Migrants fleeing religious persecution find refuge in SF

Augusto César Noguera, Damaris Berrios and their 11-year-old son Augusto José Noguera Berrios are pictured in May at St. Peter Church in San Francisco. The family fled Nicaragua for San Francisco in 2019 to escape religious persecution there. (Courtesy photo)

Lorena Rojas

San Francisco Catolico

On Jan. 24, 2019, Augusto César Noguera, Damaris Berrios and their 11-year-old son Augusto José Noguera Berrios left their home in the dark of night without saying goodbye to loved ones, and boarded a flight from Nicaragua’s Managua International Airport to San Francisco.

The young Catholic family told San Francisco Católico they fled their home country fearing for their lives after religious and political persecution there put their lives “on the path of the dead.”

They found refuge in the home of Noguera’s sister, and became members of the Mission District’s St. Peter Parish community.

”The first days (displaced) were very difficult,” Noguera said with a broken voice. “We left professions and a whole life.”

Berrios also spoke of her son’s pain at leaving behind his friends.

The Noguera Barrios family were among 8.5 million people worldwide who fled violence in their countries in 2019, according to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

The Noguera Berrios family now wait with hope for immigration authorities to approve their asylum petition.

Before they fled their homeland, Noguera and Berrios had both worked for 15 years as professors at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, (UNAN). They had a stable social and economic life as a middleclass family.

Their Catholic faith was at the center of their lives. Before work each morning, husband and wife went together to Mass at Jesus of the Divine Mercy Church, located a block off campus. They also served together as volunteer coordinators of a lay ministry. Augusto José was an altar boy.

But their commitment to the Catholic values of justice, peace and respect for human life, would ultimately put their lives at risk.

A year earlier in 2018, violence broke out in Nicaragua when university students began protesting the government’s decision to increase Social Security taxes. Many working people considered the decision an unreasonable burden and unjust to the most vulnerable.

Classes were suspended May 8 at the UNAN campus when students continued to protest the policies of President Daniel Ortega. On July 13, armed paramilitary groups moved in to remove the protesters from campus in a confrontation that left many dead or injured. Similar confrontations were happening across the land.

The parish priest of Jesus of the Divine Marcy church near campus pulled more than a hundred students away from the violence and took them into the safety of the church, Noguera said.

The protesters and clergy inside were fired upon from the outside by paramilitary forces, killing two students, according to a British Broadcasting Corporation report.

When UNAN reopened to classes, the government set new rules for professors. They were asked to spy on students and report those resisting the will of the government, Noguera said.

Noguera and Berrios refused to comply. For them, the government measures constituted a violation of basic freedoms in a democratic state.

The Catholic Church also publicly repudiated the actions of the government. The pair were branded as traitors and the threats against them began.

Berrios said that aligning themselves with the government would have certainly made it easier to continue with their work and lives there. But they reasoned it would have been inconsistent with their Catholic values.

Some of threats came from their own university colleagues or superiors, Noguera said.

One day in the corridors of the university, an allied government official threatened him: “We will continue to tear skin, blood will continue to be shed, and you are on the list,” the man said.

Another co-worker told Noguera that he was named at a meeting of professors and government leaders as a “traitor to the government and a follower of the bishops.”

Noguera participated in a massive pilgrimage called by the bishops of Managua in the name of peace and justice. The government called the bishops, “coup bishops.” Noguera was implicated and told to, “watch out because we are following you and we know every one of your movements.”

It became clear with time that the family members were destined to become one of the many other deaths and “disappearances” in Nicaragua since the clash began.

Augusto José witnessed a group of paramilitaries come to his school and remove a teacher for having participated in the demonstrations.

The Noguera Berrios family made their secret plan to leave. It has been two years since the family arrived in San Francisco and secured their safety. But this year holds great potential for more unrest and violence in Nicaragua with the presidential election upcoming in November 7.

Bishop Carlos Ávila, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Managua, expressed the church’s concern about the government’s behavior in the face of the elections. Monsignor Avila said, “the government is mocking the elections,” according to Catholic News Agency (CNS).