The General Conference has designated this Sabbath as Adventist Church World Refugee Day. In 2014, 14,350 refugees were accepted into Australia, 0.43 per cent of the global total. Just 2780 were asylum seekers, which ranks Australia 37th overall globally and 46th on a per capita basis. The remainder were resettled refugees, who were processed in another country by the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner for Refugees. In the category of resettled refugees, Australia ranks third overall globally and first on a per capita basis. This is the story of Freddy Zeledon, an Adventist refugee who fled Nicaragua.
These days tourists are flocking to Nicaragua, the Central American country known as "the land of lakes and volcanoes". According to 2015 data from Nicaragua’s Central Bank, the country’s tourism revenue increased by 18.7 per cent in just one year. But Nicaragua wasn’t always the tourist attraction it is today.
Freddy Zeledon knows this. He was born and raised in Nicaragua during a period of civil war. The country was ruled by a dictatorship and there were many political prisoners.
In 1978, 17-year-old Freddy was travelling through the country with a friend when he was stopped at a checkpoint and accused of throwing a bomb at a police car. Without giving the boys an opportunity to proclaim their innocence, they were thrown in jail.
He was released later that year when the government declared a national pardon for those on "light charges". But almost 30 years later, he still remembers how terrible his time in jail was.
“I couldn’t sleep well for months because of what had happened to me,” he says. “I was tortured and hit many times.”
In July 1979, the old government was thrown out and a new government was formed with promises of a better life for everyone.
“The promises didn’t last very long. Soon, the new government showed signs of being Communist, aided by Russia, Eastern Europe and Cuba,” Freddy recalls. “By 1980, a lot of people were unhappy, marching on the streets and claiming that the new government had betrayed our country.”
An opposition army of freedom fighters known as La Contra rose up, aided and assisted by the United States under Ronald Reagan’s presidency. In retaliation, the Nicaraguan government created the National Service and male citizens between 16 and 35 years old were conscripted to fight La Contra.
“Thousands of people were fleeing the country at this point, leaving houses, businesses and property behind to save their lives,” Freddy says. “This is how desperate the situation was.”
Freddy had grown up in a large Adventist family with seven brothers and three sisters. They had traditionally opposed the government and had no plans to help it fight La Contra. But that didn’t stop the government from conscripting him.
In November 1983, Freddy was heading to the shops when he was stopped by an army patrol and informed that he would be taken to the army camp. They wouldn’t take no for an answer but they did give him an opportunity to say goodbye to his mother.
“She was crying a lot,” remembers Freddy. “I told her that I would be back as long as I survived the war.”
The following June, Freddy managed to get in contact with his family and found out that his brother George had also been conscripted.
“My parents told me they had a plan to help us escape,” says Freddy. “They got in contact with a person who promised to help us cross the border to Honduras.”
Requesting three days’ leave for personal reasons, Freddy managed to escape the army and meet up with George. A family friend who owned a car repair shop allowed them to sleep in the boots of different cars each night. In the meantime, his parents liaised with a "coyote" or people smuggler who promised to help the brothers cross the border. A Monday in September was chosen as the day of the great escape.
On that September day, Freddy and George kissed their relatives goodbye as their mum said a prayer, asking God to look after her sons. “It was a sunny day and then suddenly the weather changed in our favour,” remembers Freddy. “It started to rain heavily and didn’t stop until we arrived at the town near the Honduras border. If we had been stopped at any of the military checkpoints along the way, they would have asked us for ID. That would have meant the end of our plan. But the military checkpoints were all closed because of the rain.”
They made it to a small town near the border without incident. The coyote told the brothers that they would have to stay the night in a small hotel and leave early the following morning. But when they went to the hotel, the owner began asking for identification. Panic washed over the pair. What could they do?
Suddenly the lights went off. There was a blackout and the owner could no longer check their identification. George provided false names and dates of birth to prevent the authorities from finding them.
“The air was thick, every minute was tense and we didn’t sleep the whole night,” recalls Freddy. “We were ready to run if we had to.”
The next day, the brothers were ready to head to the border. The coyote warned that the area could be affected by landmines and gave them final instructions. “Go one at a time. Don’t run or walk—crawl. If you don’t hear any gunshots or exploding mines, wait for a few minutes and the next person can follow.”
“I’ll go first,” George volunteered. “If something happens, don’t follow—you’ll have to tell the family what happened to me.” Thankfully George made it safely through. Freddy followed cautiously, his heart pounding in his chest. Both brothers yelled with excitement when they made it across the border.
“We thanked God when we reached Honduras,” says Freddy. All the suffering and tribulation was over. They began thinking of their future and their new life. But then a sharp voice barked, “Hey, you! Hands up!”
Freddy’s heart sank as he turned and saw two soldiers pointing battle rifles directly at them. They were border patrol soldiers keeping an eye out for the Nicaraguan army.
George and Freddy tried to explain that they were civilians fleeing because of the war but the soldiers refused to believe them. They began hitting the young men repeatedly, telling the brothers that if they didn’t cooperate, they would be killed.
“We thought that was the end—that our relatives would never find out what had happened to us,” recalls Freddy.
The soldiers led the pair to a border checkpoint, a jail and finally a military base. Here, the jail was bigger, darker and dirtier. There were no toilets nor drinking water. After just two days of interrogation, hitting and ill treatment, Freddy and George became hardened. They were no longer scared—they would just have to cope.
A week later, a woman from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) arrived, saying that someone had informed her about Freddy and George’s situation. Eventually they were moved to a refugee camp.
It was now December 1984. George was 22 and Freddy 21. The refugee camp was fenced with barbed wire so that no-one could escape. Hundreds of families were crammed into deplorable conditions. Little kids were dying of malnutrition and poor hygiene. The psychological effects of the war were reflected on their faces. The conditions were terrible . . . but it was still a step up from jail. And Freddy and George continued to hope and pray for freedom.
One day, the UNHCR informed the refugees that they would be selecting a small group to be relocated to other countries such as the United States, Canada, Argentina, Venezuela and Australia. By this time, Freddy and George’s younger brother Mauricio had also been sent to the refugee camp.
Two years later, the brothers received a letter from the local immigration department, telling them that they had 72 hours to leave Honduras. UNHCR officers arrived to take them to the airport. They flew to San Salvador and then to Mexico. When they arrived in Mexico, the immigration officer asked for their passports.
“We explained that the pilot had our documents because of our special travel conditions but they took us to a small room and began interrogating us,” says Freddy. “The immigration officer was ready to deport us back to Nicaragua.”
Had they come this far . . . only to be sent back?
Thankfully the situation was once again sorted out and the Zeledon brothers arrived in Sydney on January 28, 1986.
Today, George still lives in Sydney and is married with two sons. Freddy also still lives in Sydney and is married with two daughters and a son. His oldest daughter Angelica and her husband Daniel are expecting their first child next year. They all attend Wetherill Park Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church (NSW).
“God was always with us and He is always with His people,” says Freddy, as he reminisces on his refugee journey. “You just have to stop and listen for His voice.”
Vania Chew is PR/editorial assistant for Adventist Record.