Noemi Álvarez Quillay took the first steps of the 6,500-mile journey to New York City from the southern highlands of Ecuador on Tuesday, Feb. 4, after darkness fell.
A bashful, studious girl, Noemi walked 10 minutes across dirt roads that cut through corn and potato fields, reaching the highway to Quito. She carried a small suitcase. Her grandfather Cipriano Quillay flagged down a bus and watched her board. She was 12.
From that moment, and through the remaining five weeks of her life, Noemi was in the company of strangers, including coyotes — human smugglers, hired by her parents in the Bronx to bring her to them. Her parents had come to the United States illegally and settled in New York when Noemi was a toddler.
Noemi was part of a human flood tide that has swelled since 2011: The United States resettlement agency expects to care for nine times as many unaccompanied migrant children in 2014 as it did three years ago.
For these children wandering thousands of miles, it is a grueling journey, filled with dangers. The vast majority come from Central America. Noemi’s trip was about twice as long. She had already tried once, leaving home last May, but was detained long before she even made it halfway.
“I went with a coyote and spent two months in Nicaragua and came back from there,” she wrote in a school information sheet.
She got a little closer this year. In March, a month after she left home, the police picked up Noemi and a coyote in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The authorities took her to a children’s shelter. She was described as crying inconsolably after being questioned by a prosecutor. A few days later, she was found hanged from a shower curtain rod in a bathroom at the shelter. Her death, ruled a suicide by Mexican authorities, remains under investigation by a human rights commission there.
The number of unaccompanied minors caught entering the United States and then referred for placement is expected to reach 60,000 in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, said Lisa Raffonelli, a spokeswoman for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an increase from 6,560 in 2011. In Mexico, the number has more than doubled.
No single factor explains these surges, but in Noemi’s hometown there are clues about the forces at work in her story.
In the district of El Tambo in Cañar province, her maternal grandparents, Mr. Quillay, 57, and María Jesús Guamán, 59, live in an adobe home with no running water. About 15 years ago, during an economic crisis in Ecuador, their adult children began migrating to the United States without visas.
“My four children went to find decent lives,” Mr. Quillay said. “So I took over five grandchildren from when they were little.”
They ate from the grandparents’ farm. “We don’t have the little sweets that they sometimes ask for,” Mr. Quillay said.
“She was just born when her father left, and when she was 3, my daughter decided to go herself,” Ms. Guamán said of Noemi. “I raised my granddaughter the same as the others.”
As the children grew, their parents sent money to pay for the construction of a two-story concrete house nearby where the five grandchildren, cousins, lived on their own.
Leonela Yupa, a cousin and playmate of Noemi, remembered playing “cocinita” with her — fashioning from their imagination a little kitchen where they fixed pretend meals. Noemi often joined in one of the world’s universal games: hide and seek.
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