A nurse’s journey from treating Covid in Brazil to demise within the US desert | Brazil

As coronavirus tore via the Valley of Paradise, a farm-flanked backwater within the Brazilian Amazon, Lenilda dos Santos, a nurse technician, stood on the frontline clutching palms most feared to the touch.

“She was a warrior in the course of the pandemic,” mentioned Lucineide Oliveira, a good friend and colleague on the city’s small, understaffed hospital. “She’d say: ‘If we now have to die, we’ll die. However we should struggle.’”

However one morning in early August, as the 2 girls sat on the entrance to their Covid ward, Lenilda introduced she was leaving. “When?” Lucineide requested her good friend. “Quickly,” Lenilda replied, including phrases of reassurance: “I’ll be again.”

The doorway to Vale do Paraíso, a rural backwater within the Amazon state of Rondônia the place Lenilda dos Santos had lived and labored. The scripture reads: ‘The Lord will maintain you from all hurt.’ {Photograph}: Avener Prado/The Guardian

Two days later Lenilda, 49, headed out of city previous a sculpture of a Bible open at Psalm 121. “The Lord will maintain you from all hurt – he’ll watch over your life,” the inscription reads.

She by no means returned. 5 weeks later and greater than 4,000 miles north, US border patrol brokers discovered Lenilda’s physique within the desert close to the city of Deming, New Mexico. She was curled up by a mesquite bush, sporting gentle brown tactical boots and armed forces fatigues, and had little along with her however a blue Brazilian passport tucked right into a waist bag.

The incident report mentioned she was “positioned as if she was mendacity down on her proper aspect, legs barely bent and her palms masking her face.”

Capt Michael Brown, one of many regulation enforcement officers on the scene, mentioned: “I’ll be sincere with you, this explicit case in all probability hit me tougher than another case that I’ve had with the migrants out within the desert. My coronary heart simply ached for her.”

Brazil-New Mexico journey

The character of Lenilda’s demise was not the one factor that shocked the officer. Her nationality was additionally uncommon in a area the place most crossers are from Mexico or Central America.

“This was the primary Brazilian particular person I’d encountered, alive or lifeless,” mentioned Brown, who has labored on the US-Mexico border for 26 years. “It clearly says that the circumstances the place she is from are getting simply as unhealthy as they’re in every single place else.”

A coronavirus-era despair is driving a brand new, perilous exodus from South America as middle- and lower-middle-class households flee the monetary hardship, unemployment and inflation wrought by the well being disaster.

“The world area that took the best hit to complete financial output in 2020 was Latin America – a 7% decline. That’s roughly what you’ll anticipate from a 12 months of civil conflict in a typical nation,” mentioned Michael Clemens, a migration professional on the Middle for International Improvement.

Different elements included the US restoration, the choking off of most lawful migration channels below Donald Trump, and the mistaken perception amongst migrants that Joe Biden can be much less hostile than his predecessor.

Genifer Oliveira dos Santos, the 28-year-old daughter of Lenilda dos Santos, looks at photo albums with pictures of her mother.
Genifer Oliveira dos Santos, the 28-year-old daughter of Lenilda, seems to be at picture albums with footage of her mom. {Photograph}: Avener Prado/The Guardian

A lot of these abandoning South America are Haitians who fled to international locations resembling Brazil and Chile after their homeland was hit by a lethal earthquake in 2010. Covid has uprooted them once more, with greater than 90,000 Haitians marching via the Darién Hole, a treacherous jungle passage between Colombia and Panama, in the direction of the US this 12 months.

However a rising variety of South Individuals are additionally on the transfer. Greater than 46,000 Brazilians have been detained on the US southern border between October 2020 and August 2021, when Lenilda started her remaining journey, in contrast with fewer than 18,000 in 2019 and 284 a decade earlier. The variety of Ecuadorians has additionally soared, with practically 89,000 apprehended over the identical interval, in contrast with about 13,000 in 2019.

“It’s onerous to overestimate how a lot for some individuals this was a livelihood-destroying recession … Covid has set every part again,” mentioned Andrew Selee, the president of the Washington-based Migration Coverage Institute. “This has actually taken us 30 or 40 years again to a time when the economies in South America have been actually fragile.”

Family members say Lenilda, who spent three years working as a cleaner in Columbus, Ohio, from 2004 to 2007, started plotting her escape from Brazil earlier this 12 months after a gruelling stint battling Covid on the hospital for simply 1,100 reais (£145) a month.

“What are you able to do with 1,100 reais?” requested her daughter, Genifer Oliveira dos Santos, as she sat on the veranda of her mom’s bungalow on Paradise Avenue, just a few doorways down from the hospital.

Genifer, 28, mentioned her mom had deliberate to return to Ohio, the place she nonetheless had family and friends, to assist fund her two daughters via faculty.

Lucineide Oliveira, a friend and colleague of Lenilda dos Santos at the hospital where they both battled against the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lucineide Oliveira, a good friend and colleague of Lenilda on the hospital the place they each battled in opposition to the Covid-19 pandemic. {Photograph}: Avener Prado/The Guardian

In April Lenilda flew to Mexico and surrendered to US immigration officers close to the city of Mexicali, hoping they might permit her to remain whereas her asylum request was processed. As a substitute she was arrested and spent three months in a warehouse-like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) detention centre in Calexico earlier than being deported to Brazil in July.

“It was fairly merciless,” mentioned her brother Leci Pereira. However Lenilda was decided to return.

Lower than a month later, on 12 August, she left Vale do Paraíso for a second time. She boarded a airplane to Mexico Metropolis and made for a distinct stretch of the border after agreeing to pay smugglers $25,000 (£18,000) to information her via the desert from Ascensión, within the Mexican state of Chihuahua, to a protected home in Deming.

“She mentioned it might take two days and two nights, as a result of it’s a good distance – over 50km,” Genifer mentioned.

Within the early hours of Monday 6 September, Lenilda set off in the direction of the US border with three childhood pals and a smuggler. “She was actually assured. She simply appeared so blissful,” mentioned Genifer, who remembered being assured that by Thursday her mom would have arrived.

Issues shortly went unsuitable, nonetheless, because the group trudged north via mountainous terrain in what Brown mentioned would have been punishing circumstances. “From July to the center of September is monsoon season for us, so we’re coping with summer season desert temperatures – wherever from mid-90s up – and … I’m guessing in all probability 70% humidity or extra,” he mentioned. “So it was terribly scorching.”

A weathered backpack left behind by a migrant in the desert between Mexico and the US.
A weathered backpack left behind by a migrant within the desert between Mexico and the US. {Photograph}: Alamy Inventory Photograph

Brown suspects Lenilda fell behind on account of exhaustion and dehydration. “There was no water discovered wherever close to her … and [in the] greatest circumstances on this space, at the moment of 12 months and temperature, she wouldn’t have lasted any greater than three days tops with out water.”

By Monday afternoon, Lenilda’s household consider, she had been deserted as her companions pressed on. Panicked, she turned on her cell phone to ask kinfolk for assist. “Ask them to carry me some water,” Leci remembered his sister begging in a WhatsApp voice message. “I’m dying of thirst.”

Lenilda shared her reside location, and over the approaching hours distraught kinfolk 1000’s of miles away within the Amazon tracked her actions throughout a desolate outback inhabited largely by coyotes, cattle and gophers.

Then, at 3.08pm native time on Tuesday, the orange circle marking Lenilda’s place ceased to maneuver. “That was the second we realised she hadn’t made it,” Leci mentioned. “She saved so many lives, solely to go off to Mexico and lose her personal.”

It could take police one other eight days to find Lenilda’s stays. “It’s at all times a horrible factor to search out. Your coronary heart goes out to them. They’re simply making an attempt to return throughout and discover a new life,” mentioned Brown, who believed the sufferer had come tantalisingly near discovering assist.

“Had she made it 400 yards north she in all probability might have been capable of make contact with any individual who lives in a caravan.”

A black ribbon commemorates Lenilda dos Santos at the hospital in Vale do Paraíso where she worked
A black ribbon commemorates Lenilda dos Santos on the hospital in Vale do Paraíso the place she labored. {Photograph}: Avener Prado/The Guardian

Lenilda’s demise has rattled Vale do Paraíso, a close-knit farming neighborhood that was itself based by migrants when Brazil’s navy dictatorship bulldozed a freeway via the rainforest 50 years in the past. A black ribbon was hung on the hospital’s entrance in recognition of Lenilda’s providers in the course of the pandemic. “She was so liked,” mentioned Pereira. “The entire city is in mourning.”

He urged Brazilians to contemplate the hazards of becoming a member of the exodus. “My sister, poor factor, she went chasing a dream. However that dream was interrupted. And our desires? Simply have a look at what has occurred to them now.”

However as South America reels from Covid, such pleas seem prone to fall on deaf ears. “I do know six or seven {couples} who went final week, all of them with their children, even after what occurred,” mentioned Genifer, who believes hovering meals and gasoline costs partly clarify why so many are leaving.

On the city’s now empty Covid unit, Lucineide recalled making an attempt to speak Lenilda out of going. The pair had dreamed of opening a wound clinic collectively as soon as Lenilda, who would have turned 50 this week, returned house.

“Oh, my good friend,” Lucineide murmured, glancing up on the ceiling with incredulous, bloodshot eyes.

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