Angela Buendia and Víctor Manuel Berrío do not know each other but they have thousands of friends in common.
She lives in Chiriquí, in the western region of Panama near the border with Costa Rica, and he is a deacon of the Catholic Church in Panama City. But their efforts to help the thousands of Cuban migrants who have passed through the country in recent years have earned them the appreciation and sympathy of many Caribbean nationals.
“Deacon Berrío gave up much of himself to tend to us. We owe a lot to that man,” says Rita María Triana, a Cuban doctor living in Panama City as an undocumented immigrant. Berrío established and for several months maintained a shelter to welcome Cubans passing through the country at the offices of the Cáritas agency in Panama City.
“The Church hosted more than 450 migrants in the midst of the migration crisis,” says Berrío. Cáritas, a non-profit humanitarian aid organization run by the Catholic Church, absorbed the expense of housing and feeding the migrants and even turned the courtyard into a refugee camp with makeshift tents for those who no longer fit into the crowded offices.
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“The Cubans themselves helped. Some were cooking, others registering those who were arriving,” said the deacon.
But frustrations sometimes led to conflict. One heated exchange between an older Cuban and two younger migrants has stuck with Berrío.
“Please be quiet. You are an embarrassment,” Berrío recalled the man shouting, nearly in tears. “Don't you realize that they have made room for us to tend to our needs?
“Don't you realize that we Cubans sometimes deserve what we are facing? Our communist government has turned us into pariahs. No country in the world wants us. They reject us.
“They have taken us in here and look at how well they are treating us. And you come here to fight?” the man continued. “I feel as if I am nothing.”
After witnessing this scene, Berrío said he realized that the migrants needed more than refuge.
“When I heard that man, who was a lot older, express himself in that manner, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, these people come with a lot of wounds,’ ” Berrío said. “And the older they are, the deeper the wounds because the youth does not know what Cuba was like before.”
Convinced that “the only thing that heals emotional wounds is love,” Berrío began to converse more frequently with the migrants. He tried to help resolve some of their problems and got to know their stories.
“The Church will continue to defend the migrants, because they are the image of Christ, who was also an immigrant,” he says.
Defending Cubans placed Berrío at the center of media attention. Government officials accused him of wanting to usurp the functions of Panama’s migration directives. Mounting pressure over sanitary concerns at the shelter resulted in a government shutdown of the temporary refuge, which housed some 300 Cubans.
“Within two years you will not be in office and you will regret all the good you could have done but didn’t because you are so absorbed in the position you currently have,” Berrío told government representatives at the time of the shelter’s closure.
To those who complained about the expense that the migrants represent for public coffers, Berrío replies: “The Panamanian political class has dedicated itself to robbing the state. The Cubans were a scapegoat to distract attention from other problems that the country has.”
In early 2016, Panama arranged for flights to Mexico for thousands of Cubans en route to the United States. The government picked up the tab of many who could not afford to pay for a plane seat.
Then on Jan. 12, President Barack Obama announced an end to a U.S. policy known as “wet foot, dry foot,” which allowed most Cubans who made it onto U.S. soil to stay. As a result, thousands of U.S.-bound migrants got stranded in Mexico and various countries across Central America, including more than 300 in Panama.
Many believe that Berrío is behind recent statements by Cardinal José Luis Lacunza, who called on the Panamanian government to grant a residence and work permit to Cuban migrants who remain in the country.
“Panama must be tolerant and understanding,” the cardinal said, local media reported.
A ‘godmother’ in Chiriquí
Meanwhile, on the other end of the country, there is another Good Samaritan known simply as La Madrina, or the godmother.
For Angela Buendía, helping Cubans was more than a job. During the height of the migration crisis last year, she worked for the National Civil Protection System and was in charge of serving more than 1,000 Cubans who had been transferred to various camps.
“Helping others is a way of life,” says Buendía, recalling the weeks she spent interacting with the migrants. “Those are the patches, certificates and diplomas that we carry in our hearts.”
Her work with migrants led her to establish a company dedicated to training, educating, consulting and coaching on risk management issues.
Buendía affectionately remembers her work with the migrants.
“At first they would steal canned goods, even though they lacked for nothing,” she said. “They had just come from the jungle, where they could not trust anyone. They did not understand that we were doing this from the heart, without any personal interest. Once I was able to earn their trust, everything changed.”
For La Madrina, as the migrants took to calling Buendía, her mission was to raise awareness that “being an immigrant” is also “being a human,” instilling confidence in the Cubans, whom, she said, suffered much along their long journey.
“I have met men who were raped alongside their wives and daughters,” she said. “Listening to those heartbreaking stories changes your life. In many instances, all they wanted was to talk to someone, to let off steam, to feel they had maternal protection. That was my job, to make them feel that they were not alone.”
The case that most affected her was that of a mother whose baby was swept from her arms during a choppy boat ride from Colombia to Panama. The next day, the woman hanged herself. The girl's father and grandmother continued their trek to the United States.
“It is impossible to forget those people, wracked with pain, who would say they preferred to die than return to Cuba.”
Follow Mario J. Pentón on Twitter: @mariojose_cuba
This article is part of the “New Era in Cuban Migration” series, a collaborative project between the Miami Herald, 14ymedio and Radio Ambulante made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.