I can’t stop thinking about their eyes.
I was privileged to meet with children in transition today. They are temporary residents of Bokenkamp Children’s Shelter in Corpus Christi, TX, a ministry of Lutheran Social Services of the South. I learned that LSSS is so good at providing care for children at the border that the federal government came to them before the latest surge in child migration, asking them to expand their facilities.
Even as the new site prepares to open, Bokenkamp serves 500 teenagers each month. They are brought here by Border Control after their arduous journeys, and are given what they need: water for their dehydration, clean clothes and new shoes to replace the worn-out garments they arrive in, nourishment for body and spirit, pro-bono lawyers to begin the immigration process.
Many are reunited quickly with parents, grandparents, or other relatives across the US who have been waiting with bated breath for their arrival. Some linger at the shelter while the case workers try to locate a relative or family friend who is able to provide a stable, safe home for the children. But all of them have endured immense hardships, have risked everything, to arrive here.
I wasn’t prepared to face them today. Touring the facility was nice and meeting the staff people was interesting. I was beginning to put together the big picture of what LSS is doing to meet the needs of these children, when all of a sudden I came face to face with them. I was following our tour guide to the next room, and I walked unknowingly into a cafeteria full of teenagers.
They were expecting us, had been waiting excitedly for us. One of the Spanish-speakers in our group made a few introductory remarks thanking them for their willingness to talk with us, and then we were invited to join the youth at their tables for conversation with a translator.
I haltingly pulled up a chair with some teenage boys, using one of the common phrases I’d picked up, “con permisso,” to excuse myself, feeling like I was barging into the group. We began by talking about where they were from (all over Central America) and how old they were (14 – 17) and they shared their names (several common Latino names, and one Brian.) The whole time I was listening to them and to the translator, I was preoccupied by their eyes. They were curious eyes, radiating with anticipation. They darted around the room a lot, in the nervous habit of people who are slow to trust. Their eyes sparkled when they talked of home, and then glossed over a bit when we asked what they missed (family.) And then we asked about their journey.
Their eyes darted to the floor then. Darkened. Got distant. How we’re really they treated at the border? “Mal.” Bad. How did they get here? Several took “autobuses” and others also had to walk miles and miles. I heard the boy next to me say something and then I heard “tren.” I asked the translator what that meant and he said, “on top of.” I gasped. This was one of the young boys. He had come from El Salvador. 1500 miles away. By himself. On the top of a train.
That’s when the tears came. I couldn’t hold them back anymore. Looking into their eyes and realizing that these young people had endured the kind of danger I’d only seen in action movies was overwhelming.
But there was more to learn. Why did they come here? One boy was approached by a gang member on his way to school. He demanded payment to let the boy pass. Every day this young man was accosted and forced to pay the gang in order to get to school. There was no one to turn to for help.
Another’s answer was simpler: “Hambriento.” Hungry.
My eyes were cloudy by this point. And yet I hoped the boys could see the love I have in my heart for them, the hopes I hope for them, the prayers I am sending up for them.
I wanted to know one more more thing – what are they looking forward to, when they are reunited with their family here in the US?
Another added, “It is going to be a beautiful life.”
His eyes sparkled then, and so did mine.