Hope amid hard­ship

Young im­mi­grants write of flee­ing from vi­o­lence and seek­ing a bet­ter life.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Family - By CLAU­DIA TOR­RENS

ONE stu­dent wrote how his par­ents were fed up with pay­ing “war taxes” to street gangs in Hon­duras.

An­other told how he fi­nally left that coun­try af­ter he was hit in the leg by a stray bul­let from a po­lice gun­fight.

And yet an­other de­scribed his har­row­ing trip from El Sal­vador with a smug­gler who kept a pis­tol on his car’s dash­board, just in case.

Not ex­actly the sto­ries of typ­i­cal sixth-graders. But this bilin­gual class on Long Is­land, United States, is hardly typ­i­cal, made up al­most en­tirely of 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds who fled street gangs in their na­tive Cen­tral Amer­ica only to wind up in a sub­urb that’s now caught in the grip of vi­o­lence from a street gang with Cen­tral Amer­i­can ties, MS-13.

“When I look back at how much I have suf­fered, I re­alise that chal­lenges make you stronger,” wrote Joc­san Her­nan­dez, the boy struck by the stray bul­let, who was among more than 20 stu­dents at a East Mid­dle School who have con­tributed sto­ries to a class book ti­tled “Luchando por un mejor fu­turo” (“Fight­ing for a Bet­ter Fu­ture”).

The 88-page book, hand­writ­ten in Span­ish and il­lus­trated with col­or­ful draw­ings, was an end-ofyear pro­ject that grew out of a class­room dis­cus­sion about the stu­dents’ ex­pe­ri­ences back in Cen­tral Amer­ica, their im­mi­gra­tion jour­neys and hopes for a bet­ter life in the US. Some of the kids came as re­cently as Oc­to­ber with a brother, sis­ter or cousin, while oth­ers came with a par­ent. Some were granted asy­lum or came with a visa. Some were held in bor­der de­ten­tion cen­tres and are still go­ing through im­mi­gra­tion court pro­ceed­ings.

“Yes, they went through it all but they come to school ev­ery day with a smile on their face and they are learn­ing,” said teacher Maria Men­doza. “That is pos­i­tive. They find the courage enough to put it on pa­per.”

That theme of hope amid hard­ship comes through on ev­ery page. Along­side 11-year-old Is­mael Esquivel’s il­lus­trated ac­count of his pas­sage from El Sal­vador with the help of an armed smug­gler. “There were po­lice stops and they would take our money.”

There are op­ti­mistic im­ages of brown dirt paths that lead to the US, sur­rounded by green moun­tains and flow­ers.

Very lit­tle in the book deals with a new real­ity of their Amer­i­can home­land that most of the chil­dren have yet to ex­pe­ri­ence: the MS-13 gang that’s been blamed for 11 killings of mostly teenagers who have been dis­cov­ered in woods and va­cant lots in Brent­wood and neigh­bour­ing Cen­tral Is­lip since the start of the school year.

Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials say gangs with Cen­tral Amer­i­can ties such as MS-13 have re­cruited heav­ily from the ranks of the more than 165,000 un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nor im­mi­grants who have been placed in the US since 2013. Long Is­land has been a fre­quent land­ing spot. Suf­folk County, which in­cludes Brent­wood and Cen­tral Is­lip, has got­ten 4,500.

“Kids that come at the age of 12 and 13 years old, if we don’t grab them right away and put them into pos­i­tive things and make them feel suc­cess­ful, they will join a gang,” said Men­doza, who grew up in Brent­wood.

Barry Mo­hammed, the school’s prin­ci­pal, says he’s al­ways mind­ful of the lure of the gangs. “Out­side of just the ABCs and an ed­u­ca­tion, we are here to sup­port the whole child ... so that they won’t go down that path.”

On the last day of the school year, the stu­dents showed off the book to a few par­ents who vis­ited their class­room and ser­e­naded them with the song Home by Phillip Phillips, which in­cludes the line, “Just know you’re not alone ... ‘cause I’m go­ing to make this place your home.”

Elmer Rivera, a Sal­vado­ran, who de­scribed not eat­ing for three days on his way to the US, wrote a sim­i­larly hope­ful mes­sage in the book.

“I thank God be­cause I ar­rived well to the United States. Not every­body sur­vives on their way here,” he wrote. “I thank God for all the dreams that I will make come true in the United States.” – AP

Pupils in Men­doza’s sixth grade class at the pre­sen­ta­tion of their book pro­ject. — Pho­tos: AP

Men­doza started the book pro­ject with her pupils to doc­u­ment their trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ences and hopes for a bet­ter fu­ture.

The ‘no fear’ sign sym­bol­ises their hope of a bet­ter life af­ter suc­cess­fully mak­ing their way into the United States.

Ervin Rivera, a Sal­vado­ran im­mi­grant, reads his story to teacher Ali­son DeFa­clo.

The book pro­ject al­lows the boys to doc­u­ment their ex­pe­ri­ences in Cen­tral Amer­ica.

Mirna Vasquez hugs her teacher Men­doza who says, ‘It was a cry fest hear­ing th­ese sto­ries.’

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