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Cooking Chicken And Plantains For African Migrants In Costa Rica

A team of volunteers cooks for African migrants living at a camp in their town of Paso Canoas, Costa Rica.
Rolando Arrieta /NPR

It's her moral duty.

That's the belief of Debora Matamoros Jiménez, who leads a volunteer cooking crew that, for two months, has fed the hundreds of African migrants stranded in Costa Rica and sheltered in makeshift tents in the town of Paso Canoas, where she lives.

"It gives us lots of joy and happiness to cook ... for them," says Deborah Jiménez, who leads the volunteer cooking crew.
/ Rolando Arrieta/NPR
Rolando Arrieta/NPR
"It gives us lots of joy and happiness to cook ... for them," says Deborah Jiménez, who leads the volunteer cooking crew.

Every week she and a half-dozen helpers from the local church back up a big truck loaded with pots of warm freshly cooked food: rice, beans, plantains, chicken.

"The Costa Rican government provides the food and it gives us lots of joy and happiness to cook it for them," says Jimenez, a housewife and devout parishioner of the Catholic Church.

It's an unlikely destination for migrants from Africa, who say they're from the two Congo states in Central Africa as well as Angola, Eritrea and Nigeria. Like other African migrants, they're escaping violence or poverty. Many of them come by cargo ship, paying smugglers to get them on.

Some 800 have wound up in Costa Rica, unable to move further north because of the tightened borders of neighboring Nicaragua.

At the camp, heavy rains bring stagnant water and the air is rancid. But when the food comes, the fragrant aroma takes over as camp dwellers meander over and form two lines — one for women, the other for men. Kids walk straight up to the front of the line and are served first, followed by the women.

"What draws my attention the most is the pregnant women and the kids," says Jiménez. "We just can't ignore this."

In recent weeks, the numbers have gone down at the Paso Canoas camp. Many of the migrants have been moved to other camps in Costa Rica. In Paso Canoa, about 100 remain.

"We were told earlier in the week that we didn't have to cook anymore because they had all left," Jiménez says. "But late last night I got a call asking if we could cook because there were at least 100 people still in the camp."

Costa Rican officials, the Red Cross and other communities in Paso Canoas have stepped in to provide humanitarian aid, medical attention and food. Jiménez has also gotten clothing donations, disposable plates and utensils.

But keeping up with the donations and food provisions are becoming a burden for the residents of Paso Canoas — and for Costa Rica. Mauricio Herrara, the minister of communication, says his country is preparing for a long-term crisis, but the reality is they are not able to sustain this level of support without other countries stepping in to help.

"But anyway, they are human beings and they deserve all the respect and protection with dignity," says Herrara.

In this food line at the Paso Canoas camp, everyone has gotten their fill and some have returned for a second and even a third plate. They are selective: Some ask for just beans and no rice or just chicken with a couple of juices to drink.

"We love it when they come back for more." Jiménez says, with a big smile.

"And if they're choosy about what they want, that's fine too. After all they've been through it is OK if they want to be a little picky."

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Rolando Arrieta
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