‘I Did Not Choose to Be Here’
by Lynne Jones
Thursday May 5, 2017
The problem with making any plans to work with migrant children is that they migrate. Amparo, one of my hosts, had also asked me to do a camera/storytelling workshop with a group of Haitian children living in a shelter here in Tijuana. But four days ago she discovered they that they have all gone north to the US. Never mind. Two days ago we started the workshop in a local school with six entirely new participants, all of whom were slightly bewildered at being invited to skip classes for a few hours without much further explanation.
We are running the storytelling workshop at the invitation of the Comité Estratégico de Ayuda Humanitaria Tijuana (the Strategic Humanitarian Aid Committee of Tijuana, henceforth the Comité), Espacio Migrante (Migrant Space), and El Programa Binacional de Educación Migrante (the binational eduation program for migrant children). The Comité was formed by volunteers last year to deal with the sudden rush of migrants flooding north. The traditional shelters, run by some churches and by the Salvation Army, were overwhelmed. In the past these shelters had mainly housed Mexicans deported from the US, while they made up their minds whether to try again or go home. But starting last summer, more and more refugees were passing through: Haitians, Cubans, Africans, Venezuelans and Ukrainians as well as Central Americans. More shelters sprang up in response. The Comité organizes infrastructure and support for them.
Not surprisingly the newly chosen workshop participants were somewhat shy, but when we went round asking them to introduce themselves and explain why and how long they had been in Mexico each said
… I did not choose to be here.
All the participants are from families that have been deported from the US. Some a few years ago, others last year, one just two weeks ago.
… So if you would like to take a camera for a day and show us something about your life here-anything at all-we would love to see it. I explained. We want people to hear directly from you what it is like to suddenly be forced to move home and country. To see what you see.
I shared the website I created with Luke Pye, Migrant Child Storytelling. I showed them some of the Syrian children’s pictures and stories from the camps in Greece. Fifteen-year-old Noah gave a sharp intake of breath as I read a nine-year-old girl’s description of her house being bombed, losing her Barbie doll, and her grandfather dying. We did a short training with the cameras. Training is the wrong word. I have learnt from my friend Mark Cousins (the filmmaker): just give them the cameras and they can work it out for themselves in less than two minutes. Then we sent them out in the school yard to practice. Everyone was happy and yesterday they all came back with cameras and pics. (Amparo had expressed some surprise when I said I was letting the children take the cameras home with them—our risk, I explained—and worth it because they all came back.) Amazing Alex, the son of one of the Comité members (who allowed us to kidnap him and make him technical assistant/ translator/general project assistant), downloaded all the pictures at speed. Meanwhile Noah trained two new participants on how to use the camera, and all the rules. All the children could recite them:
- Ask permission of your subjects
- Keep the wrist band on so you don’t drop the camera
- Don’t lend your camera to anyone else
- Don’t photograph fights or policemen.
Today we sat with each of the children and asked them to select their favourite pictures and tell us about them.
Just like the Syrian children in Greece, it was all about love, friendship, family connection, nature, and beauty. I never cease to be astounded, and moved that if you give a young person a choice of what to show, they will choose to share what makes them happy.
Emma, age 13, chooses the view from her window:
I was in my room at home and saw a lot of birds outside just sitting there so I decided t0 capture them. You can see one bird is flying. We rent our house, it has a little patio. My dad works in a restaurant and my mother sells food in a cinema. I share my room with my two brothers, it’s fine. We all get on well.
…I want to be a lawyer when I grow up because I like how they fight for innocent people. I have seen that in movies and on TV.
The children choose beauty and connection, but that’s not because everything is wonderful. While 15-year-old Emily was showing us her pictures of her best friends here in Mexico, she burst into tears, saying
… I miss the US, I grew up there and everything I knew was there. I really wanted to go to university there. I always worked really hard in school. I had such big dreams. I was promoted [from grade school] and about to be a freshman [in high school]. I really want to be a doctor. Then just after I was promoted I heard we did not get the visa and I was so sad.
Thank goodness for amazing Alex, 19 years old, Mexican, and on his way to Toronto to do media studies. He sits there explaining to Emily how good the medical schools are in Mexico, and also that it is not difficult for Mexicans to go to the US and Canada to study.
… You don’t have to give up your dreams, he assures her.
For Kefrem on the other hand, Mexico is an improvement on El Salvador, where they tried to recruit him into a gang and then threatened kidnap and death when he refused. He thinks it is safer and more secure here. This in spite of the fact that last week on the way to school he was robbed of his phone and money at gunpoint! How bad can it have been in El Salvador?
I met his mother in the office a few days ago. They have asylum here but she is worrying about the rent. She earns eight dollars a day for cleaning and it is too little. But Kefrem dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer and enjoys body building. He wanted to give us a selfie of himself looking handsome and tough, but I had to say we should not use it. His head master has told him not to reveal that he is a migrant to other children, because the same gang that was after him in El Salvador is present here. So if we put his actual photo on a migrant child website that rather gives the game away, whereas we can anonymise his other contributions, as I have done.
Saturday May 7, 2017
The father of Alexandra (one of the children in the storytelling group) tried for a translator job at a company yesterday but did not get it. He is trying with a bathroom company on Monday. He tells me he had a good job in the US, doing house reconstruction. They had been living in Idaho for a number of years. All the children were born in the US and are US citizens. They decided to move to Las Vegas after Trump was nominated because the atmosphere towards Mexicans became quite hostile in Idaho. They liked it there and thing were going well. But two weeks ago he was picked up by the police for driving without a licence. [In most of the US, irregular migrants are not eligible for drivers’ licenses-ed.]
… They took me straight to jail and then to the ICE police [US Immigration Customs Enforcement]. Then I got sent back to Mexico. The children are US citizens because they were born there but of course they did not want to stay without me. They all followed me. My wife left everything in our apartment. All we brought were our clothes and a few bags. I imagine the landlord will take everything.
His wife got a job in the local supermarket straight away. She works six days a week and earns 1000 pesos (approximately 50 dollars) a week. Half of that goes on rent, the rest on utilities and food for all the family. It’s not enough.
Alexandra, age 13, tells me she was so sad and scared when her father got deported:
… I thought it could happen to Mum and the government would take us into care! That’s why we all decided to join my dad. So we could be together. I felt good about the decision because I want my family to be together.
And she likes it in Tijuana. The house they live in is bigger than the flat they had in Las Vegas and she has already made local friends.
… I don’t feel a big effect. I feel normal and happy, I am with my family. I am a bit worried about school, but I want to go and I want to finish. Then as I am a US citizen I can go to college in the US.
I asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up.
… Join the immigration police. I will treat people well.
Monday May 8, 2017
We had the picture show this morning. All the children came and some brought their parents and friends. There were school staff, Amparo and her colleagues, some of the Comité, and a local TV station doing a story on deported children. So there was a good audience. Showing the pictures like this gives the whole project validity. The children see their pictures on the big screen and hear their words read in Spanish and English and realise they made great pictures.
Read more of this diary (this excerpt is from the middle of it).
Editor’s Note: This is the second of a series of diaries about working with refugees and migrants that Lynne Jones has shared with FXB. We are honored to publish them. All opinions are those of Lynne Jones. Items in [ ] are editorial additions.
Lynne Jones, FXB Visiting Scientist, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, writer, researcher, and relief worker. Her most recent book is Outside the Asylum: A Memoir of War, Disaster and Humanitarian Psychiatry.
*All migrant names are pseudonyms, personal details have been altered, and all have given permission for their stories to be told. All have known their photos were being taken.
Except where otherwise noted, © 2017 text and photos Lynne Jones
Read Lynne’s first Mexican blog.
Go to the FXB Children on the Move page for more information about children and families migrating.
With Luke Pye, Lynne Jones has created a website where migrant children can tell their stories themselves through drawing, video, and words. Go to the website for Migrant Child Storytelling.