makes us happy to see them continue their journey with something to eat, but also sad," says Julia Ramirez, 44, a fellow "Apostle" and, like Romero, a widow.

"It infuriates me to see these young people with so much talent having to leave their countries and take such risks," Romero says through tears.

- Food and maps -

A Guatemalan migrant woman  Paola  nurses her baby at the Las Patronas shelter
A Guatemalan migrant woman, Paola, nurses her baby at the Las Patronas shelter
RONALDO SCHEMIDT, AFP

On a wall in Romero's house, there is a large painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, standing by the cars of a train. Across the room, a map of Mexico showing the route of "The Beast."

Romero calls her project a "mission of love."

The bags of food usually contain rice, beans, bread, tuna and sometimes a piece of cake.

"We sometimes cook 40 kilos (88 pounds) of rice a day," says Ramirez.

A local supermarket and other merchants donate the provisions.

The "Apostles" complete the bags with brochures outlining migrants' rights and a map of shelters where they can spend the night.

Romero's own house has become an impromptu shelter.

With donated funds, she built an addition and a small chapel where migrants can spend the night.

It is vastly different from the welcome the migrants get in some areas.

"Some people throw stones at us," says Santos Delgado, 45, a Honduran making his third attempt to cross the border.

Deported on his previous two tries, Delgado is hoping to reach the United States and find his sister, who went missing there five years ago.

He keeps a picture of her in a pouch tied around his neck.

At Romero's house, migrants resting from their journey help cook the day's provisions as children play barefoot and a woman nurses her baby.

When the train arrives, some of the migrants help hand out food to their fellow travelers.

Despite the volunteers' efforts, not everyone on the train manages to grab a bag of food.

"But at least they leave here with hope," says Romero.

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