Nicaraguans make their home in an idle Costa Rican factory
With its roof and walls made out of corrugated tin, a single spartan bathroom, and a kitchen where neither the fridge nor the oven actually work, this makeshift shelter in the Costa Rican capital, San José, might not look like the most enviable of accommodations. In fact, it is not even meant to be accommodation in the first place. But for more than two dozen asylum seekers who fled persecution in their native Nicaragua, the warehouse — a former tin factory in an industrial zone — is now home sweet home.
“Here we give shelter to those who need it,” said Jack,* a 55-year-old former car salesman who, fearing for his life after having taken part in anti-government demonstrations, fled Nicaragua in late 2018 and was instrumental in setting up the shelter, which the residents rent and run themselves. “At first we were four people. Then we would go out to parks to find people who were sleeping on the streets…. Now there are around 27 people here.”
The residents include teachers and journalists, students, farm laborers and accountants — all people with jobs and families and homes in Nicaragua, now sleeping cheek by jowl on slabs of foam and discarded mattresses splayed out across the floors and even atop the hulking machinery left over from the factory’s previous iteration. Most are men, but the group has also taken in several women — who are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault on the street. The women living in the shelter include a pregnant 18-year-old, as well as a mother and her 9-year-old daughter.
“As long as we have someplace to sleep, we’re fine. Because outside, it’s dangerous.”
While outside, it is chaotic — massive trucks ply the dirt road in front of the warehouse from dusk till dawn, ferrying raw materials and products in and out of neighboring industrial spaces — inside, the space is almost obsessively tidy. Crews of residents clean the place twice daily, wiping down the floors and surfaces with bleach in a bid to keep insects and rats at bay. Residents with experience in the kitchen take turns cooking up the ingredients in their meagre pantry — rice, beans, and pasta donated by a local NGO. Prepared on two electric hotplates, meals are served once or twice daily, depending on how far they manage to stretch the ingredients.
An estimated 82,000 Nicaraguans have fled the Central American nation since anti-government protests broke out in April, 2018. Paramilitary groups cracked down, firing on demonstrations and killing several hundred protesters. In the wake of the demonstrations, many of those who took to the streets have been targeted for reprisals. Some have been summarily fired from their jobs, subjected to surveillance and harassment, or even detained and tortured. The persecution has also extended to family and friends of protesters, who did not take part in the marches themselves but have been branded as traitors for their association with those who did.
Costa Rica, Nicaragua’s neighbor to the south, has taken in more than 68,000 Nicaraguans. As word of the warehouse has spread among San José’s growing community of Nicaraguan asylum seekers — many of whom arrive with little more than the clothes on their back — the group has repeatedly been approached by those desperate to move in.
“We tell them, “we’re really limited and food is scarce. But it doesn’t matter,” said Jack, who said his pseudonym was inspired by “The Pirates of the Caribbean” character Jack Sparrow, who, like him, also laughs in the face of adversity. “As long as we have someplace to sleep, we’re fine. Because outside, it’s dangerous.”
For Anthony*, a 27-year-old social worker who slipped across the border to Costa Rica late last year after security forces sacked his home and froze his bank account, the warehouse has proved a life-saver.
The first weeks in Costa Rica “were very hard,” said Anthony. With almost no money to his name, he floated between the homes of friends and acquaintances, crashing for a few days on their couches and sleeping on the streets when he had no one else to ask.
Of course, the precarious conditions within the poorly insulated warehouse, where temperatures soar during the day and plummet at night, have taken their toll.
“In the end, we all want to go back to Nicaragua because it’s our home.”
“We have problems with allergies, flus, colds, stomach problems, (and) malnutrition,” said Anthony. But nevertheless, he insisted, it is infinitely better than being on the streets.
Still, it is not clear how long the group will be able to hold on to the space. While Costa Rica allows asylum seekers the right to work, it generally takes several months for work authorizations to be issued—and even then, many say finding steady work is extremely difficult.
Only four of those living in warehouse have found jobs, meaning that making the US$550 rent is a recurring nightmare. Since renting the space in April, they have managed to pay in full only the first month. In May, they were only able to scrape together US$350, and in June, nothing at all.
“I don’t know when the owner is going to kick us out,” said Jack, raising his voice over the din of a torrential subtropical downpour on the tin roof and the roar of heavy machinery coming from neighboring factories. “He must be running out of patience.”
While they are grateful for the safe haven that Costa Rica provides, residents say they are just hoping to manage to remain in the warehouse for as long as they are forced by the circumstances back home.
“In the end, we all want to go back to Nicaragua because it’s our home,” said China,* a former instructor who’s one of three women staying in the warehouse.
She stressed the huge gap between “someone who’s sitting on the couch watching TV, who all of a sudden says to himself, ‘things aren’t going so well for me in Nicaragua, so I’m going to go to Panama or Costa Rica to find a job’ … and someone who has a stable life and is forced to flee.”