GINA’s Team is blessed to have brilliant interns who expose me to new ideas every day. One of these is Kristin D’Souza who worked a facility that held unaccompanied illegal children after they had been processed by ICE. These are children trying to come to our country to reunite with family or due to social unrest in their country. Imagine yourself as a child going though hell to get to your parents. I had never thought about this until Kristin brought it to my attention. I hope her story will give you pause to think about the courage and hope of these children. She is a talented writer whose words moved me to tears.
“A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who doesn’t play has lost forever the child who lived in him and who he will miss terribly.” – Pablo Neruda
“Te extraño, mama. Te extraño mucho.” Tears stream down her face–one hand wipes her cheek, the other grips her very pregnant belly. I miss you, mommy. I miss you so much.
“Diez minutos” I scrawl on a scrap piece of paper–I hate this part. I dread the look in their eyes when I tell them to say goodbye, the look of devastation, the look of frustration and utter sadness–and why shouldn’t they be sad? Anyone thousands of miles away from home, away from family, in a country entirely foreign to them would be afraid, angry and sad.
“Adios” she says, her voice cracking and eyes watering. Her ten minutes are up and she knows that in order to have her other, precious phone call later in the week she must hang up the phone. “Adios, mama, papa. Por favor, no te llore, mama. Estoy bien.” Goobye, mommy, daddy. Please, don’t cry mommy. I’m okay. She puts on a brave face, but her eyes tell me the truth–what I already know.
Ana Rosa, from El Salvador, is just fourteen. After being raped, her mother wanted to get her to America where her aunt lived and where she would be safe. When she was smuggled out, no one knew she was pregant. Now she is in a foreign country, lost and alone; pregnant and very young. She is afraid, she desperately misses her family. She hands me the receiver and blinks her eyes to release the tears that have welled up. I hand her a tissue.
“Esta bien, Ana” I say softly, “Estas bien.” It’s okay, Ana. You are okay.
I met Ana a month ago. I was there at her intake, when she was brought to the facility. My first day, I accompanied a caseworker, Amelia, to process a young girl from ICE custody.
Not even 5 foot tall, little Ana sat in a plastic chair at the end of the hall, her hands clasped tight atop her belly, her toes barely touching the ground. She turns her head as Amelia clears her throat and introduces herself and me. Her eyes are set in dark, puffy bags and her cheeks are emaciated and sunken, She stands to greet us, and I notice she is unsteady on her feet. “Are you okay?” Amelia asks. Ana shakes her head. “What’s wrong? ”
“I don’t feel well,” she says. “I haven’t eaten. ”
“Since when?” Amelia says, kneeling to look at her head on.
“I don’t know. Since the men took me. ”
“Since ICE took her?” I ask Amelia. “Wasn’t that three days ago?”
Amelia glances at the form that she has taken from Ana. “Yes.” she shakes her head in surprise. “Go run into the kitchen and get her a plate.”
I rush downstairs and return with a plate piled high with rice, beans and chicken, with bowls, one with peas and one with fresh fruit balancing on my other arm.
Amelia has been talking to Ana, who looks white as a sheet and quite sick. “Please eat, Ana,” Amelia says. She is hesitant, but takes several bites. Suddenly, she pushes the plate into my hands and turns to vomit onto the floor.
I cringe and hand her a napkin. “It’s okay,” I say.
She looks up at me, eyes shining with tears, and shakes her head. No it won’t be. It won’t be okay.
As I escort Ana up to her room from the offices where she made her phone call, I recall the other horrible things I have seen lately. Teenage boys so dehydrated they collapsed during processing; girls so hungry that they weighed under 100 pounds; a boy with untreated, deep wounds in his leg from his journey into the U.S.; another boy who was hit across the face while in ICE custody with a large cut running down his jawline and bruised eye.
I remember that the lives of these kids, these young, scared, precious kids, have been uprooted–gangs ripping their worlds apart, violence and sexual abuse plaguing their childhoods, poverty and despair forcing them to leave their homelands. What do they deserve from us? As human beings, as children? Surely not this–surely not what they have experienced that I have seen.
I tell Ana a joke, and she grins as we climb the stairs, slowly but surely, up to her room. Her smile is bright, her laugh is melodic. When we open the door, three girls come rushing over. “Ana! How are your parents? What did they say? How is your sister?” Another has crayons and shouts, “Do you want to come draw with us?” She nods and they rush off, in a tizzy of teenage giggles and excitement. I look around at all the other kids, laughing and playing, reading and writing–this is what childhood is about. This is what these children deserve to experience. Not cruelty, not mistreatment or hatred. Joy. Hope.
“¡Alguien quiere llamar a su familia?” I call out. Anyone want to call their family? Ten kids come rushing to me.
“Tu, Roberto” I say. He whoops, and high fives his friend Pablo.
“¿Puedo llamar a mi abuelita?” the twelve-year-old asks brightly, following me down the stairs. “Can I call my grandma?”
“¡Claro que si!” Of course you can!
His face lights up and he smiles–so wide that it’s almost as if the long scar across his jaw is not there.
For reference: here is a journal article written about undocumented unaccompanied children’s treatment in short-term detention: http://www.firrp.org/media/BPAbuseReport.pdf. It’s very sad, scary and informative.
Whatever you believe about our immigration problem, the way we treat children is a reflection on us as Americans. We are the beacon of hope for the world. Our beacon is tarnished with every child we mistreat. Is this who we are as human beings?
Everyone has a story and a point of view. What’s yours?