One chilly Saturday this January, Pulitzer Center grantee Nadja Drost sat in her Brooklyn home drafting an article. Then the doorbell rang—it was a man on a bicycle delivering food. Drost let him know it must be for her downstairs neighbors. The man started down the steps before doing a double take.
He looked back up at Drost in the window.
“Nadja?” he said.
When Drost met the deliveryman on the stoop, he began excitedly repeating words in what English he knew: “Panama,” “jungle,” “walking.” Although she didn’t yet recognize him with his PPE mask, winter clothes, and fuller face, Drost had stumbled into a chance encounter not even Hollywood could script—one that spanned over a year, thousands of miles, and one of the most dangerous migrant routes in the world.
The man’s name was Ripon, and he soon used his phone to pull up a Pulitzer Center-supported PBS NewsHour report by Drost and fellow grantee Bruno Federico that followed a group of migrants making the trek north through the Darien Gap, a wild stretch of jungle on the Colombia-Panama border. She initially thought Ripon had made the trip around the same time and had resonated with her broadcast.
When they met up again the following day, Drost introduced her “new” friend to Federico. Ripon simply burst into laughter.
“That's when it came out that he was actually one of the people that we filmed [on the Darien Gap],” Drost said. “At that point, we were all laughing. We just couldn’t believe this.”
They had first met more than a year earlier in September 2019, when Ripon and a group of 15 fellow Bangladeshi migrants had spent three days traveling with Drost and Federico’s NewsHour team on the Darien Gap. Like many Darien migrants, the Bangladeshis endured torrential rainstorms, food shortages, and armed bandits—but Ripon’s struggles long predated the Darien and would continue well after he emerged from the Panamanian jungle.
His reunion with Drost and Federico embodies the stark, often bewildering realities of a broken system for refugees around the world.
"The surprise is kind of difficult to describe because you think, 'Statistically, what are the chances of this happening?'” Drost told me. “Because even though we met in a very faraway and distant place, on a very extreme and extraordinary and peculiar journey, I think that this connection goes to show that asylum seekers end up being your neighbors and they end up being people that you encounter in your regular life.”
Danger in the Darien
In recent years, the Darien Gap has become a crucial crossroads for thousands of “extracontinental” migrants hoping to reach the U.S. and Canada. Coming from across the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia, many individuals braving the Darien are fleeing discrimination, poverty, and conflicts. These refugees often arrive by plane in visa-friendly Brazil or Ecuador before heading north to join a group or hire a guide to cross the jungle.
“A lot of the migrants have no idea where they are in the world,” Federico said. “People that arrived in Ecuador from Turkey [might think] they just cross a river and arrive in the U.S.”
Ripon’s journey began in his home country of Bangladesh, where he said he faced political persecution as a supporter of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Police beat him up several times at protests and ransacked the cosmetics store he owned. After going into hiding without his family for six months, Ripon decided to cross the land border into India. A series of flights took him to Ethiopia, Brazil, Peru, and then back to Brazil, from where he eventually made his way to the Darien.
When Ripon and his group encountered Drost and Federico on the trail, their situation was grim. Incredible hunger had set in and they had been robbed of their possessions by bandits, one of whom held a machete to Ripon’s neck.
“It seemed to me I was supposed to say ‘goodbye’ to the world,” Ripon explained in Bangladeshi in a new PBS NewsHour piece Drost and Federico produced about their reunion. “One of [the bandits] held my hands, when the other one said: ‘Chop it.’ But someone within them said: ‘Don't chop.’ Everyone with me started crying. They begged: ‘Don't kill him.’”
“At that time, my feet were wounded, and I suffered a lot in the jungle of Panama. I could not believe that I would be able to reach America,” he said.
Drost said Ripon’s group was relieved to meet them. She and Federico shared what food they could, but it was already stretched thin between their five guides and the more than 20 Haitians they had been traveling with.
“It was very difficult for them to understand [we had to ration the food] because they were so desperate,” Drost said.
The Bangladeshis also lacked tents and were forced to try and build shelters with palm leaves during the frigid nights. On one of the last mornings, they grew terrified at howler monkey whoops they believed to be tigers.
Death is a constant presence on the trail. Minor injuries can turn fatal due to the absence of any medical aid. Migrants drown each year crossing the Darien’s rivers, which swell unexpectedly. Since they often carry their life savings with them, refugees make prime targets for bandits. At times, the group passed bodies of those that came before them, as Drost also chronicled in a Pulitzer-supported story for California Sunday Magazine.
“The jungle is one of the most beautiful places that I have seen in my life because it's completely primary forest,” Federico remembers. “This incredibly nice place was hosting this human tragedy of thousands of thousands of people, escaping war, escaping poverty.”
After their three days together on the Darien, Drost and Federico ran into Ripon’s group again about a month later in Tapachula, in the far south of Mexico. The group’s informal leader, who spoke the best English, ran by on the street, shouting, “We’ll catch up later.”
“That was the last time we saw any of them,” Drost said. That is until Ripon showed up on her doorstep.
According to Drost, Ripon crossed into the U.S. in November 2019, somewhere along the California-Mexico border. He spent the next several months in ICE detention, before being released February 3, 2020. He then moved to New Jersey to live with his cousin before finally making his way to New York.
In the city, Ripon lives with seven other Bangladeshis and works for a restaurant delivering food on his bicycle. He is waiting on the status of his asylum application, a process hampered significantly by the Trump administration’s cuts to the U.S. refugee cap. The COVID-19 pandemic has further impeded Ripon’s adjustment to his surroundings.
“He hasn't had a chance to feel connected to his new home at all,” Drost said. “His first experience of America was being in ICE detention for close to three months.”
However, some recent developments are helping with that connection. A Twitter thread posted by Drost detailing the reunion went viral and received more than 80,000 likes. Comments flooded in, with individuals asking how they could help Ripon and other migrants like him. One user set up a GoFundMe page that raised over $6,000 in 24 hours for Ripon. (It has since closed and urges visitors to give to other migrant-related organizations.)
The amount of support he received was entirely unexpected for Ripon. His cousin told him that it speaks to the two sides of America: a country that creates incredible hurdles for migrants but also contains people that “will really help you out or rally behind you.”
“One of the questions that I have is, OK, people are very easily able to rally behind one person,” Drost reflected. “Are they as able to rally behind policy changes that will impact many, many people? That's something that this story can't answer.”
“We live in a country and a world full of people immigrating,” Federico says. “You should always think, ‘Where are these people coming from and what did these people have to pass through?’”