Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Child I Met On The Plane!

A couple of weeks ago, I was waiting on the plane to fly out of McAllen, Texas.  A young boy came and sat on the seat next to me. He looked young but I really didn't think of anything more than that. I sat there reminiscing on the work I was involved in the last few days until the boy asked me in Spanish to help him with his seat belt. I looked at his innocent face and helped him. We smiled and I asked how old he was. He said, 15. 

All of a sudden, I realized I was sitting next to an unaccompanied minor who didn't speak English and was on his first plane ride ever. I could see he was nervous and yet courageous. I asked him where was he coming from, little did I know I was opening a door to a story that will never leave me. 

This child had been away from home for two months. During this time, he had crossed multiple international borders on foot and on the bus, had been separated from his father, followed a stranger, crossed into the US unaccompanied, detained in a prison and then spent time in a half way home with strangers. He was now headed to his mother and two siblings who he had not seen in six years! During his time in the prison, they were given frozen burritos for lunch and dinner everyday. The officials would often come in the middle of the night, wake everyone up banging on the beds and switching on all the lights. He was not allowed to contact anyone not even his mother. What a horrendous experience for a child! 

As he continued to tell his story casually, I was swinging on the pendulum between hope and despair. On one hand, the child was on his way to his mother but on the other hand this boy had lived at least two months of hell and there was no guarantee that things will be ok where he was going. I asked him what was it like back in his home country, he said most children were forced to join gangs and many had lost their lives to violence. It was not easy to go to school and stay safe. He said he wants to study to become a health care personnel. In spite of all, he still had hope especially now that he had a chance to go to a school in the US. 

The idea here is not to put the entire blame on the US government, his home country is equally responsible for not providing him with an environment where he had the appropriate developmental opportunities. His parents didn't have the will or the resources for a proper handover. Officials in the prison didn't have the will or the understanding of treating this child with dignity by letting him sleep at night, letting him contact his mother, or giving him culturally appropriate food. So many psychological wounds, some will heal soon and some will probably take a lifetime to heal especially if the child does not get the right support. 

I often wonder what will help children like this boy to recover from their ordeal and move forward in their lives effectively? I wonder if they don't get the appropriate support they need, would they be able to make positive contributions to the society that we all are part of? Would the cost of helping these children be higher than not helping them? Any child, migrant or not, deserves support and guidance. Needless to say, those who have lived the hardships need the help even more to heal from the adverse experiences. And if we can provide that help, we absolutely should! I feel we all have some role to play starting from learning about the issues, raising awareness, advocating on behalf of the children and taking action! 

According to UNICEF, nearly 50 million children have been uprooted, forced to flee brutal conflict and extreme poverty across the globe. BBC has a good article explaining the situation and some statistics related to migrant children coming into the United States. This article also includes heartbreaking videos about the struggles of the children, for some these struggles have ended in death at such a tender age. Last year, I was talking to a children's advocate from Houston and she told me how many children especially girls are immediately picked up by the sex traffickers and sold in different parts of the US.  Many children, especially boys are recruited by gangs even before they reach the US borders! Unfortunately, we don't have a sound tracking system to understand the magnitude of the problem.

There is a lot that needs to be corrected in our system in addition to not separating the children from their parents. We must be able to monitor the children once they are released from the detention centers not only to ensure their safety but also to ensure they are receiving the long term psychosocial support they need to heal and grow up to be responsible citizens. Often times, it is not very expensive, it is about building and strengthening the natural support system around the child. It is about teaching children and their caregivers basic resilience building skills such as articulating their feelings, active listening, deep breathing, strengthening existing positive coping mechanisms such as praying or playing and seeking help from the local resources such as teachers, faith-based leaders and/or school counselors when possible. Building their resilience will be good for them and for the country!

I would urge you all to learn more about the painful experiences of the children who are fleeing from conflicts, violence and extreme poverty! We can either blame and look the other way or do something at least for those who have found their way to the land where we live! Supporting them will also help  building a more harmonious society where we and our own children live!

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