Asylum seeker speaks out against discrimination at a health clinic in Belize

One asylum seeker's bravery to speak out against xenophobia changed the perception of health workers and how they were treating refugees at the Bella Vista Polyclinic.

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Rosa walks on a street in Independence village with her children, Susy and Gus, as they make their way to the Bella Vista Polyclinic.

Rosa walks on a street in Independence village with her children, Susy and Gus, as they make their way to the Bella Vista Polyclinic.  © UNHCR/Aida Escobar

Rosa* no longer hesitates before stepping through the doors of the Bella Vista Polyclinic. She smiles confidently as she takes her one-year-old son Gus* and her 10-year-old daughter Susy* for their check-ups.

It wasn’t always this way. On first arriving in Belize with her two children, after being forced to flee their native El Salvador in 2021, Rosa recalls that she felt less than welcome in the health centre.

“I needed to take my son for his check-up and vaccines, and when I did, I was talked to harshly,” says Rosa, recalling the unkind stares and the impatient tone used by staff after realizing Rosa could not speak English.

She felt uncomfortable during her visit, but Rosa knew she needed to stay strong for her son. “I didn’t want to go back, but because I needed to keep my son healthy, I knew I had to speak up,” she says.

Rosa turned to HUMANA People to People, one of UNHCR’s partners in Belize, to ask for help.

“We had to leave because of the threats from the gangs.”

“We decided to give the clinic staff a presentation about why we came from El Salvador; explaining that we did not want to leave our country, but we had to because of the threats from the gangs,” says Rosa.

Rosa described how her husband was murdered by gang members just 22 days after their son was born.

“My husband was coming home from a nearby store,” Rosa recalls. “I was sitting outside our house with my son and my husband's mom when we heard the gunshots. Sixteen bullets hit him.”

After sharing her story with those working at the Bella Vista Polyclinic, she noticed the shift in the way they treated her.

“Now when we arrive, we feel very welcome. Even the security guard greets us with love,” she says.

The Bella Vista Polyclinic, located in Independence Village, was where Rosa and UNHCR partner HUMANA People to People held a meeting with the clinic's staff to share why Rosa and other asylum seekers were forced to flee their homes.

The Bella Vista Polyclinic, located in Independence Village, was where Rosa and UNHCR partner HUMANA People to People held a meeting with the clinic's staff to share why Rosa and other asylum seekers were forced to flee their homes.  © UNHCR/Aida Escobar

Amy Mendez* is a Patient Care Assistant who has been working at the Bella Vista Polyclinic for the past three years. She was one of the staff members present during the presentation led by HUMANA and Rosa.

“The training was a wake-up call to remind everyone that our job as health workers is to serve the people regardless of ethnicity, race, gender, status, and nationality,” Mendez recalls. “I am glad that it was emphasized that refugees have the same rights as Belizeans because that lesson made the staff change for the better. Since that day, the staff has been more humane with asylum seekers.”

Rosa says that other asylum seekers also noticed a change of attitude at the Bella Vista Polyclinic.

However, some wounds are difficult to heal. Even after she was able to make a difference at the Bella Vista Polyclinic, Rosa and her family were still battling the trauma of losing their beloved husband and father.

“Susy would wake up crying and screaming. Or she’d laugh uncomfortably when she spoke about her father. I’m the one who found his body. It’s been hard for us to overcome that day” shares Rosa.

“Now when we arrive, we feel very welcome.”

Through partner HUMANA People to People, UNHCR was able to assist Rosa and her children providing them with psychosocial support. Rosa has noticed a considerable improvement in Susy since she started to attend the program. Rosa admits that these sessions have helped her as well, but she still mourns her husband.

After the murder of her husband, the gang members started asking Rosa for USD 100 monthly to “protect” her. She didn’t have that money. She fled from her home to another location in El Salvador, but the gangs soon found her, and she realized that she and her children were no longer safe in her country.

That’s when she decided to flee to Belize with her children. She chose Belize for the safety she had heard that the country offers, and she wanted to find a peaceful place for her children to grow up.

“I hope that my children will be able to attend school here in Belize and that my small business of selling used clothes can grow,” says Rosa.

Belize currently hosts over 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly fleeing gang violence and persecution from Central America. Many are welcomed by communities like Bella Vista village, located in the southern district of Toledo.

Now, when Rosa walks into the Polyclinic, she smiles to herself as she pushes through the entrance doors. She knows that she is welcome.

*These names have been changed for protection reasons.