MATAMOROS, Mexico (AP) — During the weeks it took Yeison and Niko to migrate from Venezuela toward the U.S., they navigated dangerous jungles and over a dead body. The two are so inseparable that Yeison sold his phone so both had enough bus money to continue their journey.
Now as Yeison prepares to finally enter the U.S., it’s likely he will have to leave Niko behind.
That’s because Niko is a squirrel.
The 23-year-old man and his pet squirrel are an unusual but blunt reflection of the emotional choices migrants make over what to take — and what to leave behind — as they embark on the dangerous trip north. Yeison, who declined to give his last name because he fears for his family’s safety in Venezuela, said going without Niko was out of the question. But Mexico is where they might be forced to part ways.
Yeison, who is among millions of Venezuelans fleeing political and economic unrest back home, secured an appointment for Saturday to present himself at the border to seek entry to the U.S. and request asylum. Animals are generally not allowed to cross the border.
“It would practically be like starting with nothing, without Niko,” Yeison said.
Many who set off on the roughly 3,000-mile (4,800-kilometer) journey to the U.S. do so with only what they can carry and their loved ones. For Yeison, that was a squirrel with a black stripe and flecks of white hair, who made the long trip nesting in a red knit cap stuffed inside a backpack.
For six months, Yeison and Niko lived in a tent at an encampment with hundreds of other migrants in Matamoros. The site is across from the Texas border city of Brownsville, which is hundreds of miles east of Eagle Pass and not experiencing the same dramatic increase in migrants that prompted the mayor to issue an emergency declaration this past week.
On a recent day, Niko crawled over Yeison’s shoulders and stayed close while darting around the tent. Chances are slim Yeison can take Niko across the border, but volunteers at the encampment aren’t giving up.
Gladys Cañas, the director of a nongovernmental organization, Ayudándoles A Triunfar, said she has encountered other migrants who wanted to cross with their pets — cats, dogs and even a rabbit once. But until now, never a squirrel.
Cañas helped connect Yeison with a veterinarian to document Niko’s vaccinations to provide to border agents. She is hopeful they’ll allow the squirrel to cross, whether with Yeison or with a volunteer.
“There’s a connection between him and the squirrel, so much that he preferred to bring it with him than leave the squirrel behind with family in Venezuela and face the dangers that come with the migrant journey. They gave each other courage,” she said.
Yeison said he found the squirrel after nearly stepping on him one day in Venezuela. The squirrel appeared to be newly born and Yeison took him home, where he named him Niko and family members fed him yogurt. The picky squirrel, Yeison said, prefers nibbling on pine trees and is fed tomatoes and mangoes, even in times when food is hard to come by.
At first, Yeison said he sought work in Colombia. He returned to find a loose pine splinter lodged in Niko’s eye and resolved after that to take the squirrel with him on the next journey to the U.S.
Like thousands of migrants, Yeison made the trip through the perilous jungle known as the Darien Gap, where he said he found the body of a man under some blankets. He said he concealed Niko in a backpack when they boarded buses and crossed through checkpoint inspections in Mexico. But one time, Yieson said, a bus driver discovered the squirrel and made him pay extra to keep the animal on board. Yeison said he sold his phone for $35 to cover the cost.
Once they reached the encampment in Matamoros, the pair settled into a routine. Yeison makes money cutting hair by his tent and often falls asleep sharing the same pillow with Niko at night.
He was bracing for a separation.
“I don’t want for him to be separated from me, because I know that we’d get heartsick. I’m sure of that,” Yeison said. “And if he doesn’t get sick, I hope he gets to be happy. And that he never forgets my face.”