November 17 at 2:47 PM Follow @petulad
This year has been unlike any of the 14 in which Madeline Frucht Wilks has been seeing patients at La Clínica del Pueblo in Northwest Washington.
The number of undocumented children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who come to the small clinic has quadrupled. And the stories their bodies tell this doctor — of their perilous journey across the border, of the violence in their hometowns, of the attacks they endured on their way to the United States — are powerful and unforgettable.
Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive
Wilks, 48, made her own journey this year that connected her irrevocably to an immigrant community she has spent her life serving. She, too, a prototype for the modern, American woman — petite, pragmatic, mother of two, half of a two-doctor power couple living in Bethesda — is part of the fabric of this country’s immigration story.
Wilks has a cousin who came to the United States as a child, alone, fleeing war and genocide at the hands of the Nazis. And she followed that cousin’s story all the way back to a chicken coop in Poland this summer.
“I have never felt like an immigrant before, but after this summer I came home connected to my patients on a different level,” she said. “I now see the wave of undocumented children crossing the border alone with a different lens. No parent would send a child alone if they were not fleeing desperate poverty and violence. A child leaves a family when there is no family left or when it is their best chance of survival. It is truly an act of desperation.”
At La Clínica in Columbia Heights, as with small clinics nationwide that serve mostly immigrant communities, some of the stories of the thousands of unaccompanied children who came across the border this year, fleeing violence in Central America, are told in their medical charts.
Wilks knows the swollen belly of a shy girl probably means she was raped while crossing the border. Or that dehydration, anemia and malnutrition track just how long and how far a child must have walked.
Her nurse, Leah Lujan, could see the gang violence that was part of a 17-year-old’s life in the bullet embedded in his arm.
Our region has absorbed one of the largest populations of the roughly 45,000 children who crossed the border alone and have been released to family members or other sponsors.
From January to September, Virginia took in 3,319, Maryland became home to 3,301 and 309 unaccompanied children resettled in D.C., according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Each of those children now faces a hearing on their fate. Those hearings, and the prospect of being sent back to Central America, loom large for some of Wilks’s patients.
The fear has turned one 17-year-old boy into a bedwetter who suffers from night terrors, she said, adding, “He is so afraid of being sent back.”
Meanwhile, protestors in Murietta, Calif., this summer blocked a bus filled with these children, waving signs at them that said, “Return to sender.”
Now, Wilks imagines what it would be like if those signs were waved at her cousin, the young girl who fled the Holocaust and who spent two years keeping silent in a chicken coop, hearing the boots of German soldiers at a training camp nearby, knowing most of her family had been slaughtered.
This week, President Obama is poised to defy conservatives in Congress by granting legal status to more than 6 million undocumented immigrants. Wilks will be among those cheering him on.
When Wilks visited Poland, she tracked down the family who hid her cousin in the chicken coop and a potato cellar.
No, her cousin’s suffering during the Holocaust cannot be equated to the frenetic gang and drug violence that kids from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are fleeing, she said.
“But I see this is as a human rights issue,” she said.
Wilks heard the stories of how her cousin was mistreated in orphanages. And how she came to the United States frightened and alone. And the parallels were suddenly really intense.
Wilks was part of a ceremony in Poland, Yad Vashem, to honor the brave Polish officer who risked his life to hide her family members. And it got her thinking about her role as a doctor.
“Fortunately we don’t have to risk our lives to care for the children who have arrived alone at our borders and found their way into our community,” she said. “I do believe we have a moral obligation to care for them and help them recover from the trauma of their journeys. I know my story is not unique. It doesn’t take too much delving into family histories to remember that many of us are immigrants here.”
These children from Central America are here to find a new life, like generations of others before them.
Their broken bodies are telling their stories. And the country needs to listen.