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Asylum Seekers Struggle to Keep Kids Safe and Learning in Tijuana Tent City

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On Tuesday, March 30, accompanied by an African asylum seeker serving as translator, The Liberty Buzz gained access to the El Chaparral migrant camp in Tijuana, Mexico, just across the border from the San Ysidro border crossing near San Diego, which more than 2,000 people call home. About 25% of the camp residents are children.

These are stories of some of those children, and the adults who try to teach and care for them. For their safety and protection, we did not photograph them unless they gave us specific permission to do so, and we have given them pseudonyms.

The El Chaparral migrant encampment is less than half a mile from the barrier dividing Tijuana and Mexico. It hosts more than 2,000 migrants who are trying to enter the United States legally through the asylum process.

Of the 2,000 migrants, about 500 are children, who live in small camping tents without access to heat, permanent shelter, or consistent clean running water. Up until the end of February, these children did not have access to an education. That changed, however, when a Honduran migrant named Evelyn Sanchez decided to help open a school.

Alleged drug trafficker Marcos Arturo Juárez Cruz, aka “El Chamuco” (2nd R), is presented to the press along with other members of “La Familia Michoacana” drug gang in Mexico City, on September 26, 2009, after their arrest in Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan state. By September, he Mexican government had deployed more than 5,000 soldiers and policemen in Michoacan to fight drug trafficking.
ANTONIO NAVA/AFP via Getty Images

Christian, 9, son of Guadalupe, has found comfort in Sanchez’ school, something he has had very little of in the past year. A year ago, cartel members in his home state of Michoacán, Mexico, murdered his aunt. Six months ago, they murdered his other aunt. Just over two weeks ago, they killed his uncle.

Christian understands that his mother and father brought him to Tijuana to keep him safe. While at the encampment, he and his family have struggled living under the environmental conditions that come with staying in a tent. Nonetheless, he said they are happier living in El Chaparral.

Here, he feels safe.

Christian told The Liberty Buzz he likes that the school offers him time each day to play games. He said he’s made five new friends there. His best friend has a toy car that he sometimes shares with him. When The Liberty Buzz asked if he gets scared at the encampment, Christian said “no,” but added that he feels he’s “grown up fast.”

Supporting children like Christian is the reason why Sanchez decided to help open the school. She hopes that by providing this space, children will be able to stay busy and retain their previous classroom knowledge. That way, by the time they enter America, they will be prepared for success.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an intergovernmental economic organization with 37 member countries based in Paris, found that immigrant children have more academic difficulties in the classroom than their non-immigrant peers. Reyes said that despite this, hope acts as a powerful force in helping immigrant children overcome these challenges.

Hope is what motivates Jaritza.

She is a 15-year-old migrant who left Honduras after the local gang started recruiting and sexually propositioning children her age. She says that living in the encampment has been hard for her. Without internet access, she did not have a consistent means to learn. Jaritza knows how important education is—she hopes to study to become a teacher if she is admitted to the U.S.—and Sanchez’ school puts her closer to that goal.

“I feel bad about growing up under these conditions,” Jaritza told The Liberty Buzz. “But I also feel good that I have the hope I will one day cross and have a normal life.”

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