The first thing I noticed were her pants. They were hot pink. The kind of pink that I see all the tweens in my neighborhood wearing as they walk home from school. She looked like many of the kids I see, laughing and playing with her friends the way young girls do. But her reality was much different from those kids.
You see, she was here seeking asylum. And while she played, I held her sleeping three-month-old baby.
I learned a little bit about her from one of the workers at the facility. She fled from her home country and her “perpetrator” (aka the man who raped and impregnated her), when she was a few months from giving birth. She turned 14 in the United States, then she gave birth. “What happens now?” I asked. “She waits for her court date. And we try to help her learn how to be a mom in the meantime.”
I learned that she’s had a hard time bonding with the baby, and that she needs lots of reminders about how to care for him. That made sense to me. She was, after all, still a child herself. A child who had been raped. I learned that her chances of actually getting asylum are really only as good as the judge she gets. The more I learned, the closer I held her little boy to me, whispering to him that I would think of him everyday. I’ve never worked so hard at holding back tears in my life.
I had spent the last two hours volunteering at this facility for migrant children. To protect the facility and the children, I can’t share where it is or how I became involved, but to say the experience was profound would be an understatement. During our orientation, we were told the basics. No pictures of the kids, don’t ask them what their stories are, be careful if you’re doing crafts with scissors because many of these kids are cutters. “You have no idea what these children have been through,” the woman who runs the facility told us. Many have endured trafficking, sexual assault and the horrors of war in their home country. All of them were here alone.
And, no hugs. This one struck a chord with me, as I remember hearing a story months ago about workers in these facilities who were not allowed to hug crying children. I was outraged at the time. But listening to her now, I heard a different perspective. “This is to protect the children,” she explained. “Many of these children have endured sexual trauma at the hands of adults. Touching, of any kind, can trigger them. Adults have not always been nice to these little ones. So you can high five, or side hug, if the moment calls for it. But please, no hugging.”
I was gutted.
I, like many others, became painfully aware of the plight these children face last year when the Trump Administration began separating children from their parents at the border. I, like many others, felt anguish at the thought of being torn from my own children. I, like many others, felt a white, hot rage whenever I saw someone commenting things like, “well, they shouldn’t have broken the law” on social media. And I, like many others, felt helpless in how to take action. I donated money, I read and shared articles about crying babies in cages, but beyond that I felt that actually physically helping in any way was beyond my reach. I said things like, “If only I lived in Texas.” “If only I was an immigration attorney.” “If only I spoke Spanish.” I had a lot of “if only” excuses that allowed me to think I couldn’t help. They kept me firmly planted in my bubble of being well-intentioned, but completely removed from meaningful activism.
Fast forward several months. I found myself with an opportunity to volunteer at a facility which housed and cared for migrant children in my own state, and even though much of it was a mystery to me (I didn’t even know what city I was going to until the day before), I made it a priority to get there. I no longer had a reason to say “if only”. So many of us want to help, but in an age where life is lived online, we (myself included) feel that sharing an article on social media counts as helping. And maybe in some small way it does. But if we really want to impact change, we must seek out the opportunities available to us that put us on the front lines. We must, I repeat, MUST have firsthand knowledge about the flesh and blood human beings we’re fighting for. Human beings like the perfect little sleeping baby I was holding, and his mother who came here so they would have a shot in hell at a hopeful future.
I didn’t watch Trump’s speech about the border wall, but I’m fairly certain I know the rhetoric. Them. Us. Fear. Crisis. Wall. Am I close? There will be many who heard his words and agree. There will be many who heard his words and don’t agree. And then, there will be the young girl and her baby. There will be the other young women I saw who had all been trafficked to the U.S. There will be the little boys my son’s age who I cheered on as they decorated holiday ornaments, watching their faces light up at the sight of something they created. There will be the teenage boys I met who wore their hesitation and their pain on their faces, but tried to have fun anyway. All of them here from somewhere else. All of them at the mercy of our government.
But we, the people, we can help. We can show them love. We can show them compassion. We can hold their babies, and tell their stories. And maybe, just maybe, the more we do that, the more we will understand for ourselves who “they” really are.