Their stories are detailed, frightening, and consistent.
Leaving homes in El Salvador, Mexico or another country where poverty and violence reign. Their parents paying a coyote to guide them north to what they hope will be a better and safer life in the United States. Trying to cross the border where more terrors await them. Then arriving in this country speaking no English and having gone through experiences that may haunt them for a lifetime.
These are the stories of students in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District Migrant Education Program.
“I was 16 when my parents made the decision for me to leave El Salvador,” wrote one. “I would be taking my 7-year old cousin with me.”
Together those two children set off alone for the U.S., placing themselves in the hands of the coyote who, among other things, “locked us in a room for four days with no way out.”
“I was 16,” writes another. “A boy wanted me to be his girlfriend, but I refused … He would text me and tell me he would kill my family. He is part of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).
“The Mara Salvatrucha will harass families until the son becomes part of their gang,” is the testimony of another. “We lived in constant fear.”
Yet another student described what happened when his family was apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol: “They took us into a cell where my parents were handcuffed to a bench. The next day they took my dad to another cell. They fed us cookies and a small drink. That was our meal three times a day.”
Elyssa Chavarria is director of the Migrant Education Program, coordinating a wide variety of counselors, bilingual instructional assistants and migrant school advisors in an effort to help these children. More and more, she said, they are encountering children who come here alone, without their parents, and while they must have relatives to stay with, not having their parents in their life is yet another hardship. “They often feel they are a burden.”
Betty Gamiz, one of the Migrant School advisors, sees 30-40 migrant students per day, all with different needs.
“The children are resilient,” Betty said. “They want to focus on the positive.”
But they often are closed off about what happened to them before they arrived and are reluctant to talk about it, especially when it comes to being taken from their mothers and fathers.
Being forcibly separated from parents is one of the worst traumas a child can experience.
“We can expect thousands of lives to be changed,” said a retired psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, separated from her parents when she was seven.
“These children are at risk for mental-health disorders, including post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression,” said a psychologist.
Another student recalls what happened when she and the people she was traveling with reached the border.
“We walked for four hours when the border patrol caught up to us. We all scattered. I only remember how everyone was screaming. I was not caught, and I continued walking by myself in the dark night.” She goes on to describe how frightening it was to walk alone in the desert, having no idea where she was and with no idea what would happen to her next.
While they try to forget the past and focus on the present, many are aware of the resentment their presence engenders after they arrive. One commented: “I wish people would not judge us because we leave our homes for a better life away from the danger that surrounds us there.”