The last time I saw the man in the yellow Puma cap, he was walking with a group of Somalis across a rocky beach towards one of Central America's meanest jungles.
His group clearly had no idea what they was getting themselves into, and I honestly feared for their lives.
I had met the Somali crew 24 hours earlier, when they staggered out of the same jungle and collapsed on the riverbank in the Panamanian village where I was staying.
Yellow Puma cap told me his name was Mohamud, and said his group of fellow travelers—five Somali guys and a Dominican woman—had been lost in the wilderness for eight days. They were trying to make it to the United States to seek asylum, but couldn't find their way out of the Panamanian jungle.
I would later learn that most of the people in his group had just met a few weeks earlier, and were already growing suspicious of one another. But more on that later.
“We’ve been hearing this music since yesterday,” Mohamud, 35, told me as he emptied river water out of his rubber boots and nodded towards the village. “We’ve been walking and walking, crossing rivers up to our necks. Trying to avoid snakes. We never realized we were going in circles.”
Twenty-four hours later, I was standing on Panama's desolate and rocky coastline saying goodbye to the Somalis and asking the one named Yussuf to contact me on Facebook when he made it to the United States.
The group had a small supply of water and cigarettes, an indigenous guide who they hired for $200, and clothes that hadn't fully dried.
As I watched them melt into the wilderness, I wondered morosely if the article I was going to write about them would end up being their obituary.
Best case scenario: The Somalis would complete the grueling multi-day hike through the woods to Meteti, the northern gateway to the impenetrable 4,600 square-mile jungle known as the Darién Gap. From there they could take the Inter-American Highway the rest of the way north.
Worst case scenario: The guide would ditch the Somalis first chance he got, and my photograph of the hapless travelers trudging up the beach would be their last.
The worst case scenario also seemed the most likely; from eavesdropping on the Panamanians, I learned that the guide had no intention of hiking all the way to Meteti and back.
The jungle is not a place for amateur hikers. In the Darién Gap, danger lurks at every bend in the form of insects, snakes, swollen rivers and slippery falls. It's also entirely disorienting and easy to get lost.
But what worried Mohamud most about his journey was the risk of getting discovered as a Christian convert among a group of devout Muslims. I could read the fear in his eyes before we parted ways on the beach.
"You have to help me," Mohamud told me the night before, pulling me outside a thatched roof hut and speaking in a whispered tone. "If these guys find out I'm Christian, anything could happen to me."
Mohamud, a Kenyan-born ethnic Somali, said he had been fleeing religious persecution from Muslims for decades. Now he was putting his life in the hands of five strangers who he thought represented the same type of men he had been running from his whole adult life.
Flash forward six months. I'm sitting at my desk in Miami when a mysterious Facebook message from a kindly stranger pops up on my laptop informing me that Mohamud Nageye—the Somali in the yellow Puma cap—is being held at Homeland Security's Krome Detention Center, 35 minutes from where I live.
It was the first I had heard about anyone from that group. I had spent months trying unsuccessfully to connect with Yussef on Facebook, and always wondered if he and his group had been detained, deported, or worse.
So I was happy to hear that Mohamud had made it to the U.S., and was dying to hear his story. After going through the paperwork formalities with Homeland Security, I sat down with him last Tuesday at the Krome Detention Center, on the edge of the Florida Everglades.
Mohamud's story is in equal measures breathtaking and heart-wrenching. It's also amazing to think that what happened to Mohamud and his Somali crew is happening—in a similarly dramatic fashion—to thousands of other people around the world each day as they flee violence and oppression in their homeland.
Honestly, the next time some dimwitted fool says something disparaging about refugees, do the world a favor and dump a cold drink on their head. I've interviewed refugees on three continents in the past year and I've found them to be some of the strongest, bravest and most determined people I've ever met.
Somalis are now the third largest group of foreign nationals (behind Burmese and Iraqis) seeking asylum here. Last year alone, the United States granted refugee status to 8,858 Somalis, a number that's consistent with previous years. According to government data, only 120 undocumented Somalis were deported from the U.S. last year.
Now I'm not smart enough to know what those numbers mean for Mohamud's chances of getting asylum in the U.S., but after talking to him for two hours at Krome this week I can tell you that he has given it his all just to get here.
I had the dumb luck of being born in this country, for which I'm eternally grateful. But to people like Mohamud, who has gone through a life-risking physical challenge to cross the world to get here, all I can do is doff my cap and say welcome to the hood. Honestly, I can't image anyone who deserves to be in this country more than the people who fight to get here to live a life of freedom and opportunity. Isn't that the spirit that made America great in the first place?
But wow, I've gotten way off track. Let's get back to Mohamud's story, shall we?
At the Krome Detention Center, Mohamud confirmed my suspicions from that day on the beach.His group got abandoned almost immediately after heading into the jungle. The Kuna guide pressed the group for more money once they reached the top of the first mountain ridge. When the Somalis demurred, the guide pumped his shotgun and retreated into the jungle while holding them off at barrel point.
Left alone in the wilderness, the group scrambled down the back of the mountainside as the sun fell from the sky. Everything about their surroundings was foreign, disorienting and ominous.
"There were gorillas [howler monkeys] yelling everywhere, and calling the other monkeys. They kept gathering so close and following us. We had to keep moving," Mohamud said.
As night fell, the group made it to a valley intersected by two rivers. They were officially lost, muddied and exhausted. They cut banana leaves and tried to make a bedding on an alluvial strip of riverbank sand, where they spent the night haunted by the howls and chattering of the darkened jungle.
For the next five days the lost Africans stumbled blindly up and down mountain ridges, arguing about what direction to go, and feeling increasingly desperate. One day they spent several hours walking in what felt like a giant circle only to discover that's exactly what it was—they were back to where they had started.
The group was growing increasingly panicked and hungry. Mohamud told me the canned tuna, crackers and sardines I bought them in the village was the last real meal they ate. Soon they became too tired to scavenge. That's when they made a pact. "We had an agreement that if any of us died in the jungle, the rest of us would bury him," Mohamud said.
Injured, near-starving and defeated, the group decided to follow the river back to the ocean in hopes of flagging down a passing boat. They walked for three more days, but never made it.
"Mahat couldn't walk any further, and we didn't have the strength to dig a hole for him. So he told us, 'Brothers, we don't all have to die together. Leave me here. You go'."
The pact was broken. The group made the tough decision to leave their friend behind, to die alone on an unknown river bank 8,700 miles from home.
"It was a hard decision, but we were too weak. We had already thrown all our bags and clothes into the jungle, and we all had to lean on walking sticks. We were just trying to save ourselves," said Mohamud, who lost his yellow Puma cap when it was slapped off his head by a tree branch during a frantic scramble up a muddied slope.
Suddenly the group experienced their first stroke of good luck: Trash on the riverbank. They followed the trail of litter to a small hut in a clearing. It was the most beautiful home they had ever seen.
"We were so happy we just fell down. Their dogs found us first, they ran over and started barking. Then an old lady and her husband came out to see. We cried for help. They saw how bad we were and made us coffee."
The group told the campesinos where they had left Mahat back by the river, and the man went to fetch their friend on horseback.
Mohamud says the campesinos told them they were in an area known as Membrillo. That means the Somalis were less than 20 miles from where I had dropped them off on the beach more than a week earlier. They had been wandering in a giant circle.
The next morning they were brought upriver to the nearest national guard outpost, where they spent 20 days recovering in the community. Mohamud says Mahat was "very, very sick" after being rescued from the riverbank, and it took him a few weeks to regain enough strength to walk again.
Villagers, curious to see the mysterious African guests, welcomed the Somalis with new clothing and bananas. Carolina, the Dominican woman traveling with the group, did all the translating. Mohamud insists she wasn't a member of the FARC, as the Kuna had suspected.
It was in Membrillo that the Somalis began to pray to Allah. They noticed that Mohamud didn't join them. Mohamud says he did his best to keep his distance, but several of the more devout Muslims in the group started to question his faith.
"They knew I wasn't one of them, but Yussuf didn't care. He was a good friend," Mohamud said.
After nearly three weeks in the village, the group was taken by patrol boat to Meteti, the gateway to the Darien Gap. Meteti is a rather unremarkable town, except for the fact that it has become a bizarre international hub for stranded travelers who get lost in the Panamanian jungle on the way to the United States.
"We were put in a camp with Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Africans. There were probably more than 100 people there," Mohamud said. They would find similar crowds of detained Africans and Asians throughout Central America and Mexico, Mohamud said.
Mohamud took advantage of the situation to distance himself further from the devout Muslims in his group. When Panamanian authorities finally released the travelers under orders to leave the country within 48 hours, Mohamud teamed up with Yussuf and Mahat to take leave from the other Somalis.
The rest of their trip north was a series of misadventures, Mohamud said—paying smugglers to sneak them across borders, turning themselves in or getting caught by authorities, then spending weeks in jail while they got fingerprinted and processed. Yussuf and Mahat got money wires in Panama City and paid for Mohamud until a friend in Angola wired him $1,000 in Mexico to pay them back.
They got smuggled into Costa Rica in the back of an ambulance, sneaked into Nicaragua by moonlight, and trotted into Honduras on horseback. They spent a month in jail in Nicaragua, and spent Christmas Eve in a forlorn detention center in southern Honduras.
Guatemala was a breeze—72 hours to cross the country by bus without incident—and Mexico was mostly uneventful, after getting detained in Tapachula for 12 days.
At one point Mohamud became very ill with what sounds like dengue, but got taken to a state hospital in Nicaragua and nursed back to health. He says everyone they came in contact with in Central America treated them with kindness. And everywhere they went, they encountered scores of other Africans making the same journey.
Mohamud says he finally parted ways with Yussef and Mahat in Mexico City, and bought a domestic flight to Matamoros with the immigration card provided by the federales. From there, he walked across the bridge into Brownsville, Texas, and turned himself over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It was Jan. 25. Mohamud had traveled 2,500 miles in the 14 weeks since I had seen him.
Now he's in the Krome Detention Center fighting for religious asylum without a lawyer and without any family to take him in. He thanks the U.S. government for treating him well in detention, but says he longs to finally be free to "give my life to Jesus" and spend the rest of his days studying the Bible.
"I came to the U.S. because I thought I'd be free, but from the day I left my country I have gone from prison to prison," he told me through tears. "I would be very happy to have freedom. I have never had a place in life. I have never known joy."
Mohamud, who was born an ethnic Somali to Muslim parents in northern Kenya, says he has been fleeing religious persecution ever since he converted to Christianity in his twenties. His father, an ethnic Somali of the Madhiban tribe, was killed in northern Kenya in 1994. His mom died of a heart attack shortly after. That forced Mohamud, at the age of 15, to raise his younger sisters by himself.
He says his tribe turned on him when he tried to spare his sisters from genital mutilation. He said he couldn't stop it, and his youngest sister was killed. Mohamud fled to Nairobi with his other two sisters, where he says he tried to protect them from the advances of older men who wanted to force the girls into marriage. Mohamud said he was beaten and jailed for resisting.
One of his sisters was eventually taken and forced into marriage. Mohamud later got word that she died. It's not clear what happened to his other sister. Some of the details of his story are confusing, and there's no way to verify what he told me. But it's his story, so there you go.
Mohamud says he tried to start a family of his own by getting married and having a daughter. But he married outside his tribe, and his wife's family had him jailed.
Mohamud turned to Christianity, but says he was attacked while praying with friends. He says people burst into the apartment and hit him in the head with a steel pipe and stabbed his friend with a knife. That's when he decided he'd had enough of Kenya and Somalia and wanted to get as far away as possible from Africa.
"I decided to save my life and go far, far, far away where nobody could find me," Mohamud said.
Unfortunately, the country he was recommended to move to was Haiti—a country Mohamud knew nothing about. He says he moved to Port-au-Prince in 2013 and was granted refugee status, only to be relocated to Cité Soleil, the country's largest slum. He says he was robbed and beaten up repeatedly by people trying to steal the clothes he was given by the NGO that was sponsoring his relocation. He says one time he was attacked so brutally for a pair of shoes that he suffered a broken nose.
"I didn't know anything about Haiti; I was just running for my life," he says.
He finally fled Haiti and landed in Cuba, where he met several African fixers who promised to get him started on a new life in the United States. "They told me the only place you can be safe is in America."
The Africans put Mohamud in touch with a mysterious Jamaican man who claimed to be one of biggest human traffickers in the Americas. Mohamud says he paid $3,000 to fly to Venezuela, get smuggled across the border into Colombia, and paired with another group of Somali travelers who the Jamaican was already smuggling to the United States.
The Jamaican, of course, disappeared with everybody's money, leaving Mohamud and the Somalis to fend for themselves in Colombia. The group met up with a Dominican woman who was also stranded, and the rest is history.
I met them eight days later in Panama.
Mohamud's fate now rests in the hands of a judge in Miami. He has applied for asylum on the grounds of religion, race and torture, but has nobody to help him plea his case.
Mohamud is alone in a cruel world. He has no remaining family, other than his estranged daughter who was taken from him when she was nine months old. She'll turn eight in August, wherever she is.
His only two friends, Yussef and Mahat, lost contact four months ago in Mexico City.
"I wish them good luck, and I hope they are are safe," he told me. "They were my good friends."
The judge is expected to rule on Mohamud's case by July 6. If life is going to give him one break in his 35 years on earth, he prays it'll be in the form of asylum.
"If I lose my case, they will send me back to Kenya," Mohamud told me though short-breath tears. "But if they rule against me, I am going to ask the judge to please let me finish my life here in detention."
يوسف اذا قرأت هذه الرسالة تواصل معي على الفيس بوك