A world map highlighting Mexico

Known to global travelers for its beaches and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Mexico is a study in contrasts. Boasting a varied geography, this culturally diverse nation of 129 million people is both the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world and home to speakers of more than 50 Indigenous languages.

Mexico's economy is the second largest in Latin America, with one of the most in-demand currencies of emerging markets, yet nearly half its population lives in poverty, and the country's income gap is among the biggest in the world. Corruption, organized crime, and gangs remain problematic despite efforts to combat them. Such organizations are a powerful force in the country and region, and are involved in human trafficking and people smuggling as well as drug trafficking.

Mexico's defining migratory lines are impressive — one, a transit route stretching, depending on the exact route taken, between 2,000 km/1,250 miles and 3,000km/1,850 miles through the country from south to north-northwest; and the other, a slightly longer northern border with the United States. Labor migration across the latter has long defined Mexico as a country of origin. In earlier years authorized through agricultural worker visas, and, later, becoming increasingly irregular without documentation, such labor migration shows signs of slowing. Some migrants have returned, or have been forced to return, to Mexico; over 139,000 migrants were deported in 2018 and often struggle to find work and to re-integrate.

In recent years, Mexico has seen an increasing number of migrants in transit, primarily from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as Venezuela and even outside Latin America, including Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. Fleeing poverty, violence, and the breakdown of social systems, they now outnumber Mexicans seeking a better life in the USA. However, not all such migrants are in transit. Some are looking for improved economic opportunities in Mexico itself.

All have faced dangerous journeys. Many have ridden atop of one of "The Beast" freight trains — known as "The Death Train" in Spanish — that run north the length of the country, and thus have risked injury or even death. According to the migrant humanitarian aid organization Casa Monarca, serving in northern Mexico, migrants are viewed as a financial commodity by both local authorities and organized crime. They are highly vulnerable to human trafficking and smuggling, exploitation and extortion. Robbery is common, even by the police, and women are at particular risk of sexual assault. For those who are undocumented or otherwise have an irregular migration status, deportation is an ever-present danger.

Their search for work to support themselves and their families often lands them in the informal, low-wage sector, though, even for such work, they might be rejected because of supposed lack of qualifications. Many male migrants are day laborers in construction, working without any job security, social protections, or safety regulations. Female labor migrants often are hired as domestic workers, again with low wages, long hours, and no benefits.

With support from the Catholic Archdiocese of Monterrey, Casa Monarca. Humanitarian Aid for Migrants welcomes and provides immediate assistance to migrants, such as meals, clothing, and a place to shower and rest. It offers legal advice, and for those wishing to remain in Monterrey, support for integration. The organization also works to strengthen protection of the human rights of migrants, researches migration trends, and advocates for fair and just migration governance.

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Female team member advising two male migrants at Casa Monarca in Monterrey, Mexico

A member of the Casa Monarca team interviews migrants who have just arrived to clean up, find some clean clothes and get a hot meal. Staff offer advice and support to those migrants wanting to remain in Mexico and assist them to reintegrate into society.

Monterrey, January 2019

Male Casa Monarca beneficiary stands in a street in Monterrey, Mexico

I've always lived on the streets since I was small. I first migrated to the United States in 1991. I went to San Francisco where I ended up in the homeless migrant aid program. From there, I traveled around the United States and Mexico, a sort of pilgrimage looking for a better future. Unfortunately, I got arrested several times, often simply because I was assumed to be an "illegal" (irregular) immigrant. The last time, after being detained for a long time, I was deported here to Mexico, where I stayed.

A migrant's life is full of dangers. Sleeping rough on the street or under a bridge, you realize that the police and traffickers have one thing in common: They want to take away what little you have. Often, they even steal your clothes, and if you have a phone, they take that too. The police may beat you up and insult you. I think this is why so many migrant structures have been set up to create a safe haven where you can at least stop looking over your shoulder all the time. When you can't take any more, you need somewhere like Casa Monarca, where they feed the hungry, find you some clean clothes and somewhere to wash. This is all we need.

I decided to stay here in Monterrey because I believe that I have finally found a place where I can settle down, find a job and earn a little money. I've been working now for eight months, and I live in an abandoned building with other migrants. One of them used to live in Pennsylvania but was then deported and ended up back on the street. That's just what happened to me, so we understand each other, and I can offer him my support. This situation won't last forever, but for the time being, I have no other choice; I have had to start again from scratch.

When I first arrived in Monterrey to start looking for work, I realized that I had no ID or documents, and that consequently, no one could employ me. Thanks to the help from a lawyer at Casa Monarca, I finally managed to get a copy of my birth certificate and then my ID, which allowed me to get work. The birth certificate is so important to me; it says who I am on this Earth and allows me to work and dream of a better future. Even if the police or the "narcos" [drug dealers] steal my money from time to time, I have learned how to hide it and keep it safe.

Work means many things to me: It enables you to take control of your own destiny. It means being responsible, sharing time with your colleagues or workmates, finding a new family. Work has given me a great deal of satisfaction. I've met so many people and experienced new things. After being arrested in the United States just for being a migrant, I spent many years in prison, and I certainly don't want to return there.

I want a better future where I can work outside of prison. I would like to be a decorator and paint houses. I would also like to find a friend and no longer be alone in the street, fall in love, start a family and hang up my walking boots. I would really like to have a family because I want to take care of someone and enjoy family life. Living on the street makes you realize the value of these things. You know what loneliness means and the value of company and sharing.

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Monterrey, January 2019

Casa Monarca beneficiary

Female Casa Monarca beneficiary stands on a street in Monterrey, Mexico

What drove me to take this important decision [to migrate] is the situation in Venezuela where social problems have become critical, and it has become very difficult to find food. I have a little girl of four; my wages couldn't cover the cost of living, and I certainly couldn't afford medicines. When my child's godfather suggested I come here to Monterrey, I jumped at the chance. And here we are.

At first, I was afraid, mainly for my daughter, because migrating is dangerous. We come from a small town, and all the uncertainty that lay before me was daunting, so it was a difficult decision. As soon as I arrived, I started looking for work. Each morning, I took my little girl to nursery school and roamed the city in search of work. After a couple of weeks, I found something, and it seemed that things had started to take a turn for the better. But my daughter cried every day and was homesick; she missed her family and friends. It was a very trying time; I would lock myself in the bathroom so she couldn't see me crying. I couldn't see a way out of the situation. How could I explain to a four-year-old that I was trying to prepare a better future for her? If I am here, it is for her and for her tomorrow.

None of our family has remained in Venezuela; my sisters are now in Spain and Argentina, while my mother and father went to Mexico. Now, after several years here in Monterrey, my daughter feels more Mexican than Venezuelan, and we are happy. I have found a job that I enjoy, and I can look after my family. I don't know what the future will bring, and although things seem stable, I feel that I am still in a transient phase of my life. I don't have all the necessary documents for the Mexican authorities yet, and I'm waiting for the situation in my country to return to normal so that I can return. After all, this is not my home, and I look forward to the day when all my family can return to Venezuela.

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Monterrey, January 2019

Casa Monarca beneficiary

Migrant couple who are Casa Monarca beneficiaries in front of a wall in Monterrey, Mexico

[Man speaking] We paid a "coyote" [a smuggler of human beings] US$5,000 a head to get us into the United States irregularly. Crossing the border is very dangerous as there are armed bandits who want payment to let you pass. If you can't pay, they kidnap you and ask your family for the ransom money. And if you are a woman, things take a different turn as there is a thriving international sex market. So, we paid this enormous sum to avoid these problems.

We crossed the river. Luckily, the water was shallow and even though the current was strong, we managed to cross. We then walked for three days in the desert and, when we arrived at the first village, the smugglers came to pick us up and took us to Dallas where we both found work, thanks to a friend who introduced us to his boss. We worked for a company that paints buildings. I did the harder manual work, and my wife helped with the organization and paperwork. We started to build a new life in Dallas and were building our own house and awaiting the arrival of our child. We even managed to send some money home to our family to ease their situation. We started work at eight o'clock in the morning and finished at eight in the evening, Monday to Friday. During weekends, we would walk around the city like everyone else.

One day, while we were working, there was an immigration inspection. I was painting, and my wife was sorting out papers when they burst in, knocking down the door. They asked us for our documents, and we were arrested. We couldn't get our wages that month, and we were locked up for two days then deported back to Mexico. That's when our hell began. We ended up on the street, and things got worse and worse. The last time I was arrested was because I tried to fight off two men who were trying to rape my wife, who is now pregnant. At the moment, we're living under a bridge. Every morning, I go to look for work as a daily laborer, but conditions are not easy, and there are no guarantees or rights. They come by on the truck, load you up, and you have to be ready to go. You get paid in the evening, but you never know if you'll get any work the next day or, if you do, where you'll be. Living on the street is dangerous. I don't even have my phone anymore; it was stolen during a fight so now I can't even call my mother, who still lives in our hometown.

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Monterrey, January 2019

Casa Monarca beneficiaries

Male migrant from Guatemala in front of a tree by a walkway in Monterrey, Mexico

I'm from Guatemala. My sister had drug problems, and the police came to pick us up. They were hard on us, and they took it out on me. I was knocked about, beaten and repeatedly threatened. I was frightened, even too frightened to run away, but one day I found the courage to run, leaving behind my family and friends. I took "The Beast" — a train heading north. When I got here, I was interrogated by immigration officials who didn't believe my story. They asked me the names of traditional objects and told me to sing the national anthem. I was arrested and deported south to Chiapas. I knew I had no wish to return to Guatemala. They wouldn't accept me as a refugee, so I had to start again and try to get to Monterrey. Along the way, I passed through several refuge houses for migrants, some pleasant, others less so. I managed to rent accommodation in Tapachula, found work, and things were OK. While I was working, selling sweets, a guy there asked me where I wanted to go, and I said, "Monterrey," not the United States. Soldiers arrived and asked me some questions. I said I just wanted to start a new life, to study, to work, to live a dignified life and to support my family.

Casa Monarca has helped me a lot; they have dedicated time and looked after me. My new boss allows me to work in decent conditions, and I'm expecting my work visa to arrive soon. Things are now going better; my job is in a factory that produces fruit juices. I work the night shift from Monday to Saturday, but Sunday is my rest day. I can now find somewhere to live and hope for a better future. My boss is great and treats me well. I enjoy working for him, and I'm beginning to find my way in this new society. I feel different now because although I'm a migrant and people now treat me like one, at the same time this makes no difference to how my friends and peers treat me.

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Monterrey, January 2019

Casa Monarca beneficiary

Five male day laborers waiting for offers of work in Monterrey, Mexico

Day laborers. Every morning, they get up and go to the same place where they wait for someone to come along and offer some work, generally in the construction trade. It is day labor, wages are low, and there are no guarantees that the work will continue. Such workers are often internal or international migrants.

Monterrey, January 2019

Young male Casa Monarca beneficiary from El Salvador in front of a wall in Monterrey, Mexico

One of the reasons for leaving El Salvador was the violence and persecution suffered by a part of the society, so, in desperation, I decided to abandon my homeland. I, too, took the train known as "The Beast," the one used by migrants to head north.

Migration is not easy. Apart from spending days on a train, you also have to walk through forests, drink water from the rivers and go without food for days. It's something that changes you forever. Often, the migrants' journey is made up of different stopovers and routes, mainly because during the journey unexpected circumstances force you to change course. For example, I was often robbed, usually on the train, and, every time, I had to get off at the next station, find some kind of work, and then continue the journey north. Dangers are not only due to criminality or the very strong cartel and gangs that infest our territory. Unfortunately, even the police do the same kind of things, so we have to try to keep safe from everyone.

When I arrived in the United States, I was arrested and detained for three months. In some sense, [being detained] helped me, because I was underage: I was sent to school and began to integrate. I stayed [in the United States] for five years until one day I was deported. I was living with my brother, and he was the reason I was deported. One day, he called the police and had me taken before the immigration court to re-examine my position, and I was ordered to leave the country. I stayed in the United States without documents, but, one day, at a roadblock, they stopped me, and I was arrested and deported.

The gangs in El Salvador are very dangerous; they kill people, so I had no choice. After having received various threats, I decided to leave once again.

Even today, I receive death threats via the internet and if the gang in my area knew where I might be living, I'm sure they would send someone to beat me up or even kill me.

In El Salvador, they threaten and even beat up soldiers — soldiers from whom I too had to protect myself at times. I went to Tijuana with the idea of re-entering the United States, but I found I liked it there, and so I stayed for a while and found a job in a Samsung factory. However, I didn't earn very much and couldn't really manage to live on the wages. I met a man from Argentina who helped to find me a job; I began working in a restaurant and earning a little more. In Tijuana, I also fell in love but not long after, realized that the person had drug problems. As we were renting the house together, these suddenly became problems for me too. I received threats, and I was frightened. Then one day, the police came looking for this person, who also was a drug dealer and used me as a shield. At that point, I realized that I meant nothing in this relationship. I was very frightened. And so, I escaped and came here to Monterrey.

I've been here a month, have found work as a night watchman and am now hoping for a better future. The people here are kind and have looked after me. I'm the watchman in an office block. It's a perfect situation for me. In all the jobs I've done, I still felt discriminated against, especially at the beginning because very often migrants are victims of stereotyping and it takes time to shrug this off. But in the end, if you are a good person and work hard, the stereotype will sometimes disappear — briefly.

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Monterrey, January 2019

Casa Monarca beneficiary

Male Casa Monarca beneficiary from Venezuela with his partner at a picnic table in Monterrey, Mexico

[Man speaking] I left Venezuela because of the political situation. I had no idea what to expect in the future, but there was no freedom of thought, so I left. It's not the same for everyone, I know, but, for me, that's the way it was. I was in the fifth year at university and had a job. But I didn't manage to earn enough to be independent, and I couldn't help my family. We didn't know what the future would hold, so I decided to leave because my country seemed to have no future and made it impossible for me to take care of my family. The advantage of being Venezuelan is that our culture is very similar to those of bordering countries; even though they may be a long way away, they are close culturally.

I feel welcome and fine here. The food and the culture are very similar. First, I went to my sister's home, in Bogota, Colombia, but her situation was not ideal, and there were not many opportunities. I saw a lot of social injustice so I came here to Mexico where things work better. Sure, I get homesick, and, of course, I miss my family and my friends. That being said, I remember the difficulties that I faced, particularly in the last months I was [in Venezuela], and I feel better because now things are going well and I can hope for a better future.

When I arrived here in Monterrey, I found work in a small brewery. I started to learn about how to produce beer, and slowly I became friendly with my boss. In fact, one day I told him about my passion for cooking and my idea of opening a restaurant. Then one day, he asked me if I was interested in opening a pub pizzeria restaurant with him. I said, "Yes, of course," and we started this adventure. I've not been discriminated against much. In fact, I see that people are interested in my culture when I'm interested in theirs. I think it's a question of your attitude and how you treat each other. Basically, I'm just a guy who has studied, wants to help his family, and is trying to live a better life. If I had continued to live in Venezuela, I wouldn't have been able to do that so I left and came here, where I work hard and try to contribute to the place that has looked after me. That way, I manage to send money home every month to my family in Venezuela to try to make their life a little more peaceful.

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Monterrey, January 2019

Casa Monarca beneficiary

Businessman who employs migrants stands in his open warehouse in Monterrey, Mexico

I believe that many companies need workers and could employ migrants. My idea of giving work to migrants stems from the fact that, in the past, I faced serious economic difficulties like a lot of my relatives and thought about migrating to the United States. I put myself in the place of someone who is migrating now, and I wonder if I'm capable of understanding what they are experiencing and whether I can understand their motivation. I know that they suffer, as I probably would have suffered if I had followed the same road.

My first reaction was to give them some money to ease my conscience, but you'll agree with me that this is a short-term solution. So, I began to think of what else I could do to help my brothers and sisters who are migrating. I've understood that I can offer them work, allowing them to create new families and to grow — something concrete and constant in time. I think it's a moral obligation to offer other human beings the possibility of developing. For me, helping migrants is a question of pride and of social justice.

From a business point of view, [migrants] work just like anybody else; they're people just like everybody else. It is a question of social justice; I honestly believe that it's right to take this risk, whether it's legal or illegal. History is full of people who have done illegal things for moral reasons. Remember that we are speaking of human beings: people who have families, children, parents and loved ones, who deserve the opportunity to grow. We should also recognize that a company works well when its human capital is rich and productive. I therefore want to advise all businesspeople to believe the idea that active trust in our neighbors will pay us back many times over.

Monterrey, January 2019

A businessperson and friend of Casa Monarca

Young male Casa Monarca beneficiary outside his workplace in Monterrey, Mexico

When I was 16, I too took "The Beast," the train that headed north, and after a series of misadventures, I arrived here in Monterrey. It was the first time that I'd ever taken a train, I'd never seen one before and had no idea how to even get on. Every time, I just ran and ran and tried to get on board and fell off. Many get injured, mutilated or, at worst, die under the train or under one of the wagons. Once you're on board, you have to worry about bandits, robbers and the police, who come on board threaten you, and steal everything you have, that is, if you're lucky [enough to survive these attacks].

Once my companions and I arrived in Monterrey, a lady told us to contact Casa Monaca, and faith smiled on us. The staff asked us if we were looking for work and would be prepared to stay at Monterrey, and we said yes. And that was how I started my working career. I was 16 and started to work and to save. After a year, since I didn't have a phone, I asked my boss to allow me time off to go and see my family to reassure them that I was well; they hadn't heard from me for a year. So, I took some holidays and went home, returning after three weeks.

Today, my job is split into various activities. Sometimes I'm responsible for packaging material; at other times, I paint; and sometimes I assemble equipment or go and install kitchens. I never would have expected to be able to work in a factory. I feel proud to be working in another country, and I thank my father who taught me the importance of work and of respecting your own dignity through your work.

The thing I miss most is spending time with my family. I send money every two or three months so that they can buy medicine and can stay healthy. I think everyone should help their parents, and I'm glad that I can show them my gratitude for having given me life and looking after me when I was young.

Now, I have a son, and I like my work. I would like to be able to continue to learn and grow as a person and gain other possibilities. My work has taught me many things: It has given me important professional skills like learning how to use a computer, for example. My father taught me to work when I was nine years old; even at that age, I looked after the cows, cultivated the land, and helped with the harvest. This has meant that I know the value of work and how important it is to move on and live life in the best way possible.

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Monterrey, January 2019

Casa Monarca beneficiary, who works in the company run by the businessperson and friend of Casa Monarca profiled immediately above

Two male migrants stand outside at the factory where they work in Monterrey, Mexico

Factory workers who have stayed in Monterrey after migrating north to escape poverty at home.

Monterrey, January 2019

Male migrant bricklayer at work at a construction site in Monterrey, Mexico

A migrant bricklayer at work. Labor migrants journeying north in search of decent livelihoods are often treated as a financial commodity and are vulnerable to extortion, exploitation and trafficking.

Monterrey, January 2019

Male migrant pushes a wheelbarrow at a construction site in Monterrey, Mexico

Labor migrants such as this construction worker may struggle to gain access to social services and protections.

Monterrey, January 2019

Male Casa Monarca beneficiary from Africa in a garden in Monterrey, Mexico

I used to live in Africa, in my homeland, where finding work was never easy. I understood that I would have to leave like everybody else, and so I came to Mexico. The point is that, in Africa, we have a different way of thinking, even about our family. Ever since I was small, I've always known that I would have to take care of my younger brothers and sisters, which is why, since I was young, I've always worked to contribute to the upkeep of my large family. Your family would never tell you that you must go out to work to look after them. There's no official obligation, but our moral code requires this — you know that this is the right thing to do. If you have children, you should look after them as well, and pay their school fees if you want them to have a better future.

So, you have to leave your home and country. You have to go far away to earn at least a little bit of initial capital to invest later in your homeland. Many people leave from my homeland. The majority go to Europe or to other African countries. I hadn't planned to come to Mexico; my plan was to go to Canada. But when I arrived here, I understood that, once over the border, it would be much more difficult that I'd imagined. So, I had to stay here and take time to work out if there was some way I could get the documents to get to Canada.

My journey began in Trinidad and Tobago, where I arrived by boat. From there, I went to Venezuela and then Colombia, continuing across the jungle on foot to reach Panama. From there, I traveled to Costa Rica, then Nicaragua and Honduras, until I finally reached Mexico. Since I arrived here, I found a girlfriend, and now I'm wondering whether or not I should stay.

At the moment, I work in a construction company, like I did in Africa; it's what I'm good at. In Africa, I had my own company, but, when I arrived here, I found a guy who used to live in the United States and who became my friend. I told him that I needed work, and he introduced me to his boss. We've been working together now for two years. Unfortunately, I don't have the right documents, so my status here in Mexico is irregular. But the people for whom I work are helping me to get the right papers. They've looked after me; they've welcomed me. They are my new family, and I've never felt discriminated against. Of course, you find racism everywhere, even in Mexico, but I'm lucky; it doesn't affect me. Home is wherever I can live well, and here in Mexico I feel at home.

My children are still in their homeland and go to secondary school. Every two weeks, I send money to pay for their studies and other expenses. I want them to have a better life than mine. My children must have a good education.

This job's OK because it's helping me, but there's still so much to do. I can never send [my children] the same amount of money; I send them what I can, and I try to save every day. Wages here are low, and I don't really earn enough to save as much as I would like to. I would like to go to Canada to be really able to save. Here, I only earn US$150 a week, so it's not easy to send money home. It's my responsibility, and I don't want my children to suffer like I have.

There will soon be changes in my life, and I'm sure things will get better; we just need time. My aim is to go home to where my family lives. With some savings put aside, let's say US$10,000, I should be able to help many other people and create work for others. This is my dream: to go home and help the others, open up my building company again and start work.

I want to send a message to all my African brothers [and sisters] who have left or are leaving. The problem is that we always leave everything immediately, we run. This is a mistake. We need time for these important decisions! I hope that everyone will take their time to reflect about what is right and what is wrong for their lives.

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Monterrey, January 2019

Casa Monarca beneficiary

Young female Casa Monarca beneficiary from Honduras in a garden in Monterrey, Mexico

I'm from Honduras, and I left home when I was 19, together with a friend of mine. She persuaded me to leave. I had a job, but I didn't earn very much, so we decided to leave together. You know something? While I was migrating, I didn't realize that I was, in fact, a migrant. That's what people called me, and I said "no, I'm not," because I wasn't really aware of my condition.

We took "The Beast," even though we were afraid. I had never seen a train before. The whole journey was an escape, a sort of hide-and-seek every time the police or immigration officials came. We didn't realize that there were all these rules and dangers, and neither did all the others who traveled with us, who couldn't help us very much. Every time the train stopped, we would get off and run and hide in streets where the police couldn't find us. Then, after the checks, the train would leave again, and we would have to run and get back on board.

During this journey, we were short of everything. There was no food, and the water we drank came from the lakes or streams or even from puddles. I never had drunk dirty water before, but once we were aboard, there was no way to find food or clean water, and so we took what there was. "The Beast" is a dangerous place. Once, a guy tried to attack me, and luckily, my friend protected me, and together we managed to escape, but we were so frightened. I had no idea how to defend myself.

Finally, we arrived in Monterrey. This city had always been my destination. I never intended going to the United States. So, when I arrived, I stayed here even though I had no idea where to go or to sleep. I found myself on the street, begging along with the other children who had traveled with me. I slept in buses or in stations, under bridges or wherever I could find a comfortable place to rest, but, in the end, it was always the police who treated us badly and moved us on.

I've seen so many episodes of discrimination when, for example, I was begging, and people would insult me saying that I was young and could work. I'd answer that it would be wonderful for me to find a job, but unfortunately no one would give me this opportunity. One day a man shouted at me, "You're young and you could work, aren't you ashamed of begging?" and I answered, "Yes, I am ashamed of what I'm doing, and if you give me a job, I'll stop immediately. If you offer me a legal job that's decent, I can start now! But I prefer begging to doing illegal things."

That's how I ended up at Casa Monarca where I was welcomed by the team as one of the family, and they gave me the opportunity to work as a volunteer looking after migrants. From that day, I became part of this great family. Every day I go out on the streets and take hot food to migrants. I see many boys and girls like me, and I'm happy to be able to help them. My plans for the future are to study; I want to become a doctor.

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Monterrey, January 2019

Casa Monarca beneficiary

Female Casa Monarca team member distributes food and water to three male migrants at a gas station in Monterrey, Mexico

Casa Monarca prepares food every day to distribute in various strategic parts of the city to migrants like these who are heading north.

Monterrey, January 2019