We now have the story of a five-year-old girl and her mother who had a dream come true. The dream of seeing each other again.
Unscrupulous human smugglers separated them at the border late last year. And then, the U.S. government separated the girl from someone else. She became an unaccompanied minor from Honduras, and ended up in Concord.
That’s where Gena Thomas and her family took the girl into their home. Thomas also helped her return home last month. She now tells the story of that journey. We have changed the names of the mother and daughter because there's still fears of the smugglers.
After a 3 a.m. wake-up call, three flights and 15 hours later, we — my husband Andrew, me, and Julia—had finally arrived at a tiny airport in Honduras. It felt like holy ground — the place Lupe and Julia would reconnect after being apart for eight months. As we waited, Andrew got a phone call from Lupe.
“Cinco minutos mas.” Five more minutes. Every car that pulled we scrutinized with anticipation.
A white sedan pulled up and parked. I thought I could make out Lupe’s face as they drove up. The woman got out paying no mind to the driver. Julia looked up at me as if to ask, “Can I run toward her?” She ran shaking excitedly in a way I’d never seen her run before. She stopped at the top of the wide-but-short staircase outside the large automatic airport doors, and waited for Lupe to make her way up. She laid her head on her mother’s shoulder, letting tears fall as her mother’s arms wrapped around her.
“Te quiero. Te quiero,” Lupe said. I love you. Julia knew she was home.
It had been a long road for all of us, longest of all for Lupe. She had been through hell—held against her will at the border by smugglers—and rather than give up, she fought hard and long for this moment. Maybe because hell hath no fury like a mother trying to reunite with her child. Lupe worked extra shifts at a tortilla factory to pay for all the paperwork required. Lack of effective communication from officials meant more paperwork, extra-long shifts and more attorneys’ fees.
It was a long road for Julia too. She entered the U.S. last fall with her legal stepdad. Smugglers took her mother away, and border patrol took her stepdad away. She was left alone, deemed an unaccompanied minor and put into the care of Office of Refugee Resettlement. Her sponsorship family neglected her. When she first came into our home, she’d often try to run away. After a few weeks, she learned to trust us when we said we loved her, when we said we were working on getting her home, when we said we were happy she was with us.
It was a long road for my family. We didn’t realize we’d have Julia longer than the weekend when she first came to us. But a weekend turned into months. All the while, the social workers and I tried our best to find her a road home, but that road seemed to be buried under inter-agency red tape. I sent emails in Spanish. I made phone calls and, like the social worker, had few returned.
We felt like we were trailblazing. Julia’s undocumented status made things complicated, but we all learned flexibility and creativity. Thankfully, at adjudication, we had enough proof that Lupe was capable of taking care of Julia and the best situation for this child was to be home with her family. Lupe testified through video chat in court that day. The judge ruled in favor of reunification. I walked outside the courthouse, called Lupe and together we cried tears of joy. A month later, we got the travel paperwork from the consulate.
We stayed with Julia in her home for three days. On the second day, Lupe asked us if we’d like to go swimming in the river nearby. It was Lupe’s birthday.
“Is this the river that Julia used to swim in a lot?” I asked, remembering the first time I gave her a bath and it was clear she was no stranger to water.
“Yes!” Lupe said excitedly.
I followed as about a dozen people, friends and family of Lupe’s, crossed the 60-foot wide river and climbed up a hilly tributary that fed into it. By the time I arrived at the top, one of the family’s friends was on the other side of the water moving rocks and sticks to create a cooking spot.
Lupe began cooking. She handed over plates full of beans, plantains, sausages and avocadoes. Nearly everyone ran up to where the food was being cooked and down to the river in random intervals.
Lupe and I sat and talked about trauma, and cultural differences. Julia came running back up and sat with us for a while. They talked about the events at the border.
“What happened after you crossed the river with [your stepdad]?” Lupe asked.
Julia was silent and thinking. “I don’t remember mom,” she said. This was unlike her. She had an answer for everyone and everything.
“After you had to leave me, what happened?” Lupe asked.
“Mom, I don’t remember,” Julia said.
I couldn’t imagine being in Lupe’s shoes: not knowing the story of what happened to your preschool child while you were separated. She didn’t understand why Julia had forgotten what happened to her with Border Patrol.
I don’t know a lot of Spanish vocabulary for trauma, but I tried my best. “It may be a protection mechanism of her brain, a way to protect herself against the trauma.” This was the first I had heard of Julia’s memory lapse. I never pried information out of her and tried hard to let her lead the conversations about her past. We never once talked about the border.
Julia went back down to the river, and Lupe and I continued talking.
One river, the Rio Grande, was the place where Julia had to learn how to protect herself. It was the place her mother was taken from her. And then her stepdad was taken from her. It was where Julia had to learn to be an adult in ways no five-year-old should ever have to. But this river—her river—had revived her childlike self. She giggled and ran, played and splashed, piggy-backed her brothers and ate green gelatin cups. This river, the one that had taught her to swim, to bathe, to clean clothes, to jump off rocks, and to hold her breath, baptized her again on that day. She was a new creation of her former self, and while her trauma did not disappear, it also did not hold her back from being a wide-open child.