From Paying Guerrillas’ Ransoms to Capitol Hill — LIRS Academy Participant Shares Her Courageous Journey

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Martha Rodriquez
Martha Jeannette Rodriquez

LIRS’s Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy brings together new Americans from across the country to gain leadership skills and share their stories with Congress on Capitol Hill. I’m proud to announce that this is the first year migrants without refugee status are participating in our academy. One of these non-refugee participants is Martha Jeannette Rodriquez, originally from Colombia and now a resident of Ohio. In today’s blog post, Martha shares how her challenging journey has inspired her to give back to others and what she plans to tell her representatives on Capitol Hill.

Martha writes:

Since I’ve been in the United States, I’ve understood that God pushed me to come to this country. I’ve understood that God closed the doors in my country, Colombia, and opened the doors in this country for a mission or purpose. I had to pass through many difficult situations in my country and fight a lot of challenges here in order to learn how to help migrants and refugees. Because I suffered, I developed empathy for the migrant community and a deep desire to help them succeed in this country that I now call my own. I understand this is what God wants me to do: to help the migrants that suffered persecution, extortion, and mistreatments in their countries. To help them grow, flourish, and succeed as I did here in their new country, the United States of America.

Facing extortion and threats in Colombia

The changes in my life started 16 years ago when my father-in-law was kidnapped by guerillas and my former husband’s boss was murdered. We sold our house in an effort to pay the ransom for my father-in-law. My former spouse went to different isolated places in the mountains to speak with the extortionists by radio, but these people didn’t give us proof that they had my father-in-law.

We decided to move in with my mom and start a new life, but we lost all our capital. So we moved again to another town. While living there, we started to suffer other problems. We owned a restaurant but it failed and guerrillas started to follow us again. They threatened us, stating something would happen to our children if we didn’t give them money. I cried and prayed a lot to God asking for His protection and help.

During this time, my sister was living in the United States. She offered to adopt two of my five children. I didn’t accept. My sister suggested that I come and register two of my girls in school. She paid for our airplane tickets and we were off to the United States, leaving my other children behind with my husband and my mom.

Starting anew in the United States

When I was here, I started working in the home of a Hispanic family making money to send back to Colombia. Even though I had my sister here, I felt alone. I didn’t know English so I couldn’t be a part of their conversations with her husband or friends. After five months, my former spouse came to the United States and he applied for asylum. We received asylum on June 19, 2004, one day before my visa expired thereby giving me the opportunity to ask for the reunification of my family. My other three children came to the United States in December 2005 as a miracle from God! Living in Dayton, Ohio I felt happy, safe, loved and with so many opportunities for my children and me to improve our lives. I believed nothing was impossible.

Even though I was in my 40s at the time, I had to raise my children by myself because I divorced. I had to literally be born again! Everything looked so scary and difficult: I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the culture, or the rules, and I had to work at things that I never did before in my life. I could not work using my studies in psychology that I earned in Colombia. I had to find ways to earn a living using my hard work and my mind. I rebuilt my life from the ground up. I earned my degree in Art Studies and my children graduated school and went on to college. I am blessed with grandchildren and even managed to buy my own home. I am currently working on the Human Relations Council of the City of Dayton in the Welcome Dayton program which gives me an opportunity to work with refugees and migrants.

The LIRS Academy will develop my skills

The LIRS Academy will provide knowledge about immigration issues and develop my leadership skills to help migrants and refugees with their needs. It is my desire to help these individuals achieve their goals and have stability in their life.

I would like legislators to give opportunities to migrants and refugees to work and develop their knowledge and skills in order to improve their lives and help the United States economy. If migrants and refugees have the ability to use their skills and knowledge in their local community, the economic benefits could have a positive ripple effect by increasing tax revenue and wealth at the local, regional, state, and national levels. I want to also advocate for the positive treatment of immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. These are a lost culture of people who are suffering persecution and extortion while trying to obtain asylum or refugee status in the United States.

I was given the opportunity to succeed through hard work, determination, and education. I am ready, willing, and able to help those who desire the same opportunities when they arrive on our shores. I want to lead others to be a positive part of society in the land of the free and the home of the brave: the United States.

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