A pillar of strength and hope
A mother’s desperate search for her daughter highlights how easily people can fall out of touch — even in the digital age.
There was just one day left of the 2017 Caravan of Central American mothers — an annual tour in which women from Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua travel thousands of kilometres into Mexico searching for missing children. This was Pilar’s third tour and it represented perhaps her last chance to find Olga, her daughter who went missing eight years ago. Despite of her cold foreboding, she clung to a sliver of hope.
The next morning, Dilma Pilar woke up with the same strange feeling of sadness. In a few hours, the tour would be over. The mothers’ caravan would be setting off from Tenosique — about 50 kilometres from the Guatemalan border in the Mexican state of Tobasco — back to Honduras.
In the last year, Pilar had received several clues that her daughter was alive from a Mexican agency that helps families of migrants reunite, and just a few days before, she had seen a video of her daughter taken by a group that supports migrant families.
But she still had no concrete information on how to track Olga down and it seemed her chances of finding her on this tour — a big undertaking for someone with limited means — were thinning.
Dilma Pilar Escobar is one of hundreds of Honduran mothers who have endured the emotional torment of losing track of family members as a result of migration. Her story shows how — even in this age of interconnectivity, with cell phones seemingly everywhere — people can fall through the cracks.
It’s not uncommon, for example, for migrants to lose cell phones on the long journey into or through Mexico. When that happens, their loved ones’ phone numbers and addresses (as well as social media passwords) may also be lost.
For people struggling to survive day to day, and who may not wish to cross borders due to their legal status, it is often not possible to get on a bus and go home. Any number of other obstacles — even psychological or emotional barriers such as guilt or shame about their circumstances — might keep people from staying in touch.
All Dilma Pilar knew about Olga was that she was alive. At breakfast, a couple of other mothers mentioned that there was to be a press conference before their departure. Dilma Pilar assumed it had been called to share the news about two Honduran mothers who had found their sons during this year’s two-week caravan. For her part, Dilma Pilar felt a growing sense of dread for another year of waiting and agony.
The harrowing uncertainty
Ever since her daughter suddenly left Honduras on 10 October 2009, Dilma Pilar never lost hope that the two would one day be reunited. On that fateful day, Olga Edelmira left home as usual for her factory job in San Pedro Sula, about 40 minutes from El Progreso. But at the end of the day, she never returned.
Dilma Pilar stayed up all night waiting. There was no chance of sleeping; Olga had twin baby girls who were just a few months old.
“They cried for their mother to breastfeed them,” recalls Dilma Pilar. “I couldn’t go to sleep until I had fed the girls with a bottle.
“The next day, at four in the morning, I went to the house of my other daughter, Nilvia, who lives nearby, and told her that Olga had not come home.
Nilvia and I spent all day calling neighbours, relatives and friends to ask if they had any news of Olga. When we thought enough time had passed, we went to the police, but they would not do anything, saying that we would have to wait 48 hours to file a missing persons report.
Then I went to the hospital in San Pedro Sula, but she wasn’t there. Bracing myself for the worst, I decided to go and look for her at the morgue. There they told me that no dead women had been brought in.”
When Dilma Pilar and Nilvia left the morgue, they caught a taxi. The taxi driver was reading a newspaper, and Dilma Pilar saw a story about two women found murdered in San Manuel Cortés. She asked the taxi driver if it was that day’s paper, and he said that it was. She thought that one of the women in the photos in the newspaper was Olga.
“Look, that’s her!” she said to Nilvia, distraught.
“No!” said Nilvia, “Those shoes aren’t hers; she was wearing sandals.”
They decided to return to the morgue to check if Olga was there. As they went in again, Dilma Pilar said: “I hope I can take my daughter with me.”
“Don’t get upset,” one of the morgue officials said to her. “Your daughter hasn’t been brought here. She must be alive…”
One of the psychologists at the morgue invited Dilma Pilar to take a look at the bodies.
“Don’t worry, I’ll give you my number and you can ring me to see if we have any news,” the psychologist reassured her.
After an intense three-day search, Dilma Pilar returned home distraught and in tears to see her grandchildren, not knowing what else she could do.
A few weeks later, Dilma received a call from Olga who said she was very sorry. She was ok but had to leave Honduras quickly after a threat of violence made against her,.She said she would send money for the kids. But after a few conversations, the phone calls stopped..
“Those were difficult times. I didn’t want the night to come as I couldn’t sleep for wondering where my daughter could be,” admits Dilma Pilar, thinking back to that traumatic time.
“I couldn’t eat either. My grandchildren kept saying “Yaya” – that is their name for her – “Yaya, why are you crying?”
Edges of the mirror
In her home in a modest neighbourhood in El Progreso, Dilma Pilar still has a big mirror in a black, wooden frame, worn with age. On the edges of the mirror, there are still some little stickers of pink houses, a reminder of the home Olga should never have left.
Every morning, Dilma Pilar would stare into the mirror, remembering how Olga used to comb her hair before setting out for work.
This is how she spent her mornings for almost a year, trapped between the mirror and her sorrow, until one day her daughter Nilvia, concerned about her emotional state, decided to accompany her to COFAMIPRO (a committee of families of migrants who’ve gone missing) after hearing an advertisement on the radio about the support it provides to families.
“Dilma Pilar cried when she first came; she couldn’t talk about the disappearance of her daughter,” recalls 74-year-old Edita Maldonado, known as Doña Edita one of COFAMIPRO’s founding mothers.
At that time, COFAMIPRO did not have an office, and for a couple of years Edita’s house doubled as a centre for recording reports of missing migrants.
“This year (2017) has been a very successful one,” she says with a smile. “We could never have imagined that three mothers would find their missing sons and daughters.”.
Since COFAMIPRO was founded in 1998, around 200 missing people have been found, according to the committee’s figures.
“Most of the mothers who come to COFAMIPRO are looking for support and for answers,” explains Edita, who found her daughter, Rosa Lidia, who had been missing for five years (she has since died, in 2014). “They have been tormented for days, weeks, months or years by the uncertainty of not knowing whether their sons or daughters are alive or not. The first thing they need is emotional support.”.
“She was ill when she came back,” recalls Edita, her voice tinged with sadness. “I had her with me for a couple of years after I found her, but it was migration that took her life.”,
In spite of her grief, Edita still has the energy to continue helping the families who join COFAMIPRO. “When a mother is reunited with her missing son or daughter, we cry with joy, we cry with happiness. Every reunion is a heart that is healed.”
Holding on to hope
Each time Dilma Pilar set out from Honduras with the Caravan (her first was in 2011), she did so with joy and optimism, imagining that she would find her daughter on one of the streets the caravan passed through.. When this did not happen, she would return with a heavy weight on her heart.
“My daughter has been killed,” she would repeat to herself over and over as she returned to Honduras after the first two journeys.
One day, the national and international media reported the mass murder of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas. That was in August 2010. Dilma Pilar was watching the television with her daughter, Nilvia, who is five years older than Olga. The first thought that passed through her mind was: “My daughter is there.” Sixteen of the seventy-four bodies, most of them Honduran, discovered by the Mexican authorities were women.
“No, mama, don’t say that. As long as Olga’s body is not found, we must not give up hope,” Nilvia said, holding her mother’s hands and trying to console her.
In spite of news stories like this, Dilma Pilar never gave up. She had to find Olga whether she was dead or alive. She was determined to know what had happened. With the support of various institutions, Dilma Pilar kept up her search. In 2013, members of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team took DNA samples from the family members of migrants. Occasionally, COFAMIPRO mothers were notified that the remains of their missing sons or daughters had been found.
This continued until mid-2016, when she received the first indication that her daughter was alive through the MAE, the external support mechanism created by the government of Mexico to assist families in their search for missing migrants.
Several months after COFAMIPRO supported Dilma Pilar in submitted a search request with MAE, a report came through with a photo. It was her: Olga Edelmira. She had changed a little over this time but was still the same short, dark-haired, dark-skinned girl, with a shy smile. She was in Tuxtla-Gutiérrez.
“That’s her; she hasn’t changed at all. She still does her hair in the same way in a bun,” she said to herself.
The report stated that her daughter was alive and had been issued a residence permit in Mexico in April 2016. In January 2017, Olga applied to renew her residence permit. Through the MAE, it was established that Olga had requested two birth certificates. In this way, Dilma Pilar learned that her daughter had two more children, a boy of five and a girl of three. Olga was not just alive; she had started a new family.
Encouraged by this proof that Olga was alive, Dilma Pilar decided to go with the caravan of mothers again in December with the hope of being reunited with Olga. However, when the caravan reached Tuxtla-Gutiérrez, they were unable to make contact with her daughter. They put up flyers in the streets around the city, featuring the most recent photograph and a temporary telephone number in Mexico for anyone who recognized her or who had more information to call.
Five days later, after the mothers’ caravan had left Tuxtla to continue its journey, a Salvadorean woman who worked with migrants in the area called the number on the flyers to say that they had found someone who looked like Olga. They sent a short video using the WhatsApp application to confirm it was in fact her. In the video, Olga said that she was alright, that she was sorry for not having been in touch in all this time, that she had lost her mobile and that she hoped to see her mother soon.
The video encouraged Dilma Pilar to continue the journey with the other mothers, hoping to see her on the way back. But on that chilly night before leaving Honduras, there was still no additional news on how to reach Olga and she went to bed anxious and deeply disappointed.
What she didn’t know was that the “press conference” organized for the morning before their departure was in fact a meeting — set up by the Caravan members —that would end in tears of joy and a long-awaited embrace or her daughter Olga.
As it turned out, she also got to meet and hug her two new grandchildren, Moisés and Valeria, aged seven and five, who were waiting, along with her daughter’s husband, to surprise her in one of the meeting rooms at the hotel that was the last stop on the caravan’s tour, surrounded by the other mothers and a number of journalists. The supposed press conference culminated in this emotional reunion, ending eight years of anguish.
As the two spoke in the coming days, Pilar finally learned the full reason that her daughter left Honduras so abruptly many years ago. A few days before she took the decision to leave, she witnessed a break-in and robbery at her landlord’s house next door to their home. The thief, a neighbour, threatened to kill her if she reported him. Gripped with fear, she decided to migrate, without notice, along with some colleagues at the factory.
‘A second family’
On a rainy February morning in the city of El Progreso, almost two months after Dilma Pilar was able to embrace her daughter again, she has come to share her story with other mothers and families who belong to COFAMIPRO,
“I want them to know that I am here to help them and that it is alright to cry but that they must not give up their search. Just as I found my daughter, they can find their missing loved ones too one day,” she explains.
Pilar herself has become a pillar of sorts for other families, in part due to training offered by the ICRC to assist groups of families of missing migrants deal with the emotional and psychological toll of their situation. The training is provided directly by the ICRC’s Mental Health and Psychosocial Support services as part of the Missing Migrants programme, which aims to develop and strengthen capacities and skills to provide a first response for families facing crises of this kind.
In addition to providing training to volunteer psychologists, the ICRC has also held crisis intervention workshops to strengthen the capacities of the mothers involved the the support committees, including Dilma Pilar. The aim is to enable mothers to provide immediate assistance to new mothers joining the committees to search for missing loved ones.
“Dilma Pilar has the qualities required to form a bond with families and assist them because she has the ability to understand their suffering, listen actively to what they have to say and answer their questions based on her own experience,” says Karla Romero, an ICRC psychologist who has been providing support to the committees of families over the past year.
“We are a second family,” Dilma Pilar says of women in the support group. “Here, anyone who is cold receives warmth.”