Originally Published in The New York Times
Myriam Vidal Valero and August 18, 2020
When the pandemic hit, volunteers had to find creative ways to educate migrant children living in limbo near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ana Morales Becerra, a single mom from Michoacán, Mexico, once described her former home as a calm place in the middle of a cartel war. With so many narcos in her neighborhood, in the city of Uruapan, she felt sure that no one would dare to come in to rob her. But still, she always felt uneasy as her daily routine — working two jobs and taking care of her kids — was punctuated with trucks full of armed people passing by.
The tipping point came, however, when narco trucks started following her children. “No more!” she remembers saying. “I’m leaving.” Fleeing cartel violence, sexual abuse and death threats, she left her home to seek a fresh start in the United States. Last October, she arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, with her four children, very little money and no place to stay.
But seeking asylum, which Morales Becerra thought would be a relatively fast process, turned out to be an administrative tar pit that would strand her and her family for months while they waited for a judge to decide their fate. “I didn’t know we would have to go through all this process,” she said. With their lives on hold, and no access to formal jobs or school, they have been living at the Embajadores de Jesús shelter, just three miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, for almost a year.
Like Morales Becerra’s family, thousands of families from Central America and Mexico have come to the U.S. southern border in recent years escaping violence. The White House’s Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, have forced migrants to wait in Mexico for months with no guarantees of asylum.
In the past decade, the U.S. registered an estimated 1.7 millionasylum requests, according to a United Nations Refugee Agency. The Trump administration reduced the number of refugees the United States accepts annually from 110,000 in 2017 to 30,000 in 2019 — less than ten percent of filed requests in that year. Among those who seek asylum, “children are much more vulnerable,” said Germán Casas, a Colombia-based child psychiatrist and president of Doctors Without Borders Latin America.
The trauma that some experience en route — family separation, physical violence, kidnapping, sexual abuse and human trafficking — is detrimental for their development and mental health, Casas said. Many migrant children have difficulty regulating their behaviors and emotions, handling stress and developing empathy,according to research.
With little help from the Tijuana government, volunteers on both sides of the border have stepped in to offer classes to some children. But just as one of these projects was gaining steam, the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
A rainbow-colored classroom rolls in
Andrea Rincón Cortés, 21, feels a deep connection with migrants. Her father tried to cross the border in 1992, but eventually settled in Tijuana, where she was born and raised. As she grew up, she saw that crossing over was a matter of survival to most migrants. As a teenager, she started visiting shelters and coordinating donations. “I felt this closeness with them because I saw myself reflected,” she said.
In July of 2019, while juggling university coursework and working for an advocacy group called Border Angels, Rincón Cortés discovered the School Box Project, an international organization that brings educational activities to refugee children in Greece, Bangladesh and Syria. She quickly proposed bringing these activities to migrant children on the Mexican border, too.
Over the next few months, she and four other volunteers from both sides of the border, onboard a rainbow-colored school-bus-turned-mobile-classroom, visited three Tijuana shelters to give children two-hour lessons. “We focused initially on doing art therapy activities to identify what educational and emotional needs they were having,” Rincón Cortés said.
After growing up in dangerous places, and experiencing trauma during their journey to the border, migrant children often develop permanent insecurities and have trouble relating to the world, said Dr. Casas. They are also at a higher risk of developing mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Schooling and a sense of routine gains a deeper meaning for them, according to Dr. Casas, who has treated refugee children for more than 20 years. It diminishes their anxiety by providing a safe environment where they can focus on useful knowledge, instead of the wretched atmosphere that surrounds them, he said.
On a cold December morning last year, we boarded the classroom bus at El Chaparral port of entry and rode with two volunteers scheduled to teach that day. People stared at the rainbow school bus in the middle of a stream of drab cars on the Tijuana streets. As soon as we arrived at the shelter, a dozen children came running to greet us, hugging our legs and jumping around smiling. Then they sat down to paint, everything from random finger painting to depictions of their travel through the desert.
Zaida Guillén, the director of the Embajadores de Jesús shelter, said the classes changed the kids’ demeanor and allowed them to blossom. “The children started to integrate more, were more respectful and started doing teamwork,” she said.
The mobile school seemed to take their minds away from their ordeals, said Dulce García, an immigration attorney in San Diego and the executive director of Border Angels. “They have the space to be kids again, to do homework and to talk about their situation with an expert,” she said.
An already difficult job becomes nearly impossible
After eight months, the school bus project was running smoothly. The children were used to the schedule, trusted the volunteers (who also taught math and English) and missed them when they couldn’t show up. “They already saw us as part of their lives,” Rincón Cortés said.
Morales Becerra’s children, along with the other 75 kids at the three shelters, were suddenly adrift, in lockdown, while their parents learned their court appointments to apply for asylum would be delayed because of the coronavirus. Or worse: that they could be forced to return to the violence they were fleeing.
As contributions and aid dwindled during the next two months, the children at Embajadores de Jesús shelter were desperate, stressed and bored without lessons. “All the aid stopped coming. The doctors, donations, the psychologist … everything,” Morales Becerra said.
Her eldest son, 12-year-old Jesús, kept a copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” which tells the adventures of a young wizard. “Since I had nothing to do, I would finish it and read it again, and again, and again,” he said.
Teachers get creative
Back in Michoacán, Morales Becerra had been a single mom who worked two jobs. Now, at the shelter during lockdown, she languished in depression. “I’m not used to doing nothing, I always have to be active,” she said. “I was desperate.”
When she realized her youngest son, 5-year-old Axel, couldn’t remember most of what he learned at day care the year before, she asked Guillén if they could start informal classes for the little ones, and soon she was teaching math and reading to the shelter’s youngest occupants.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Rincón Cortés was forming her own plan to continue teaching. For her, it was more than just offering classes to kids. She wanted to make them feel that someone was looking out for them, she said. “That they mattered.”
She founded her own nonprofit organization, called International Activist Youth, and recruited other college students to help teach. But it was obvious that distance learning was the only safe way to reach the kids. Resorting to online methods meant that they had to set up a reliable internet service and computers at the shelter. A $500 donation helped them jumpstart the new project.
By July they had an internet connection at the shelter, and brought projectors, speakers, chairs and other donated materials for the lessons. Rincón Cortés also had to coach the volunteer teachers how to interact with migrant children. Small details, such as learning a child’s name or actively acknowledging their work, gives kids a sense of self-confidence and dignity.
In mid-July, they started teaching. Rincón Cortés and her team of 14 volunteers now provide more lessons than they could with the school bus. Online math, English, reading and art classes take up most of the kids’ days. “My children have already warned me that I will not see them during the day because they have so many activities,” said Morales Becerra, laughing.
Although her son Jesús misses in-person interaction with his teachers, he enjoys having more lessons. There are other silver linings as well. “I feel better because if the teachers were here I would be more embarrassed,” said Jesús, who has always been shy. Now that the lessons are online, he participates more.
His younger brother Axel is also busy with classes. “I’m beginning to learn how to read,” he said. “I can read: ‘Mamá me ama’ (‘Mom loves me’).”
Both children continue dreaming about their future. While Jesús wants to become a marine biologist or an architect, Axel is torn between becoming a policeman, soldier or pizza-maker.
The virtual classes also include lessons on basic international children’s rights, such as the right to have a safe home, to be protected against violence or to have an education. “We focus on one right per lesson,” said Rincón Cortés. This helps prepare both kids and parents to recognize abuses and violence. The new program will also help families get in touch with counselors and organizations for legal or psychological advice.
Even though Mexico and the U.S. have started to open up after lockdown, Rincón Cortés is planning to continue with the virtual classes. Morales Becerra said she and many other parents are finding stability and a sense of hope, although her goal is still to eventually cross the border after court appointments resume.
“I have many plans,” she said. “I want to go back to school, since I only have a junior high-school diploma, and I hope this will allow me to give my kids a better chance in life.”