The Lilith Blog 1 of 3

May 28, 2020 Andrea Hodos

When Will the Counting End?

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot starts tonight. My husband, Aryeh, and I have been counting many things over the past several months: 1) the days of quarantine. 2) the omer. 3) the days that Darwin Ramos will remain with us in our home. Like everything else this year, Shavuot will be different. Not only because of the quarantine, but also because we will be spending this holiday in quarantine with Darwin.

Aryeh and I were at an immigration protest downtown at the Metropolitan Detention Center last August when we met Darwin for the first time. Aryeh is a Talmud professor and a community organizer, and had helped to organize this protest. Our observant and progressive Jewish communities convened for a ceremony to commemorate Tisha B’av and to highlight family separation and the deaths that were occurring on the border and in detention centers.  

Darwin and Andrea at Tisha B'av actionDarwin’s story was shared as part of the ceremony. We heard about his torture at the hands of Honduran drug cartels who were threatened by his environmental activism, the journey he took northward to save his life, and his experiences as an asylum-seeker here in the U.S. That day we got just a chapter of his story.

A mutual friend introduced us. He was helping Darwin to secure reliable housing after release from the Adelanto Detention Center. We were about to become empty-nesters. Could we take him in? We had a lot of questions. How would we explain kashrut and shabbat? Would he be okay without being able to cook meat in the house? We have one shower in our house, would that be comfortable for him and for us? With my college Spanish and Aryeh’s very basic activist Spanish, would we be able to communicate if there were things that weren’t working for him or for us? What would it feel like for us to have a stranger living in our home?

In October, after the holidays were over, we decided to give it a month’s trial. Darwin arrived with his things, friendly but a bit nervous. He stayed in our son’s room, and we didn’t see much of him. He was out most of the day at appointments and to meet up with activist friends, but he did seem comfortable asking us for things as he needed them. It took a little while to work out a few things, but from the start, it was surprisingly easy to have Darwin in the house with us. 

We were all beginning to feel more comfortable with one another. When Darwin and I were in the kitchen at the same time, we might get caught up in animated conversations: national and global politics, family, religion. Occasionally, I walked into the kitchen to find Aryeh in a theological conversation via Google Translate with Darwin, who had attended seminary as part of his activist training. Darwin is enthusiastic and curious, warm and intelligent, fierce in his perspectives but gentle in demeanor. Slowly, we started to get pieces of Darwin’s story. As part of building his court case, Darwin’s lawyer had connected him with the Project for Torture Victims. As he worked with the psychologist, Darwin began sharing more of his story. 

The first story he began to tell us was about being captured by the cartels. He was tortured, and forced at gunpoint to unload cocaine from light planes landing from Columbia and Venezuela before reloading it onto horses for the trip north. From January through March, we listened as he shared pieces of his experiences, but it wasn’t always easy to understand how they fit together.

As he watched us preparing for Passover, I told Darwin about our seders usually filled with people asking and answering questions about our people’s story long into the night. This year, it would be just two us—or maybe three? We found a haggadah with Spanish translation, and Darwin joined us for the first night. He traveled with us all the way through the first part of the haggadah up to dinner. As we shared the stories and symbolism with him, he shared his own insights about the haggadah, moved by both its universal and particular messages. 

Aryeh and I did the second seder ourselves, but Darwin joined us for dinner. Over an extended dinner, Darwin’s story unfolded as he put the pieces together for us. It was a very different haggadah than the night before. The first story he had shared with us came into greater focus now. The organization he worked for sent him to document illegal clear-cutting of the forests, believing that it was being done for cattle-grazing. Darwin discovered that the clear-cutting was actually to create an airstrip for drug trafficking. As he continued, we learned about death squads and assassination lists. He was number eleven and the first nine people had already been killed by the time he tried to come north the first time. 

On his second trip north, he ended up in detention between Arizona and Texas for five months. At that time, he was bearing documentation of the connection between the cartels, the police and the army. He was taken to the Honduran consulate for deportation and presented to the Minister of Security, Oscar Alvarez. Not yet understanding that Alvarez was part of the “big mafia,” Darwin handed over the documents—proof of widespread corruption—to Alvarez who told US immigration he would return Darwin safely. Darwin was met at the airport in Honduras at gunpoint by the police who arrested him “for his own protection” and delivered him directly to the cartels for further torture. We were together, in quarantine, over a three-day holiday, so there was a lot of time to sit and talk. At the end of lunch, Aryeh went off for a shabbat nap; Darwin and I remained at the table. We reflected a bit on his journey to LA and to our house and how fortunate we were that life had brought us together. He expressed gratitude for being with us. I returned that we were grateful for his presence in our home. “Es de Dios” he said. I don’t know if it’s from God, but it certainly has felt beshert, “meant to be

We also spoke about the uncertainty that lies ahead. Because of COVID-19, Darwin’s court date has been indefinitely postponed. After getting caught up in the courts at Adelanto, his work permit seems like it may finally be on the horizon. He and his lawyer continue to work on research and strategy for his case. A case like his that would, in other times, seem like a slam dunk, is no longer reliably so. The immigration court wants to see evidence, most of which has been erased by the government or no longer exists, and to hear testimony from people who will be killed if they offer it. With Darwin’s case there are many different ways this could go, and we don’t know when the counting will end. He imagined the scenario in which his case moves forward, and he prevails. And then he can prepare to bring his wife and daughters “maybe next year.”

The Omer is complete now, though Darwin is still counting the days until his hearing. And we will continue to count with him. I’m dreaming about a time, if not this year, then the next, when Darwin and his family will be among the guests at our seder, and we can all recite, together, “This year, in Los Angeles.”

Andrea Hodos moved to Los Angeles in 1995 with her husband, Aryeh Cohen, where they raised two children. She is the associate director of NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Andrea is grateful that life landed them in the City of Angels where they could be part of vibrant Jewish community-building and strong multi-faith coalitions.