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'I Would Like To Be Free, Outside, Breathing Fresh Air': Maria's Year In 'Sanctuary'03:51
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Maria Merida has been living in “sanctuary” in a Boston-area church for more than a year. She has a final order of removal back to her native Guatemala but is hoping to apply for asylum to stay in the U.S. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Maria Merida has been living in “sanctuary” in a Boston-area church for more than a year. She has a final order of removal back to her native Guatemala but is hoping to apply for asylum to stay in the U.S. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

It's been more than a year since Maria Merida moved freely outside, more than a year since she's gone to the grocery store or gone on a walk.

That's because she's been staying in a Boston-area church, living in so-called "sanctuary" in the hopes of avoiding U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

'I Feel Safer Here, Although I'm Sad'

Merida says she keeps busy with English classes six days a week and, smiling, says she can now read some things in English. Every now and then she'll venture into the vegetable garden in the church yard, but that's rare — and she never goes farther.

"This is a problem that I'm examining myself," she says. "There's something in my heart that makes me sad. I don't feel like going outside. I feel like if I go outside, I'm going to want to go home. So, I'd rather just stay in."

Merida is from Guatemala and has a final order of removal after entering the country illegally in 1994. Her husband was deported back to Guatemala in 2016 and last year, her eldest son was, too.

Before his deportation last year, Maria's eldest son waited for immigration officials to process his paperwork after saying goodbye to his brothers. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Before his deportation last year, Maria's eldest son waited for immigration officials to process his paperwork after saying goodbye to his brothers. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Before these recent years of upheaval, she and her family lived in Lynn for more than a decade. Her husband worked as a gardener and their children went to school. Three of her sons, now 23, 19 and 17, are U.S.-born citizens. They're living on their own.

The two youngest have since dropped out of high school. Merida tries to keep in touch through text messages. Her sons aren't able to visit often. She last saw them around Christmas.

"That's what I'd love the most, to be with my sons. But I can't go there because at any moment ICE can come to the house and take me," Merida says. "So, I feel safer here, although I'm sad because my heart is broken for my sons, for my family. So here, I have the security that I'm protected."

Still, she worries.

Her eldest son was the primary source of income for the younger ones after their father was deported. Now they're largely on their own.

"My son, when he was here, he was like a father for them. He told them to go to school, and they'd go to school. Now, what happened destroyed everything because now there's no father, no big brother, there's no mother. The boys are alone in the house."

Merida says she fears for her life if she's deported back to Guatemala, where she was in an abusive relationship before marrying her husband. Because of these fears, we've agreed not to identify the location of the church.

Her attorney is waiting to hear back from the Board of Immigration Appeals on whether or not Merida's case will be re-opened and whether she'll be able to continue with an asylum claim.

Maria Merida sifts through birthday cards she received last year from members of the church congregation where she’s been living in “sanctuary” for more than a year. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Maria Merida sifts through birthday cards she received last year from members of the church congregation where she’s been living in “sanctuary” for more than a year. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In the meantime, Merida is coming up on celebrating her second birthday living in the church. She shuffles through a large pile of cards written to her last year from members of the congregation. She says this year, she hopes to celebrate outside of the church.

"Yes, I'll be 54 years old. And I would like to be free, outside, breathing fresh air. But I know that soon, my blessings will come."

This segment aired on April 11, 2019.

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Shannon Dooling Twitter Reporter
Shannon Dooling is a reporter representing WBUR on a team of public radio station journalists in the New England News Collaborative.

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