Over the past 15 months, almost 9,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have been reunited with their relatives in Maryland, Virginia and the District. About two-thirds of them are now living in the metro D.C. area while they await a decision on their immigration cases. These children and their parents are learning to cope with the many issues of reunification.
It's 7 p.m. on a weekday and about a dozen Latino parents are gathered at La Clinica del Pueblo — which means the People's Clinic in Spanish. For the past 20 years, the Columbia Heights non-profit has been serving the health needs of Washington's immigrant community. The class is part of the Mi Familia/My Family workshop, which is managed by Catalina Sol.
"Mi Familia was born about 10 years ago right after the 9/11 attacks when people in our community who had experienced war in Central America and had experienced PTSD had many feelings and crises related to the attacks," Sol says.
The sight of a burning Pentagon, heavily armed soldiers at key intersections in Washington and the general anxiety created by 9/11 and its aftermath re-traumatized these refugees, who had fled Central America’s brutal civil wars.
"But many of the people who came had families they brought their kids with them. The kids didn't have anything to do, and they were also suffering from their parent reactions, so the intervention sessions ultimately became a program for parents, teens, and small children that all met concurrently," she says.
Trauma and guilt
Fast forward to today, and it’s not the parents attending these sessions who have suffered the larger trauma.
"Now it’s the children and the teens who are coming with their own baggage and experiences of violence and trying to integrate them while trying to integrate into their new families," Sol says.
Magaly Ochoa, 14, is almost a textbook case. Her father Ever left El Salvador and came to Washington D.C. a few months before Magaly was born. She was raised by her paternal grandmother. The teen was reunited with her father last May, when Magaly came to Washington D.C. illegally. She left El Salvador after being harassed and then threatened by gang members in her hometown, La Union — one of the most gang-ridden areas of El Salvador.
"The gang came looking for me at my house," she says.
Ever scraped together $6,500 to smuggle the daughter he'd never met to America, but the teenager was kidnapped as she crossed the Mexico-U.S. border.
"My daughter wound up in the hands of a group called the Zeta cartel," says Ever. He was told that if he didn’t pay an additional $5,000 he would never see Magaly.
Panicked, Ever packed his entire family in a car and drove from Washington all the way to Houston. He says while negotiating with the kidnappers he considered driving to McAllen where his daughter was being held, but his friends took away his car keys, telling him if he did that he and his daughter would most likely be killed.
Magaly was released after a month. The girl won't say much about what happened to her. Ever is now guilt ridden and angry over what transpired.
“I was in a very bad way because I kept thinking that to help my daughter, in one way or another, I had financed her capture. I begged her to forgive me. She says she did," Ever says.
Learning coping strategies
For Magaly a new country, meeting the father she never knew, as well as a stepmother and three step-siblings hasn't been easy.
"I miss my grandma very much," she says."
"Sometimes she looks at us as if we were strangers and I understand," says Ever.
“It was hard for her to accept that there were other family members because in El Salvador she was the only child and she got all the attention," says Magaly’s step sister, 11-year-old Cristina.
As part of the therapy, the Ochoas are learning how to cope with negative emotions this situation has generated.
“I’m learning about stress and how to calm yourself when you're mad," says Ariel, Cristina’s twin. "You gotta inhale and then exhale how many times you want but you have to count it in your head."
Magaly is among the more than 5,000 unaccompanied minors that have been reunited with their families during the past 15 months — families that in many cases are struggling emotionally and financially with the burdens of a newcomer.
“This surge of unaccompanied minors basically highlights the need for interventions like this that have learned over the past 10 years or more how to assist families with that process," Sol says.
The problem says Sol is there aren't enough resources to provide these interventions to the hundreds perhaps thousands of families that could benefit from them.