I gave a little girl a ride a few weeks ago.
She spoke no English. I spoke no Spanish. We rode in silence.
When I can, I volunteer for a group that helps immigrant families recently reunited after being separated at the southern border by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement and now living in the U.S. as they await hearings.
Besides providing transportation and other assistance to support families during the process of actually being reunited, the group does everything from helping enroll kids in school to arranging for trauma therapy (huge need), medical care, food assistance, clothes, housing and just about anything else that is part of trying to survive when you likely can’t speak English and aren’t allowed to drive or work.
All volunteer and donation driven, the group puts out calls for help as it’s needed. That’s how it happened that I was giving this 11-year-old a ride to the home of some relatives an hour away. She would have had to be home alone until late on a Friday night if she couldn’t get there and her mom was beside herself with worry at that prospect.
Now, this is a girl who just two months ago was reunited with her mother after being separated for a year. Her mom had come ahead to the U.S., in desperation, fleeing danger, from Central America. The plan was for her daughter to follow later with her aunt and her aunt’s 9-year-old son.
Later grew into nine months and the aunt arrived at the border in May with her son and the girl/her niece, seeking asylum. U.S. authorities took them into custody, sending the boy to a facility in New York, the girl to one in Florida, and detaining the aunt in Texas.
It took six weeks for the aunt and her son to be reunited. The girl took two months longer because she wasn’t traveling with a parent, which meant even more red tape.
The volunteer group here worked with attorneys and the mom — first to find her daughter, then to facilitate the logistics of their reunion. Hundreds of people had come forward across the U.S. to donate air miles to the broader reunification cause and the group was hoping to tap some of those to fly the girl to Michigan once the way was cleared.
Then abruptly, late on a Friday, word came she would be on a plane the next morning. The mother would have to bring a money order for $650 to cover plane fare for the person accompanying her daughter. Using donated miles was not an option.
So the group raised the $650 and drove the mom to the airport and made sure she had sunflowers — her daughter had said how she missed seeing them. There was a cake, decorated with the words in Spanish, “Together again.”
Flash forward to the night when I rendezvous with her mom after I get off work to pick up her daughter. The mom has only seen me twice, but knows she can trust me. Still, she sobs as I drive away — relinquishing control. Again.
As I drive, I imagine all this child has been through. What is she thinking, in a strange car with a strange woman she can’t talk with on a dark, rainy night? How I wish I could communicate with her, but I can only turn around and smile. Eventually, she sleeps, slumped on her backpack.
I stop and get pizzas — there are two families living in the small house we’re going to and this girl hadn’t eaten dinner yet. She wakes when we get close and helps point to the driveway.
And she’s gone.
Heading home, it strikes me how it’s just a matter of luck where and into what circumstances you are born. I wonder if she will ever know normalcy — here or anywhere.
My grandparents came here from Italy in the 1930s, escaping a place where there was no work to sustain a family. They spoke no English. They had no particular job skills. Italians were frequent targets of discrimination then. But they made their way.
I hope this family — and the others who risk everything to escape horrific circumstances — get that chance, too.
Kathy Gibbons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.