Science

After Risking Deadly Trek To US, Crippled Migrant Finds Comfort In New York’s Football Fields

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Juan Vargas uses the New York subway system to work at a fast food restaurant in Brooklyn as well as at soccer fields across the city.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez


New York – To go to his overnight job making burgers and french fries at a well-known fast food restaurant in Brooklyn, Juan Vargas, 38, leaves the room he shares with another man at a homeless shelter at 9 p.m. shares. Subway.

On Saturday mornings, when he is off work, Vargas takes a train more than an hour to Long Island, New York to play with the American Amputee Soccer Association, an emerging association for players with limb differences. League. On Friday, his second day off, Vargas tries to find pick-up football games, uses the subway system to get around the city and uses crutches to get from station to station.

“It’s my passion,” Vargas said recently on the M train on his way to an indoor soccer complex in Queens, where he played with other Venezuelan immigrants who recently arrived in New York after crossing the US-Mexico border. Vargas, however, was the only amputee, having lost his entire left leg in 2018.

With a soccer cleat on his right foot, Vargas uses his crutches to move around small indoor fields, requiring extra effort with his arms to accelerate his runs. He quickly showed that he could play at the same level as other Venezuelan newcomers, some of whom had previously grumbled that they did not want to play too aggressively given his disability. He scored his team’s first goal.

Vargas said the challenges of playing with non-disabled men or riding the subway late at night as a disabled and recent immigrant don’t come close to the dangers she faced in seven Latin American countries to reach the US. encountered during the days journey. earlier this year.

Vargas noted that he slept on the street in Mexico and Central America, and was detained by US border agents before being released. But he said the most difficult part of the trek was crossing the roadless and mountainous Panamanian jungle known as the Darien Gap, where some migrants have died.

Other migrants, Vargas said, warned him not to cross the jungle, saying the day-long trek was dangerous enough for people with disabilities – let alone an amputee. After all, to cross the jungle one has to cross many rivers, grueling mountains and muddy terrains on foot.

But Vargas said he was determined to get to America, his desire to see the journey, he said, provide a dose of inspiration to other expatriates traveling with him during an otherwise grim experience.

Vargas said, “Those nine days felt like an eternity. But it was either getting out of the woods or dying.”

Juan Vargas dribbles during a match at a soccer complex in Queens.
Juan Vargas dribbles during a match at a soccer complex in Queens.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez


Driven by economic desperation and the hope of more welcoming US immigration policies under President Biden, thousands of Venezuelans like Vargas have left Venezuela or other South American countries in the past year on their way to the US border, where authorities check migrant records. level is reported. arrival.

In fiscal year 2022, the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30, nearly 190,000 Venezuelans were processed by US border officials, according to federal data, making Venezuela the fifth-largest source of migration at the US-Mexico border. This year alone, some 150,000 Venezuelans have crossed the Darien Gap, which Panamanian government data shows is a record high.

The record arrival of Venezuelans at the US southern border is part of a mass exodus from Venezuela that has driven 7 million people to other countries to escape authoritarian rule and economic disaster in the largest refugee crisis ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. Have seen them fleeing.

The number of Venezuelan migrants crossing the US border and the Darien Wilderness has declined since the Biden administration began expelling Venezuelans from Mexico in mid-October. But more than 20,000 Venezuelans entered US border detention that month, and thousands more are expected to wait in Mexico for the end of pandemic-related US border restrictions on December 21.

“I chose to live”

Inside the indoor soccer complex in Queens, other Venezuelan expatriates treated Vargas as equals during a series of boisterous matches. Many of them said they were also living in shelters that New York officials set up to accommodate more than 27,000 migrants who arrived in the city this year, often after being resettled there by state or local officials in Texas. .

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Juan Vargas plays soccer with other Venezuelan immigrants, many of whom are living in homeless shelters or repurposed hotels in New York City.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez


When the game ended, Vargas and the other players asked each other which part of Venezuela they were from. Several Migrants told Vargas they admired his willingness to play with them.

That sentiment was echoed by a player in the other group, who told Vargas, “God bless you, man.” Vargas embraced the stranger, recognizing the respect he was being offered.

Vargas said he left Venezuela in 2017 because of the country’s economic collapse. After living briefly in Colombia and Ecuador, he settled in Peru, where his wife and daughter were later able to live with him. That’s where Vargas said his life had changed during an otherwise normal day in 2018.

Vargas said a truck ran him over on his way to work in Lima. He was admitted to the hospital and went into a coma. Doctors said he had only two options: lose his left leg or die, Vargas said. “I chose to live,” he said.

While the amputation was devastating and required months of recovery, Juan said it ultimately allowed him to find two new passions in weightlifting and amputee soccer. Despite being from Venezuela, Juan said he was able to be part of Peru’s first national football team for amputees. He represented the team in international tournaments, becoming its captain.

But Vargas said that his career in crippled soccer did not allow him to provide for his family. He said that finding other jobs in Peru was difficult given his situation. He was flying to Colombia in early August to begin his week-long trek across Central America and Mexico. His wife and daughter were left behind.

Peru's first disabled football team seeks a place in the World Cup
Juan Vargas kicks the ball during a training session by Peru’s amputee football team on December 17, 2021 in Lima, Peru.

Getty Images


After reaching the Texas border, Vargas was detained and later released by US border agents, who instructed him to check in with federal immigration officials at his respective destination. The US has relied on this process to process thousands of Venezuelan migrants whose home countries reject US deportation. Volunteers from a Texas shelter helped Vargas board a flight to New York.

While happy to be in the States, Vargas said he misses his wife and daughter, who recently turned 6. He also faces a precarious legal situation.

Vargas has an appointment with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on November 25, 2024, and has not yet received notice to appear in immigration court, where he can begin the process of applying for asylum.

But even if granted a chance to seek asylum, Vargas will face a years-long wait due to a massive backlog of pending cases. They will also face an uphill battle meeting asylum criteria, which requires applicants to show they fled persecution based on their race, nationality, religion, politics or membership in a social group .

Still, Vargas said he is grateful for the job and a roof over his head — and is pinning all his hopes on football. He said his dream is to one day represent the US in a disabled soccer tournament or coach a team.

“The American dream was created a long time ago,” Vargas said. “But you have to work for it to make it yours.”

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Juan Vargas poses with his wife and daughter in Peru.

John Vargas


Carlos Ayala, a 33-year-old fellow disabled soccer player, said Vargas has already shown in training sessions and games that he has the potential to play for the US Ayala, who lost part of his right leg during the 2001 earthquake in El Salvador , has represented the national US amputee team, including this year’s World Cup in Turkey.

Ayala said Vargas joined the New York affiliate of the American Amputee Soccer Association after he reached out to captain the national amputee team. For the past few weekends, Ayala has been picking Vargas up at the Amityville train station and driving him to an indoor soccer facility in Kings Park where the team trains.

Ayala said, “He has established himself very quickly among us. He has good control of the ball and he hits well.” “If he continues like this, he will be called up to the national team.”

“I tell him, ‘You’re here through a miracle,'” Ayala said, referring to the trek Vargas made to get to America.

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