Eric and Alberto remember exactly when their life changed in Honduras.
It was 2012. Eric was 8 and Alberto was 10. Even though the family was poor, they were content. “We were all together, and we lived very happy until my uncles were killed,” Alberto said.
The uncles were police officers and their killers were members of an influential gang, the boys said. So when their mother complained to law enforcement that their murders weren’t being investigated, instead of justice, she began getting death threats. The family went into hiding. That marked the end of their “happy life.” And it was also the end of the boys’ schooling. Now, Eric is 15 and Alberto is 17. They can barely read and write, even in Spanish.
Their mother decided their only hope for survival was to make the long and dangerous trek to the United States. “We had to do it,” said Alberto. “If we stayed they would have harmed us badly. They would have made lots of harm to us.” It took the three of them about six months to reach the U.S.-Mexico border because they didn’t have enough money for bus tickets along the way.
When the family was caught by Border Patrol in 2017, they were first told they could stay together. But the next day, they were separated. Their mother went to detention and the brothers went to a shelter; Southwest Key Casa Antigua in San Benito, Texas. Alberto was placed in A block and Eric was sent to B block. They had different schedules, so they rarely saw each other. “I would cry. I told my mother that I would take care of him and I couldn’t do what she told me,” Alberto said of the two and a half months in the shelter. Eric didn’t talk much. He listened to other boys’ stories, anxious not to break any of the rules: No hugging, no joking, no bad words, no fighting, no borrowing things from each other.
The boys were sent to live with relatives in Philadelphia while the government fought their mother’s asylum application. She was deported and lives in hiding, back in Honduras.
Meanwhile, the boys are trying to navigate their new life, and in some ways, it’s as hard as ever. They live with 11 relatives they had never met before, in one house, in a tough neighborhood. It’s close to one of the largest open-air drug markets in the country. They pass addicts, prostitutes, homeless tents, and used syringes every day.
Their school is not a friendly place either, and it’s not a place where many students are thriving academically. The percentage of students reading and doing math on grade level is less than half the state average. “Most students belong to gangs, so they are dangerous,” said Alberto. “As soon as you just look at them they turn around and they try to confront or pick a fight. So, it’s scary.” Alberto said he was targeted by a student last year. “He said a bad word to me and I asked him not to use that word, and so he went and talked to his friends and they were waiting for me outside at the end of school. I told them I didn’t want any problem. I didn’t want to fight, but he wanted to harm me.” Alberto rarely goes to school. “I’m not going too much because I’m scared,” he said.
Eric, on the other hand, likes going to school, but he doesn’t understand much of what goes on. “I’m in English level two, and they put me in class with level four. That makes it complicated.” They are slowly learning English. But both brothers are struggling without their mother, whom they’ve never been separated from before, as they try to make sense of their new world.
“I miss her hugging me. She used to kiss our cheeks and tell us that she loved us, that she misses us, and she loved us,” said Alberto, wiping away tears. Eric breaks down as well.
“I feel sad. I have a picture of my mother on my phone and I look at it all day, every day,” Alberto said. On the rare occasions they speak to their mother on the phone, they beg her to try and come back to the U.S. “God will guide your steps,” they plead.
A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teaching Migrant Children: Eric & Alberto