NEW ALBANY, Indiana — It wasn’t easy for Julio Araúz and Brenda Molina to leave behind the life they had created in Nicaragua. But for the family, staying in their home country was no longer an option.
The couple, along with their 7-year-old daughter, Juli, have been living in New Albany for one year after leaving Nicaragua in 2018. The family, who lived in the city of Estelí, fled their country to seek refuge from the constant threats of violence they faced in the midst of political unrest.
They interviewed for asylum in April, but months later, the decision on the family’s asylum application is still pending. They were approved for their temporary employment authorization documents just this month, and they have not been allowed to work in the United States for the past year.
The family has found a home, church and community in New Albany, and Juli has been thriving at Fairmont Elementary School. But even as they start their new lives, their future remains uncertain.
“We just had to leave and start over again, and all we want is an opportunity,” Brenda said. “We don’t want anything else. We’re not planning to be waiting on help from government or people. We want to work, we are able to work — anything, even if it’s not in our careers or what I studied for.”
In April 2018, both Julio and Brenda peacefully participated in demonstrations protesting actions by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his government, and they provided food, water and medicine to protesters. Before long, Julio was placed on a blacklist, and the couple received threats from paramilitary groups due to their political beliefs and their involvement with the protests.
According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the government’s repression of the protests killed more than 350 people in Nicaragua, and according to the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights, the numbers could be closer to 600 people.
In Nicaragua, Julio worked as an attorney and public notary, and Brenda, who has a doctorate in business administration and several master’s degrees, was an operations management professional. Three years ago, they started a food truck business in Estelí, and they owned a farm, where they grew turmeric, coffee, oranges and bananas. Before they had to leave, they were in the process of opening a restaurant.
The situation only grew more frightening — they were receiving hostile messages, including death threats, and people would yell outside their home and business telling them “anything could happen.”
In the middle of the night, the family would hear people shouting at them outside their two-story home, and they would move their daughter into the bathroom with blankets and pillows at night for protection as they monitored the situation. They frequently had to move from house to house for their safety.
“Every single day was something new going on in the morning, afternoon — you were not able to sleep or anything at all,” Brenda said. “We were waiting for something, for someone to get into the house. Then you cannot even use your car — actually, what we were doing, anytime we would go outside out of town or any kind of place, we were renting cars and moving and not traveling through the main streets or main roads.”
The situation continued to escalate. As they were driving from their farm back to Estelí, the family was intercepted by a group of armed paramilitary and police. Their car was searched, and Julio was taken from the car and interrogated. They were let go after a few hours, but that same evening, a member of the paramilitary confronted and threatened them at their business.
Knowing their lives were at risk, they left their home that night, and they left the country as soon as a visa was approved for their daughter. They had to leave nearly everything behind as they fled the country, including their businesses and property. The rest of their family remains in Nicaragua.
“How do you pack 40 years of your life into luggage?” Julio said. “It’s so difficult for us.”
When the family boarded the plane to Miami in July 2018, their main objective was to get out of the country safely. They weren’t sure what the next steps would be when they arrived in the United States.
“We just left without knowing what was going on, what was going to happen to us,” Brenda said. “We didn’t know if we were going to request an asylum. We didn’t know if we were going to have a sponsor. We didn’t think about nothing at all. We just took the plane and left, and once we arrived in the U.S., we were like, ‘oh God, we are alive. We are here. We are out of there.'”
They met with a friend at the airport, and they stayed with her for about a month in Miami. They then moved to Maryland to stay with another friend, but they were unable to rent a home of their own, since they were asked for documentation such as Social Security and employment authorization they did not yet have. They stayed in Maryland for only three weeks.
Eventually, a friend connected them with David Stemler, owner of PC Home Center in New Albany, and he and his family provided them with a house in New Albany. When the family arrived at the house on Sept. 12, 2018, they were greeted by the Stemlers and a sign welcoming them to their new home.
“That day when we received the call (about the house) was like a miracle,” Brenda said. “It was like God helping us, because at that point, we were kind of desperate.”
The couple started looking for immigration attorneys as they settled in New Albany. They applied for asylum in January, and their interview took place in April.
“As we told the officer, (many) people who come to U.S., they come because of economic reasons,” she said. “We didn’t have any reason to leave our country unless our life was not safe anymore. We just left it to protect ourselves.”
Since they haven’t been able to work, it’s been a long year, Julio said, and they have been mainly living on their savings. They had to wait 150 days after their asylum application to apply for a work authorization. They are hard-workers, he said, and they just want to offer the best life they can for their daughter.
“We only want to prove ourselves and to prove to anybody that we came here to do a very good job,” Julio said. “We just want an opportunity to work — we don’t care how we have to work. If we have to start from the bottom, we don’t care.”
Brenda said while they are relieved to have their temporary work permits, they are still faced with the uncertainty of whether their asylum request will be approved or denied.
“It’s kind of frustrating in some cases, because there’s nothing you can do more than wait,” she said. “You cannot even get more information about it — (you) just check the system and see if something changed with the process, and that’s it. You don’t know anything else about it, and you just pray.”
Julio said although he isn’t sure where they are going to be next month or next year, living in New Albany has been a “breath of peace.” They haven’t had to worry about rent thanks to the Stemlers, who have also helped them with utility expenses. He said it has been a welcoming community to his family.
“All the people over here are very kind,” he said. “When we came over here, we received help from the Stemlers and people who worked for PC Home Center. They tried to make us feel at home and get some stuff we needed.”
The family has been embraced by the community at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in New Albany. Brenda teaches catechism classes there, and Julio is becoming involved with the church’s financial board. Father Mark Weaver, the priest at St. Mary’s, has been inspired to see community members come together to support them, and he is inspired by the strength of their faith.
“It’s neat to see (the family) be so close together,” he said. “They have a strong faith despite everything they’re going through…Despite the uncertainty they are going through, they trust that God has a plan for them.”
Larry Ricke, financial services representative with Ricke & Associates, recently met Brenda and Julio through St. Mary’s, and he has been working to “fast-track” their process by connecting them with community members who can set them up with job interviews for local companies and law firms.
“We hear all the negative of immigrants coming into this country, but yet looking at these two people, this country was built on people just like them and their work ethic,” he said. “We want to try to get them intertwined in the community as quickly as we can.”
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