Julio

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Julio

Normally, a kilo of cocaine travels through the U.S. under layers of disguise. It is wrapped in a layer of plastic, smeared with a layer of mayonnaise and coffee grounds, then sealed in another airtight layer of plastic. On the side of the highway near Waco, Texas, Julio sat calmly in his car as the dogs searched the trunk, certain they would never pick up the scent. Then the officer reappeared at his window, package in hand.

“It’s been a long road.” Julio shakes his head, sitting in the conference room of Mission Lazarus. “But God has helped me a lot.”

He has short, salt-and-pepper hair and a pained smile. Now as he drives into the mountains around San Marcos to preach every day, he reflects on everything that happened since he first left Honduras and was forced to come back.

At 20, he and a friend crossed Mexico under a train. They climbed onto the brake cylinders—just wide enough to straddle—with no food or water and no idea how long the journey would last. The train didn’t stop for 48 hours. When Julio finally slid down again, his legs gave out, and it was several moments before he could limp to a nearby convenience store. The woman behind the counter stared in horror.

“What?” he asked.

Mugre,” she pointed. He borrowed a bar of soap and washed the thick, brown layer of grime off his skin at a nearby river.

During the next leg to Mexico City, migrants openly rode on every available surface of the train, and he and his friend found a platform between two cars where they could sit. He grabbed rope to lash himself to the train for security, but his friend didn’t. Having fallen asleep, Julio woke up to find his friend gone. “I looked all over the train for him. I asked everyone. But I never heard anything about him again. I’m sure he fell and died.”

After reaching the U.S., he found work in roofing. Six months into his first job, he took a wrong step and fell two stories, breaking his spine. His coworkers, who were also undocumented, gathered their gear, abandoned the site, and left him in a coma. He woke up in a hospital, thinking he had hit rock bottom.

Miraculously, he healed and decided to go back to work roofing, but he made sure to find a company that required harnesses. He also found a wife and started a family. Thrilled to be making $800 per week, he thought his dream had come true. Ever since his father left when he was 7 and he watched his mother struggle to feed their family, his desire had been steady work.

One day, a coworker approached asking for a favor. He sensed the coworker was involved with drugs but thought nothing of it. One thing led to another, and before he knew it, he was transporting drugs for a cartel. Twice a month he would make $10,000 delivering a package. “Eventually I wasn’t doing it for the money. I was doing it for the drugs,” he says. When his wife and children left him, he plunged further into addiction.

He agreed to make the run through Texas, not knowing that his boss had tipped off the police. Waco is a notorious bottleneck that drug traffickers have to circumvent increasingly creatively. The cartel had decided to sacrifice Julio. “As they stopped me with four kilos, another hundred went by on the highway.”

The night he got to prison, Julio fell on his knees and begged for forgiveness. “I needed that time. God gave me that time to set me free from drugs. Before that I always went to church, but  I even used drugs at church.” Facing 15-45 years for five felonies including drug and arms trafficking, Julio dreamed that God told him he would spend only 22 months incarcerated. “I said, ‘Really?’ But I felt this indescribable peace.”

At the sentencing, the judge, one of the strictest in Waco, surprised everyone by setting his punishment at 8 years. His lawyer urged Julio to accept. When Julio explained the dream, the lawyer, an American who spoke perfect Spanish, said, “Look I’m a Christian too, but you’re facing decades in jail. You have to take this.”

When Julio stood up, the judge asked if he agreed to the sentencing. Julio said, “No. God says what will happen. You don’t say what will happen.”

Stunned, the judge listened to the prosecutors who rushed forward to whisper with him, his face slowly turning red. When they returned to their seats, he turned to Julio again. “In twelve years dealing with narcotraffickers, this is the first time that prosecutors have asked me to give such a steep reduction. Julio Cesar Palma is hereby sentenced to 22 months, followed by deportation.”

The second he pounded the gavel, Julio felt a rush of cleansing water run over him. He turned to his lawyer and smiled, “God always has the last word.”

During the remainder of his sentence, his cellmates noticed that he kept himself apart and seemed to look beyond the walls. Eventually they said, “You’re always studying that Bible. You might as well teach us what you’re learning.” So they made him their preacher.

“The one who has been forgiven much, loves much,” he says. “The Lord saved me from drugs. The Lord saved me from prison. The Lord healed my spine. The Lord gave me my family. A new family here in Honduras. My wife and my son. God has been too good to me.”

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Nelsy

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Nelsy

A tumor the size of an orange made Nelsy curious.

She first noticed the lump growing in her neck at age 12 and went to see specialists in Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital. The doctors concluded it was a tubercular ganglion and prescribed medicine accordingly. She went home thinking she was on track towards healing within months and even saw a reduction in the tumor.

Meanwhile, a doctor visiting from Turkey sent her biopsy to the Mayo Clinic on a hunch. The results came back as Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. She immediately started a course of chemotherapy and entered a painful period of slow healing when in her darkest moments she questioned, “Why me?” “Why not me?” her mother encouraged her to ask instead. Though she lost her hair and suffered terribly, she survived, grateful to God and invigorated in her vocation.

She has thanked Dr. Nasrala, also a Christian, every time she’s gone back to Teguz since. “Without his help, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

Ironically, she had always wanted to be a doctor. As a child, she made the neighborhood kids visit her mock clinic. However, Nelsy’s family could not afford to send her to the universities in Honduras, so she applied to programs abroad. A program in Cuba offered a full scholarship shortly after her cancer, and she jumped at this miraculous chance.

In Havana, the diversity of the people she met from all over Latin America astounded her. “Chileans are so open-minded and frank.” Once, when the cafeteria announced that they had run out of chicken, all the Central American students lowered their heads and resigned themselves to eating rice and beans, but the Chileans stood up and protested. “Chileans, Uruguayans, Argentines, they demand their rights.”

She, on the other hand, struggled to find courage in Cuba. She was only 16 and ill-prepared to adjust to being away for the first time. “I cried every night for three months and wanted to go home.” She asked her mom to send money to buy a ticket three times, and the last time, she got all her bags packed and then hesitated on the doorstep.

A Cuban friend, Elena, who normally had a gentle way, rushed in and grabbed her by the shoulders, practically shaking her. Elena stared into her eyes. “Honduran women are strong. You can do this. If you go home now, you will only be another mouth for your mother to feed, but if you finish your studies, you will go back a doctor who can help not only your own family but countless others.”

Nelsy wiped away her tears and never looked back. She finished the seven year course and met her husband in the process. Though he now has to complete further surgical training in Guatemala City, where she visits him frequently, she ended up taking a job near his hometown in the south of Honduras. Her days now are spent digging into the lives of her patients at Mission Lazarus and making sure no one misses out on the chance God gave her, asking as many questions as she can.

Her work takes her deep into remote Honduran communities where such sensitivity can mean the difference between life and death. Patients in the mountains often do not know how to communicate their symptoms, and she has to use all the resources at her disposal to investigate.

“Many doctors treat the patient like only a body. I want to always treat others like a person.”

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Majda

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Majda

Just before the war, Majda gave birth.

Violence flared across the border in Croatia as Yugoslavia disintegrated, but war in Bosnia still seemed unthinkable in 1993. The various ethnicities in her city Mostar had co-existed peacefully for five hundred years, a celebrated Ottoman bridge linking their predominantly Muslim east side with a Catholic west over the teal water of the Neretva. Calls to prayer from the stone minarets dotting the skyline competed with each other, not the bells of the churches.

We sat at Majda’s table over small cups of coffee she prepared in a copper kettle, the Bosnian way, waiting for the grounds to settle and rich crema to form. “This house was totally destroyed,” she said, attributing her husky voice to tobacco between long breaths. “I started to smoke then.”

She and her husband, Dragan, faced a choice: leave like the droves of others who scattered to safety around the Balkans or stay and wait out what they hoped would not last long. Her Muslim heritage and his Orthodox made them one of the many mixed marriages in Mostar that encouraged this hope. Then a Croatian general bombed the bridge …

Listen to the whole story in Episode 91.

 

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