Thursday, March 23, 2023
Grief and Unaccompanied Minors
Guest blogger: Ailleene Maldonado, Masters in Migration Studies Student, University of San Francisco:
It is easy as adults to see children as not having the emotional capacity to deal with loss. To some, loss is associated with death, but working with unaccompanied minors, I have come to witness that loss does not always have to deal with death. Instead loss can mean leaving a home even if that home had flaws. Loss can be not ever knowing a parent. Loss can be witnessing domestic violence, gang violence, and femicides. Loss is letting go of your child-like innocence.
I have encountered children who have endured so much that in spite of the trauma they have experienced, they are able to understand either their circumstance or their experience in a way that one might not think a child is capable of. I met a 12 year old boy during a declaration appointment. It was the first time we had ever met, and up until this point, most of the tender age boys that I have met struggle wanting to tell their story to a stranger. But this boy in particular was different. We started the process by confirming his full name, age, and parents. I then begin to ask the questions that start to make them anxious.
How was your relationship with your absent parent (in this case, like most of the cases, his father)?
He then starts by saying he had a normal relationship, like any father son relationship. He remembered in detail their affectionate interactions. These interactions were few because his father drank a lot and every time his father drank, he would hit his mother. He would sit witnessing the violence, crying and yelling for his dad to stop who would then get hit trying to defend his mother. He was about or around 2 to 4 years of age. He wanted to have a normal, loving father son relationship.
Why did you come to the U.S.?
His mother decided to move them to the U.S. because when they were walking on the street as a family, they were approached by gang members. The gang members, from the perspective of the 12 year old boy, just wanted to steal their shoes and money. He stayed with his grandparents who live in rural Guatemala for some days.
This is the point where I would normally ask how their relationship with their absent parent made them feel or leaving their home. With him, I didn’t have to because of how eloquent, and well spoken he was.
He then proceeds to tell me that everything he witnessed back home left him very traumatized. So did his journey to the U.S. Normally, in declarations I do not ask about their journey to the U.S. because it's not really relevant for SIJS cases. I normally ask this question when I conduct legal screenings to the children in the ORR shelter I visit, but it felt important for him, so I let him describe his journey. He told me it took him and his mother a very long time to arrive and they had to get on a train called La Bestia. This train would take them to the U.S. Mexico Border. He described the train as scary and huge. Because he was still little he had a hard time clinging on to the train and not falling down. He held onto his mom’s leg and the railing, aware that his mother also had to hold herself to keep from falling, so he tried to not be a disturbance for her. When they crossed the desert, they hadn’t eaten or drank water for days. All they had were crackers. He refused to eat them because he knew that his mom was bigger and needed more strength, and once again, didn’t want to be a bother for her. He also decided to not drink water so that his mom could have enough and so that he didn’t need to use the bathroom to not get them lost.
He then continues to tell me that everything he experienced and witnessed in his home country and on the way to the U.S. was very traumatizing for him. To this day, he still has nightmares about La Bestia and about his father.
When was the last time you had contact with your father?
The last time was on his birthday a year ago. On his birthdays, he always wants to talk to his father, to see if he remembers and to speak to him. He wants to have a relationship with his dad even though he knows that his dad made his mom and himself suffer.
How is your relationship with your mother?
He has a great relationship with his mother. He is a support system for her and she is his. When her asylum application got denied, his mom was in bed crying for two weeks. He wanted me to know that during these two weeks, he never left her side, not even to go to school. He knows that his mother has been through a lot and he will always be there to take care of her.
In this case, I believe that this child was able to verbalize his experience in a unique way that most children his age can’t, but that doesn't mean that he is the only one who can comprehend and grieve at this level. It is easy to think and see these children as weak and oblivious, but working with unaccompanied minors has shown me the various ways that a person can grieve.