Who among us can actually fathom a child, our child, trekking more than 3,000 miles in the company only of other children?
Only mothers like Dilma, 29, whose 12-year-old son David recently made the treacherous journey from San Pedro Sula, in northwestern Honduras, to the U.S.-Mexico border. His travelmates were three other boys who weren’t even his friends. Just acquaintances, his mother said, but the oldest one, at 17, had a map that would guide them to Texas.
Three months ago, David was walking or hitching rides through Mexico. In June, he was staying in a U.S. Border Patrol facility packed with other young migrants like him. Then he was transferred to a longer-term, government-run shelter.
Now, he’s at home with his mother, his dad, and a 6-year-old brother named Jack who is autistic.
And this week, he started the 7th grade at a District of Columbia middle school that sits two miles north of the White House.
David—who had last seen his mother eight years ago when she dropped him off for prekindergarten— was desperate to flee Honduras, where he was under increasing pressure to join a gang. The gang members often asked him: Where is your family? Why did they leave? We will take care of you, they told the boy, according to Dilma.
David’s answer to the gang members was always the same, Dilma said. He would tell them: “My little brother has autism. They have a lot more over there (in the U.S.) for him.”
I wrote about Dilma and David this week in a larger story about the daunting needs that educators will have to address as public schools potentially take in tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America who have arrived since last fall. Dilma agreed to tell me her story as long as I didn’t disclose her last name. She came to our interview without David, who will eventually appear before an immigration judge to find out if he can stay or if he must return to Honduras.
David was just 4-years-old when Dilma left Honduras for Washington, where she and her husband have worked and sent much of their earnings back home to relatives entrusted to take care of their son. Her main motivation to leave, she said, was to find jobs that would ensure they could earn enough to pay for David to attend a private, Christian school in San Pedro Sula.
“The public schools are very bad there,” she told me.
But, as Dilma later discovered, the relatives David was staying with didn’t always pay the tuition. The principal would call Dilma from time to time to tell her she was behind on her payments, but promised that David could still stay enrolled. And as David got older, Dilma said, the relatives began to mistreat him. Dilma arranged for her son to stay in a house with an older family friend in San Pedro Sula, where, she later learned, David was sleeping on the floor in a corner.
“He has mostly been on his own for so long,” she said, tearfully.
When David decided to attempt the long journey to the U.S. border, he didn’t tell his family when he would leave. Not until the school principal phoned Dilma in May did she know for sure that he had departed. The next call came from the U.S. Border Patrol in Texas, where David and his traveling companions had been apprehended and detained.
Then came the series of phone calls from government caseworkers who needed to verify that Dilma was David’s mother. In this country illegally, Dilma was terrified to give them too much information, fearful that she could end up being deported and leave Jack, who is a U.S. citizen, without his mother.
After David spent close to a month in the government-run shelter, a caseworker called Dilma to tell her she and her husband had 24 hours to come up with $1,700 to pay for his flight to Washington, scheduled for the next day. The couple scrambled, borrowing cash from extended family members and Dilma’s husband’s boss.
On Saturday, June 21, Dilma and her husband arrived at Dulles International Airport. She waited at the doors where arriving passengers stream out. Her husband posted himself near the luggage carousel to keep a lookout for David.
When she didn’t spot David, Dilma went to find her husband. He hadn’t found their son yet either. Dilma scanned the crowd, face-by-face, until her eyes settled on a tall boy with big feet and a round face that resembled her own.
After eight long years, she embraced her son.
Photo credit: Dilma displays a photograph on her phone of her 12-year-old son, David, who recently arrived from Honduras. --Lexey Swall/Grain for Education Week
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.