“We tried to sleep in the desert but we couldn’t because there were too many animals. They came right up to me and they had big eyes and I could see that they were lions.” Lia and Cynthia, both nine-year-olds from El Salvador, stare at me from across the table, wide-eyed as they remember the night they spent with their mothers hiding from US Border Patrol. “There were many noises. I could tell that most of the animals were lions because of the noise they were making.” Lia can’t get that night out of her mind, but Cynthia comes to the rescue: “We once went to the zoo in the city. I saw many lions there.” I latch on to that. “Really? What else did you see there?” Thankfully that’s all it takes. They’re off, talking about happier times when they didn’t have to worry about gangs coming into their school, forcing them to hand over their lunch money and threatening that their mothers would be murdered if they told anyone.
Nor were these empty threats. Earlier this week I sat mute as a six-year-old described how a man in her village was killed with a machete, demonstrating the slash marks from her forehead to her chin on both sides of her face. He was left to die on the street near the school so when school let out the children had to pass him.
These girls are among thousands of families and unaccompanied minors who have made their way from their homes, mostly in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, to this country in search of safety. At first I wondered if the situations they are going into – crowded living conditions, minimum wage jobs, city schools in a foreign language – are any better than what they’re leaving. But after hearing just a few of their stories I realized the depth of the horror they’re fleeing.
As the numbers of immigrants streaming into the United States grew in the beginning of June, Catholic Charities in McAllen, Texas, decided to do something for the hundreds of families they saw dropped off by Border Patrol at the local bus station. They opened an assistance center three blocks from the bus station with tables loaded with donated clothing. They set up showers and, together with the Salvation Army, provided food. Because many of the arriving parents had had little or no sleep for days, the city of McAllen donated tents so families could sleep.
The local organizers welcome volunteers from all over the country who come to help out. Coordinating the resources of multiple charities with waves of volunteers coming for short stints is a tough assignment, but the teamwork I’ve seen here over the last few months is impressive. Families have driven from as far away as Pennsylvania with a truck full of donations, ready to do anything to help, even to look foolish with their halting attempts at Spanish. Churches have come on mission trips and the Salvation Army rotates teams once a week. Everyone comes with the goal of welcoming these families into our country, and the enthusiasm is infectious.
Language seems to be hardly a barrier here; somehow the message gets through.
This past summer, after reading countless articles on the border crisis and watching footage of mothers and children clinging to trains and buses, risking their lives to enter the United States, my church wanted to do something to respond. My friend Amy and I volunteered with Save the Children, a nonprofit organization that goes into disaster zones all over the world to help families and children recover. Their signature child protection program, Child Friendly Spaces, allows children who have experienced a traumatic event to play and be kids again. Here in McAllen, Save the Children has set up a Child Friendly Space in the corner of the Sacred Heart recreation center where children can play while they wait for the buses that will take them to relatives farther north.
I spend my days looking after the children who come to play. Some days there’s only one child, some days there are fifty. Some stay the whole day, others for only half an hour. Each child brings a story, and their stories are often also the stories of their parents and grandparents. One afternoon a nine-year-old with whom I was making bracelets told me that she and her father were going to Houston to meet her mother. I asked her when she had last seen her mother. Nine years ago, she told me. She’d lived with her grandmother her whole life. I asked if she was excited. She wasn’t sure. As I hugged her goodbye later that day, I could only wish her good luck and pray that this country would be kind to her.
I never tire of seeing the children come into our space. At first they are wary. They have come straight from Border Patrol, and we may be the first smiling faces they have seen for days. But when they see the toys and other children having a good time, they start to forget themselves. Soon they are right in there with the rest, racing cars or coloring pictures of princesses. Best of all, when the mothers see their children relaxed and smiling, they start smiling too.
I have been here for several months. The constant stream of new faces, child after child, keeps me stretched between heartbreak and inspiration. Shortly before coming here, I read a quote from Dostoyevsky: “You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood…For if a man has only one good memory left in his heart, even that may keep him from evil…And if he carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe for the end of his days.” These words guide me as I try to give these children some good memories to take with them as they go out from our Child Friendly Space into an uncertain future.