In converted buses and tin-roof sheds, migrant students get a lesson in hope
In a small shelter made of cinder block walls and a tin roof, Armando Hurtado Medina writes on a whiteboard the size of the TVs in many American homes.
It's 6 p.m. and lessons have just begun in this makeshift classroom found at the end of a bumpy dirt road that winds its way through a canyon in Tijuana, Mexico. Hurtado Medina is teaching basic English and about 10 students of various ages slowly recite the alphabet back to him.
In another part of the city, Sergio Garcia has just finished his day teaching a group of children about emotional intelligence, guiding them on how they can turn the anger and trauma they feel into something productive, like leadership.
These efforts are replicated across the border city as volunteers and grassroots organizations grapple with a transient population of migrant students and try their best to educate those who find themselves living in shelters while awaiting a better life beyond.
"The purpose of this school is so that the migrants have a basic understanding of English," Hurtado Medina said. "Like how to get out of an emergency situation, [or when] they don't know how to communicate, or they don't know how to translate basic information like phone numbers or addresses."
"When they leave here, they leave with confidence and are proud of themselves that they're learning what's going to be their new language."
Hurtado Medina's classroom is next to the Embajadores de Jesús shelter that is home to hundreds of migrants. There are about 20 shelters across the city, and that means there are hundreds of children who suddenly find themselves in Tijuana and cut off from traditional education.
Garcia's school is an altogether more professional setup, next to the Pro Amore Dei migrant shelter in another part of town. He works for the Yes We Can program, a nonprofit group that has three schools in Mexico, including two in Tijuana.
"We try to develop resilience in them," he said of the emotional intelligence lessons. "So that they learn to perhaps detect the situations that make them feel a little sad, a little more vulnerable, and help guide them."
Yes We Can Executive Director Estefania Rebellon is the founder and driving force behind this landmark program that has grown exponentially over the last few years and has professionalized education for migrant children in a way not seen before in Tijuana.
Here, the children who arrive at the partner shelter next door are automatically enrolled in the school for free, and admissions are accepted every day of the year. They are given a uniform and backpack – even shoes, if they need them. All teachers are Mexican, are qualified with college degrees, and are paid.
Classes are structured and there is a fully formed curriculum that receives official accreditation from Mexico's Secretary of Public Education, and is also recognized in the United States. The efforts are funded by a patchwork of donations and money from non-government organizations.
"For migrant children, a school space is extremely important because if there weren't any school spaces like ours, they would be in a shelter sitting there every single day without any stimulation, without any educational development," Rebellon said.
"We thought we were going to be here only for three months and now we've been here for three years. So at this point, we've realized that we're no longer a crisis response program, we are a permanent program."
The pride of place for this school is a converted 1993 MCI coach dubbed "the magic school bus" that has been gutted and fitted out with air-conditioning, iPads, a TV and workbooks. In the spirit of the community-led nature of this school, Rebellon and another co-founder bought the bus off eBay in Los Angeles and then watched YouTube videos to learn how to convert it.
The school has a practical benefit for the shelter next door, too. Space is at a premium there, where families share crowded rooms filled with bunks. Each family gets just one mattress to use, regardless of whether there are two people or five in the group. So taking the kids into the school for a day allows the parents the time and space to focus on the next step in their journey.
"We're talking about families going through very traumatic situations," Rebellon said. "So if a parent is having all those existential crisis moments and their children are there pulling on their jeans, like children do every single day, they're not going to be able to accomplish their goals."
Rebellon is open about the fact many of the kids who arrive are behind in their education. They have had teenagers arrive who don't know how to read or write, and who may have suffered terrible trauma fleeing violence or crises anywhere from Nicaragua to Venezuela and Guatemala.
But here, they find kindred spirits and are taught how to channel those emotions. Rebellon knows this experience well. She was a migrant child from Cali, Colombia who was forced to flee with her family to the U.S. when she was 10 due to death threats.
"What's unique about our space is that when a kid enters our program, they're not the strange one," Rebellon said. "They're not 'the migrant.' They're not 'the one from Honduras.' They're not 'the dark skinned kid.' They are a child that's entering a place where they all look the same."
Near the back of the bus, 12-year-old Justin is joking with friends as his class continues. He has come from Puerto Cortés in Honduras and says the bus is his favorite part of the school because he can just be himself in there.
"I can have fun with everyone, I can talk with them. It's incredible to be there," he said.
As for how long he'll be living in the shelter next door, where he will go next, and what his future looks like, Justin has no idea. It's a common story for the kids who find themselves in makeshift classrooms dotted across Tijuana.
Yes We Can is now hoping to take the venture further and is scouting locations to open a central school that migrant kids can catch a bus to from any shelter in the city. They have their eye on an old library that has shut down.
Back at his small shelter classroom in the canyon, Hurtado Medina has similar goals and is hopeful he can collaborate with Yes We Can and also reach the stage where his kids can get accreditation for their work.
The children deserve all the help they can get, Rebellon said.
"I always try to remind everyone that they're just children," she said. "They're not responsible for the situation they're going through. So when you focus on that, then everything starts happening."
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