Refugees at home

The Rev. Peter Morales (top right) and Phyllis Morales (bottom right) with Juan de Dios García (bottom left) and Maria Osorio Chen (second from left) and their family.

Peter and Phyllis Morales have quietly shared their home with the family of two Mayan human rights activists since 2014.

Image: The Rev. Peter Morales (top right) and Phyllis Morales (bottom right) with Juan de Dios García (bottom left) and Maria Osorio Chen (second from left) and their family. (© Dea Brayden)

© Dea Brayden


For fifteen years, Juan de Dios García, a Mayan human rights activist in Guatemala, and his family lived under the constant threat of assassination. After he helped persuade the United States in January 2014 to restrict military aid to Guatemala until his country started paying court-ordered reparations to survivors of the notorious Río Negro massacres of the early 1980s, García’s situation became dire: shots fired into his home, anonymous death threats flooding his phone, and daily police roadblocks outside his home.

The Guatemalan president went on national television to denounce him. Journalists warned García he was in danger. He and his wife, Maria Osorio Chen, a survivor of the massacres and herself an activist, were especially worried about their three children, who were confined to their home with an armed guard. They decided to flee the country as soon as the government passed a law to fund reparations.

But where could they go? Although García had developed many allies in the international community, they needed a place to live and financial support. Who would help them?

‘We were scared to death and they were scared to death they wouldn’t get out of the country.’

That’s when Peter and Phyllis Morales—who’d gotten to know Juan García starting in 2006 through UU Service Committee “Just Journey” visits to Guatemala with their home congregation, Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado—invited the Garcías to live with them in their Colorado home.

“The heat was on,” the Rev. Peter Morales told UU World. “We were scared to death and they were scared to death they wouldn’t get out of the country,” added Phyllis. Peter was at the time five years into his eight-year tenure as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in which he made immigrant rights a public witness priority. (He resigned in April 2017, three months before the end of his term. See “Innovation Time” for a retrospective on his presidency; see “UUA President Steps Down Amid Outcry over Hiring Practices” for news coverage of his resignation.)

On November 19, 2014, just days after the Guatemalan government passed the reparations law, the García family flew to Colorado with tickets provided by the Moraleses and moved into their basement, which had been hastily renovated to create bedrooms. The Moraleses—who were living at the time in Salem, Massachusetts, so Peter could be close to UUA headquarters in Boston—sold their condo, and Peter moved into an apartment while Phyllis returned to Colorado to help the Garcías apply for political asylum and adjust to life in the United States.

Despite the tremendous upheaval, the Garcías immediately knew they’d done the right thing.

“As soon as we arrived, we could see the children were happy,” said Maria, speaking in Spanish with Peter and Phyllis acting as translators. “They could go to the park by themselves.”

For the next year and a half, the two families shared the Colorado home, preparing and sharing meals together. The year before the Garcías fled their country, Juan had invited the Moraleses to be honorary grandparents to his three children—Pahola, now 16, Marta, 12, and Edmond, 10. But even so, they hadn’t known each other very well before moving in together. While Juan continued his human rights work from a home office, Phyllis helped the García children with school and continues to lead the efforts for asylum. (After more than two years, the case is still pending.)

“Part of this story is that because Phyllis is a social worker and a teacher, she knows how to navigate the educational system and can help them with that, because I’m never here,” Peter said.

In May 2016, when the Moraleses relocated to Washington State to be closer to their own adult children in Seattle, the Garcías went along. The Moraleses purchased a home for themselves and bought a house across the street for the Garcías. Phyllis takes the family to medical appointments and helped Maria find work as a caretaker to an elderly couple in the neighborhood. Throughout the day, the two families are back and forth in each other’s homes.

On a Sunday evening in February, the Garcías and Moraleses were preparing dinner together in the Morales home. As the children played a board game—Marta was laughing so hard that she toppled over onto the floor—the two couples gathered around the stove. Peter sautéed shrimp while Maria removed yams from a pot, and Juan iced cookies. The four moved around each other with familiarity, as if they were dancing.

For their first two years in the United States, the Garcías were very careful not to reveal their whereabouts, fearful that Guatemalan agents would harm them. Even on the UUA staff, almost no one knew that Peter and Phyllis were hosting a family seeking asylum. But now the Garcías feel relatively safe, and they and the Moraleses have decided to tell their story to encourage UUs to consider opening their homes to political refugees.

“We thought this was a great opportunity to say, ‘Your president has been doing this, and it’s something other people can do, too,’” said Phyllis.

The need is enormous, they said. Many refugees land in the United States with no support and nowhere to stay; often, they are confined in detention centers. The stakes are high. In early February, the mayor of Rabinal, a massacre survivor himself, was assassinated in Guatemala. “If Juan had not come to the U.S., there is no way he would be alive now,” Phyllis said.

Living in mortal danger was not new for the Garcías. During Guatemala’s thirty-six-year civil war, Juan’s father, an evangelical minister, was labeled a guerilla after refusing to join a paramilitary group. He was tortured for two weeks at a military base. The family then fled into the mountains with his father carrying Juan’s disabled teenaged sister on his back. At age 14, Juan became a community organizer; in 1999, he became the first executive director of ADIVIMA (Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of Violence in the Verapaces, Maya Achí), a grassroots human rights organization formed by survivors of the massacres in the 1980s, in which 20 percent of the Mayan population were murdered or “disappeared.”

Maria was 7 years old when her parents were slaughtered in the Río Negro massacre, in which 107 children and 70 women were murdered in one day. She barely escaped death by fleeing with her grandfather to the mountains. She later became an activist, and has testified in court as an eyewitness to the atrocities.

‘You can attend 100 workshops, but one trip where you’re looking at mass graves, and you become a human rights activist.’

The Moraleses met Juan about eleven years ago, when Charlie Clements, then president of the UU Service Committee, led a delegation from Jefferson Unitarian Church (known as “JUC” to its members) to Guatemala to witness mass graves and other evidence of the armed conflict. JUC, which Peter served as senior minister before becoming UUA president in 2009, was the first UU congregation to participate in a “Just Journey” to Guatemala, where Juan and his group were working to uncover mass graves and prosecute perpetrators of the murders. “You can attend 100 workshops, but one trip where you’re looking at mass graves, and you become a human rights activist,” said Peter.

In consultation with Juan, JUC launched UU Guatemala Scholarship Partners to enable impoverished students, especially girls, to attend school. The program, which began with three students and now has sixty-one, “really is a stunning success story,” said Peter.

The UU Church of Arlington, Virginia, joined in support of the scholarship program, and Phyllis became the liaison between the congregations and ADIVIMA, and led more trips to Guatemala. On one occasion, when the group took down sewing machines to help women launch a business making bags and other items, Phyllis stayed with Maria and the García children in their home. She grew close to other families there, too, and has become well-versed in Mayan culture and Guatemalan history, especially the history of its civil war. She helped JUC members write letters to U.S. senators and to Guatemalan politicians to try to help protect the “people who had become our friends,” she said.

Juan traveled frequently to the United States to lobby for support in forcing Guatemala to pay reparations to the survivors, and he visited the two UU congregations to talk about the scholarship program and ADIVIMA’s human rights work. Under his leadership, ADIVIMA helped win important victories for the Mayan communities, including the exhumation of 1,200 massacre victims. But when Juan led a peaceful demonstration of 2,000 people against the infamous Chixoy Dam, which displaced thirty-three Mayan communities and led to the deaths of 500 Mayans, he was placed under house arrest for two years.

As Juan continued his work, a number of his activist friends were murdered, and the International Commission of Jurists issued a statement on the risk to defenders of human rights, referring specifically to him.

The Moraleses knew the Garcías were in serious danger and they quickly agreed to invite the family to live with them.

“It’s an amazingly complex adjustment to the U.S. when you don’t speak English,” said Phyllis, who learned Spanish at the age of 48.

“We didn’t know how to get around, we didn’t know how to get a haircut,” said Juan, who speaks four Mayan languages and Spanish. However, he emphasized, “While we were struggling, we could see that the children were happy, they were free, they could play.”

“Miraculously, we all get along famously and were able to share the same house for a year and a half very comfortably,” said Phyllis, including sharing the kitchen and meals. The hardest part for Peter was the separation from Phyllis; he flew to Colorado whenever possible. “It’s a special relationship,” Phyllis said. “If you had to pick your own family, you couldn’t do a better job.”

When the Moraleses decided to move to Washington, it was with the expectation that the Garcías would come, too. The Moraleses pay for the mortgage on the house while the Garcías cover their own expenses for food and clothes. Juan is paid a small amount for his adivima work. But the pending status of their asylum petition means he cannot travel outside the United States and can’t go to Guatemala to visit his mother, who is terminally ill.

“You often think the angels are above but they’re here,” said Juan. “We don’t have the words to express how wonderful they are.”

‘How many UUs have space in their homes?’ Peter asks. ‘You can take someone in for three months,’ says Phyllis.

As he translated the words for Juan, Peter’s eyes began to tear up.

“How many UUs have extra space in their homes?” asked Peter, who preaches frequently about the plague of social isolation that is killing Americans. “Take the typical classic case, in any congregation, of someone 65 to 70 years old, who’s recently retired and in pretty good health, and who has a place with a spare room.” There are refugees who need a place to live, if only temporarily.

Juan recalled running into another activist, when he was in New York City to speak at a United Nations forum, who’d fled to the United States for safety. The man, a survivor of the massacres, spoke no English and had no money. A human rights organization helped him get out of Guatemala, but he was on his own after that, and had been sleeping for months on a bench in the YMCA.

The Moraleses know that not everyone can make the level of commitment they have, but short-term support or shared support within a congregation would be enormously helpful, too, they say. “You can take someone in for three months,” said Phyllis. “You don’t have to buy them a car. You don’t have to take in a whole family.” In most congregations, there are usually one or more people who speak Spanish, they note.

Of course, both the refugees and the host volunteers would need to be vetted, Peter emphasizes. The new nonprofit that Juan is starting could be a place for linking refugees with UUs willing to house and support them, Phyllis said. “But,” Peter added, “the first step is making people realize there’s this huge need, and this huge resource, and we need to explore how to bring those two together.”

Update: On February 24, 2018, Peter Morales announced on Facebook that the García family has been granted asylum in the United States.

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An earlier version of this article linked to an outdated version of ADIVIMA’s website.