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Dramatic story of young Venezuelan migrant family's 5,000 mile trek to NYC - only for new life in Connecticut to be shattered by wife's shocking decision

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The dream has turned sour for a Venezuelan couple who risked their lives with their three children and the family dog on a year-long odyssey to reach the US.

Henry Aguilar, 34, and his partner Leivy Ortega, 29, lashed themselves to freight car roofs, waded through torrential rivers and stepped over corpses in the jungle in their bid to reach the US, reports the New York Times.

The family made it to New York, happily posing for photos in Times Square, before being housed in a two-bedroom home in Middletown, Connecticut by a non-profit.

Aguilar thought he had realized his dream of being able to 'play ball' with his children in an American park, but they were evicted from their home and Ortega was arrested for assault after she turned the baseball bat on him.

'If it's God's will that I'm not here in two years, then so be it,' Aguilar told the NYT.

Henry Aguilar, his partner Leivy Ortega and their three children Josue (left), Haili (center), and Samuel (right) in May last year before starting their trek to the US

Six months and 5,000 miles later they finally achieved their ambition of seeing the lights of New York's Times Square, complete with their Labrador Donna

The family became a symbol of the millions making the perilous journey to the southern border as the liberal newspaper checked in with them periodically on their 5,000-mile journey north.

Aguilar left Venezuela in 2017 as the country's economy collapsed, meeting his fellow Venezuelan exile Ortega three years later in Chile.

They had three children between them who persuaded them that they should try to start a new life in the US.

Aguilar, a former police officer, realized his chances were slim after spending two years in a Venezuelan jail for taking part in an armed shake-down of someone who owed money to a friend.

But at the start of last year they decided to pool their meagre resources and join the millions attempting the arduous and chaotic journey through central America with their children Hayli, 6, Samuel, 10, Josué, 11, and the family labrador Donna.

'It's going to be a grand adventure,' Aguilar told the children. 'But with real-life obstacles.'

The family headed north to Colombia, sleeping rough in a town plaza for two weeks before Aguilar earned enough to rent a home.

He devised a home-made 'boot camp' to toughen up the children ahead of the jungle leg of their journey, sending them on bicycle rides around a local sports stadium and making sure they were acclimatized to early starts.

The couple met in 2020 in Chile after joining the seven million people who left Venezuela in the wake of the country's economic meltdown 

As they journeyed through Central America they would scramble aboard the freight trains that have claimed the lives of hundreds of migrants travelling north

Aguilar stepped in to offer Donna the dog a little protection as she faced challenges of her own from natives on the long journey 

The family finally made it to New York after a group of Christian missionaries from Michigan learned about their story, and raised nearly $2,000 to fly them to the city

By August they had raised enough to pay $300 to an armed group for permission to enter the jungles of the notorious Darien Gap, receiving pink wristbands in return from their bandit escorts.

The 'grand adventure' turned into a miserable struggle for survival as they lost the skin from their feet on the long march up with hundreds of fellow Venezuelans up the Panamanian isthmus.

Hayli lost two toenails and Aguilar was forced to carry his family one-by-one across raging rivers.

Those at the front of the group would yell out 'Muerto! Muerto!' as they stumbled across the bodies of previous migrants lying dead in the forest.

The family had nothing to eat but river water for two days after sharing their supplies with other starving migrants and it was six days before the exhausted party emerged from their jungle nightmare.

Back on paved roads they began the long hike north to Mexico City, usually sleeping in tents and flitting surreptitiously across the borders of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.

Josué remained fixed on his ambition to see the 'pantallas' or screens of New York's Times Square, while Samuel diligently tracked their slow progress on a pocket map of central America.

They hid what money they had in holes cut into their clothes, and sporadic wire transfers from family members kept then from starvation.

But bus companies refused them transport and it was nearly two months before they arrived battered and exhausted in Mexico City.

Pitching their tent outside a bus terminal the family could not afford the $1 for a bucket shower or raise enough money for a bus to the US border.

They decided their only option was to brave 'la bestia', or 'the Beast', the name given by migrants to the freight trains that have killed or maimed hundreds of migrants trying to ride them north.

Hours would pass as they waited by the tracks for a slowing train before scrambling onto its roof, harnessing themselves as best they could against the jolts that threatened to throw them off.

Ortega would wrap her legs around Haili and hope the boys could hang on as the desert winds buffeted the family perched atop the trucks, and they fought to stay awake in case the bucking train pitched them to their deaths in their sleep.

Three months after leaving Colombia they reached the border town of Ciudad Juarez and the family saw their first sight of the US on the opposite bank of the Rio Grande.

With nothing left to buy food Ortega sold her last possession of value, a white gold ring that was a family heirloom for $70.

They arrived in the city in time to celebrate daughter Haili's sixth birthday 

Their arrival in New York did not mark an end to their struggles and they jumped at the chance of a move to Middletown, Connecticut, when a charity offered them a home

Aguilar meanwhile booked an appointment with a US border official using the mobile app for migrants introduced by the Biden White House in January last year.

At 3am on November 10 the family joined the line at the US border, crossing in the early hours and having an interview shortly afterwards with border officials.

Aguilar's criminal record was not mentioned and the family was released on parole to walk into downtown El Paso with a court appearance before an immigration judge scheduled for April next year.

But any thoughts that they had reached the promised land quickly dissipated.

Aguilar slept in the open on their first night because their dog, who had miraculously survived the journey, was not allowed into the shelter, and Ortega left the shelter two days later after getting into a fight with fellow Venezuelans.

No-one was offering to bus them to New York and they could not afford hundreds of dollars for the fare.

By now their traumatized children were re-enacting immigration officers chasing migrants while playing with their toys.

And Ortega was jealously thinking about a Venezuelan friend who had already reached New York, found somewhere to live and started sending money to his family.

'It's not envy, but I want to be over there already,' she told the NYT.

'I feel stuck here. It hasn't even been 72 hours and I've already been hit.'

Meanwhile word was filtering through to migrant of the hostile environment they risked if they did make it to New York.

'Things are tough in New York with the 100,000 migrants who have arrived there,' local priest Father Rafael García warned them.

Finally their luck changed when a group of Christian missionaries from Michigan learned about their story, and raised nearly $2,000 to fly them to the city.

'Papi, the bathroom was magical!' Haili told her father as they stepped off the Delta flight to La Guardia Airport on November 24, the day after her sixth birthday.

'Better than riding the top of a train,' he told her.

At last the three brave children were able to see the lights of Times Square in person, visiting Central Park and seeing the sights of the city they had dreamed about for so long.

The family headed first for the repurposed Roosevelt Hotel before being assigned space at the massive tented Floyd Bennett Field shelter in Brooklyn, but Aguilar realized that they could not allow themselves to stay in the dangerous environment.

He bought an $800 car and the family was expecting to spend Christmas in it before a charity offered them a two-bedroom home in Middletown, Connecticut.

The children were enrolled at a local elementary school where psychologist Amy Swan helped the family raise the $410 needed for Aguilar to apply for a work permit.

Her husband Ray gave Aguilar a job in his wood workshop at $20 an hour building furniture and kitchen cabinets.

'He works hard and doesn't complain,' Swan told the paper in March.

'I can't stop singing his praises.'

Days later the family's rollercoaster existence took another lurch when Ortega discovered she was pregnant.

But the stresses of their journey had taken a toll on their relationship and she reached for a baseball bat during an argument about their future, swinging it at Aguilar and bringing the police to their apartment.

He was uninjured but she was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and ordered to stay away from her partner.

He lost his job, and the family was forced from their home with Aguilar seeking refuge in a shelter for domestic violence victims with his son and daughter.

They arrived in Connecticut in time for Christmas but lost their home after Ortega attacked her partner with a baseball bat, earning a misdemeanor disorderly conduct in the process

A criminal case is now blighting Ortega's prospects of a future in the US as well as Aguilar's but the couple ignored the protective order and decided that their future lay together.

Abandoning Connecticut they piled into Aguilar's $800 Honda and drove 1,700 miles to Houston in Texas after the mother of his two children offered them a room in her apartment with mattresses on the floor. 

Aguilar is now working as a delivery driver and hoping to get a job as a landscaper before Ortega gives birth to their child later this year.

Most immigration cases go against those with criminal records but that seems not to trouble the indomitable family that has been through so much.

'I'm happy being with my family and making them happy,' Aguilar said.

'All I want is to take my kids to play ball in a park.'

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