A Venezuelan refugee family is reunited with her dog Simba in El Paso

In the lobby of El Paso International Airport, a desperate flight and a painful breakup culminated in a meeting full of hugs and hugs.

A family seeking political asylum in the United States was reunited on Wednesday with the dog they had brought on their four-month trip from Venezuela, which was mostly on foot. The family and the dog are separated in El Paso.

Simba, a small black and brown mixed breed with big ears and a face vaguely resembling a Dachshund, has been part of the family since he was born in February.

In a passionate scene, little Simba, wagging his tail violently, ran to meet his humans, who brought him close to them with smiles and tears.

Yurimar, 35, said: “(We feel) joy. He is part of the family, he is my youngest child. He is the one, along with our children, that gave us the strength to get here.”

El Paso Matters identifies immigrants by first name only because many of them are fleeing violence and fearing for their safety.

One of the family

Yurimar and her husband, Johnny, 38, left Venezuela on March 10 with Simba and their three children to seek political asylum in the United States. As former government employees, they faced political persecution, including not being allowed to buy food at subsidized prices through local government-monopoly supply and production committees. The commission has been criticized for corruption and its use as a tool of political control.

Yurimar’s 10-year-old son plays for Simba in Costa Rica in April. (Courtesy of Yurimar)

With little money to cover travel and food expenses, the family walked most of the 2,300 miles from Venezuela to southern Mexico. Simba, who was still a small puppy when they set out, backpacked as they slowly rambled through Colombia and Central America.

In Tapachula, a Mexican city near the border with Guatemala, Johnny earned money working at an immigrant shelter. Thanks to his wages, and with the help of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Tapachula, they were able to make the final leg of their four-month journey to the US border.

“We had enough money to buy (bus) tickets,” Yurimar said. “We went all the way without eating. We, the adults, didn’t eat so there was food for the kids and Simba.”

When the family crossed the Rio Grande River from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso on July 12, they surrendered to the first Border Patrol agent they saw. Yurimar said they were initially greeted with threats against Simba.

Simba is held by Yurimar’s son while on Border Patrol escort on July 12. The clients delivered the dog to El Paso City Animal Services, where he received vaccinations before going home. (Courtesy of Bridge Pups Rescue)

“We thought we would never see (Simba) again because (the border guards) treated us badly when they saw the dog,” said Yurimar. “(The agent) said he was going to throw the dog into the river. He told us to get rid of him or we couldn’t get in the car. Then another car came, at which point they asked my son to get in his truck with the dog, and the rest of us went with the first car.”

Once at the processing facility, the family once again faced the risk of losing Simba. Neither the processing facility nor the temporary family shelter will be sent to allowed animals. Fortunately, said Yurimar, one of the agents on duty was “touched” by the children’s feelings and decided to help.

strange request

Robbie Montana is a lecturer at the University of Texas at El Paso and an animal lover. Together with her brother, she founded Bridge Pops Rescue, a group devoted almost exclusively to finding homes for street dogs that often make their way alone from Juarez to international bridges and across the border to El Paso.

On July 12, Montana received a message from a Border Patrol that began, “We have a strange request…we had a family group of 5 who turned themselves in to the Border Patrol this afternoon. The dog is a five-month-old male.” The agent asked Montana to help find a sitter to care for the dog while allowing the family into the United States.

Simba’s family ran to meet him as he entered the airport. (Corrie Boudreaux / El Paso Matters)

While dogs are allowed as pets to enter the United States with families, they must be vaccinated against rabies and in good health, according to US Customs and Border Protection guidelines.

Border Patrol officials said in a statement emailed to El Paso Matters that “it is rare to encounter immigrants attempting to enter the United States while traveling with a pet.” In the El Paso Strip, pets are usually handed over to the custody of the USDA or local authorities in El Paso County or New Mexico.

Because Simba’s vaccination records were stolen and Border Patrol facilities did not allow animals, agents handed Simba over to El Paso Animal Services in the city. Montana was able to connect with Cathy Patterson, an experienced dog lifeguard and canine in Chaparral, New Mexico, through social media that night.

The next day, Patterson picked Simba from Animal Services.

“It was originally meant to be for two or three days, but I was perfectly happy to keep it a little longer,” Patterson said. “He’s a cute little dog.”

Montana has kept in touch with Yurimar, sending photos and updates on Simba.

Kathy Patterson whispered goodbye to Simba on Wednesday. Patterson sponsored Simba while his family was processed and cleared to enter the United States. (Corrie Boudreaux / El Paso Matters)

“It was obviously a huge relief to her when she learned that Simba was fine,” Montana said. “And I sent Simba two voicemails and seeing his reaction to hearing her voice was really, really special.”

On Tuesday, Montana learned that the family was ready to release them. But the nonprofit that paid for air travel to New York did not pay Simba’s extra pet fees. She also discovered that Yurimar, Johnny and their three children “had nothing at all except the clothes they were wearing”.

Montana once again asked her social media followers for help, donations poured in to buy clothes and basic supplies, and to buy Simba a ticket to travel with his family.

Robbie Montana, left, and Kathy Patterson arrive with Simba at El Paso Airport on Wednesday. Patterson sponsored Simba while Montana, founder of Bridge Pups Rescue, raised funds for airfare and his family’s needs. (Corrie Boudreaux / El Paso Matters)

reunite them

On Wednesday evening, Montana and Patterson stopped at the airport and unloaded four backpacks, three suitcases, and a small dog.

While walking to the airport lobby, the three children and Yurimar spot Simba from the far end of the ticket lobby. They ran toward him with their arms outstretched, and Johnny followed behind. Simba jumped out of Patterson’s fist and raced to meet them.

They collided in a delightful confusion of caresses, licks, hugs and tears.

“Seeing that moment, just seeing the feelings, seeing Simba’s tail wagging so fast, seeing them cry—hand in hand, it was one of the most satisfying moments of my entire life,” Montana said. “Those moments don’t come every day.”

Yurimar hugs Simba at El Paso airport on Wednesday after being separated for nearly a week. (Corrie Boudreaux / El Paso Matters)

Simba’s 12-year-old sister said she can’t wait to play with him and cuddle him to sleep again after the difficult flight from Venezuela.

“Now, I want to be somewhere stable with my family,” she said.

With Simba safely hidden in a pet carrier, the family marched under a large American flag toward the beginning of something new.

“He’s my youngest child,” said Yurimar. “Thank you everyone, thank you for reuniting my family. We needed him.”

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