scorecardresearch Skip to main content

My life was in danger trying to help children in Guatemala. I had to choose exile.

A refugee journalist and humanitarian makes a new home in Boston with her family.

Derek Thomson/Unsplash

Read in English | Leer en español

We landed at Logan Airport on a cold night in late November 2021. A diminutive Vietnamese man waited for us at baggage claim, smiling and holding out jackets, hats, and gloves. Out on the street, the winter cold nipped our faces. I remember the looks my three children gave me — a mix of astonishment, fear, and uncertainty.

On Interstate 93 headed to Dorchester, we looked out the back window at the twinkling lights of downtown, welcoming us to our new lives. From that moment, we couldn’t hear the word “Guatemala” without a lump in our throats, without missing every corner and taste of our country and more than anything, our family there.


As a Guatemalan refugee journalist in the United States, my road to Boston is a bit out of the ordinary.

I worked for some years in Guatemala at a news organization that investigates human rights violations, mining, corruption, and other issues. These kinds of investigations always put us in danger, but in Guatemala the persecution of journalists is nothing new; we learn to live and work in that atmosphere. In my case, because I’ve also worked as a human rights advocate, danger was always lurking in the background and I knew the shaky justice system would never resolve the cases we brought to light. But a tragic event in Guatemala’s history changed our lives forever.

The morning of March 8 — International Women’s Day — of 2017, a fire started at a state-run home in a classroom where 56 girls had been locked in. Although the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción was a place whose mandate was to provide shelter and protection for girls and adolescents, instead, they had been subjected to physical and psychological mistreatment, torture, and even trafficking, as was later uncovered. Only 15 girls, with third-degree burns and other severe injuries, survived the fire.


During the emergency, a group of friends, my mother, and I went to offer help to the victims and their families. We continue working even today to find justice for all 56. At the same time, I began investigating, as a journalist. What I uncovered pushed me into the eye of the hurricane — I was intimidated, followed, defamed, and threatened at gunpoint. The United Nations Refugee Agency got us out of the country immediately.

We arrived in Boston as frightened refugees, unsure about our new beginning: a new language, new culture, new lifestyle, and a climate with lots of extremes. The first months were hard, but we took each other by the hand and started building a new life, building resilience.

We now have the good fortune to live in West Roxbury, steps away from a nature reserve where my partner and I walk our dog every morning. In summer, we go to Walden Pond, our favorite peaceful place. We love going to Boston Common in fall and winter, warming ourselves up afterward with pho at a place near Chinatown. We take our time getting to know wonderful museums and theaters full of history. One of the best moments has been going to Fenway to see the Red Sox play, and we’re really hoping to go to a Celtics game. We love to discover new places: pumpkin and sunflower farms or corn mazes. We’re always surprised when a flock of ducks or turkeys stops traffic, and drivers wait patiently for them to safely reach the other side of the road.


I’m not trying to sell the “American Dream” or idealize migration to this country. Life here isn’t as easy as people think. But living in Boston has given us an infusion of peace and opportunities we’re grateful to take. Here is our fresh start, the place we call home. We’re grateful to have escaped our homeland with our lives and to have arrived here.

A little piece of Guatemala is in our home — we always have beans, tortillas, and Guatemalan cream. Sometimes, we daydream that we’re in the Mayan jungle of Petén. We can almost feel the black sand of the Pacific Ocean at our feet, smell the incense and palm fronds of Holy Week. Always nostalgic for our homeland, we live in hope of returning to visit one day. In the meantime, we’ll keep growing roots in Boston and celebrating life.

Stef Arreaga is a writer in Boston. Send comments to This article was translated into English by Lisa Button. TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.

Read more from the the My Boston History issue: