Victor Rodas rushed to the teacher with his completed geometry exercise in hand and a smile above his face mask as other students continued to draw.
Victor has a leg up on many others like him who, fleeing poverty and violence, lose months or even years of schooling on their journeys. Victor is enrolled in a school program designed for migrant children in Ciudad Juarez.
It is a daunting and urgent task to provide them with an education.
Thousands of migrant families have hunkered down in shelters in this vast desert metropolis near El Paso, Texas, waiting to cross into the United States. They are unable to seek asylum in the United States because of US policies that have forced some to wait in Mexico for court hearings and have banned others under a pandemic-era order that is set to expire on May 23.
Pastor-run shelters have teamed up with educators to assist children, either by busing them to an alternative school that teaches everything from math to reading to dealing with emotions, or by bringing in specially trained teachers.
Despite the fact that the curriculum is not religious, faith drives these projects, as it does many other border migrant relief efforts. It also informs many educators, who see education as critical to students’ future success, including their ability to socialize, find jobs, and feel at home wherever they go.
Katherine Rodas, Victor’s oldest sister, was forced to flee Honduras with him and two other siblings after their mother died. While she and her husband are terrified of gangs and refuse to leave their Catholic-run shelter, she jumped at the opportunity to transport the children to Casa Kolping.
Their shelter, Casa Oscar Romero, is named after a beloved Salvadoran archbishop who was assassinated during his country’s civil war and later declared a saint by Pope Francis for his work with the poor. Many of those who have been housed at this shelter and elsewhere in Ciudad Juarez have come from Central America; a growing number of Mexican families have also arrived from areas engulfed in cartel warfare.
Teachers encouraged parents to join their children in the classrooms for a while after the school year began in October to build trust. Lucia, a single mother of three children who fled the Mexican state of Michoacan after a drug cartel “took over the harvest and everything” in their home, was one of them. For the sake of anonymity, she requested only to be identified by her first name.
Carol, her 8-year-old daughter, was already dressed in her mask and pink backpack, ready to sprint ahead of the pack as soon as the school bus arrived.
Casa Kolping is home to about a third of a dozen children from Casa Oscar Romero and another religious-run shelter. Carol, a first- to third-grader, meets in one classroom, while Victor, a fourth- to sixth-grader, meets across the hallway in a large room with windows overlooking El Paso’s mountains.
Victor imagines that schools across the border will be “big, well-cared for,” and that they will assist him in achieving his goal of becoming an architect. When he can find paper, he already practices drawing detailed houses.
“If you ask the kids, their greatest wish is to cross into the United States,” Yolanda Garcia, a teacher, said.
Many parents believe that enrolling their children in school in Mexico, where they do not intend to stay, is pointless. Many public educators are also hesitant to admit migrant students for fear of losing teacher positions if class sizes shrink when they leave abruptly, according to Dora Espinoza, a Ciudad Juarez primary school principal. She makes an effort to connect with families, including at a shelter two blocks from her classrooms.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, in addition to uncertainty, poverty and discrimination keep nearly half of refugee children out of school around the world.
Insecurity, on the other hand, is the most significant impediment. Many parents are afraid to let their children out of their sight because they are being pursued by gangs in their hometowns and are being preyed upon by gangs along the way — often right up to the shelter’s doors.
The faith-run programs address that by providing secure transportation, as in the case of Casa Kolping, or bringing instructors directly to the migrants, as in the case of another Ciudad Juarez shelter, Buen Samaritano, Spanish for good Samaritan.