Courage Cruelty

John Thompson: Immigrant Children in Oklahoma Tell Their stories

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John Thompson, retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma, reviews a book of memories written by immigrant children about their ordeals. We will long suffer the embarrassment of Trump’s cruel immigration policy, but the children will never forget.

Thompson writes:

Where the Rainbow Ends: Project VOICE Visions of Inclusion, Culture, and Empathy, edited by Jamie Hinds and Savanna Payne, is the latest book by Oklahoma City Public Schools English Language Development students. This year’s volume faced an additional challenge as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person instruction. But these resilient authors have overcome far greater challenges.

The student-authors started with the reasons why they left Central America, Mexico, Africa, and Asia for the United States. Most described harrowing experiences crossing Mexico, with many facing brutal encounters with the U.S. Immigration Services. Fortunately, despite continuing obstacles, almost all have had a better experience in Oklahoma City.The stories were peer edited. The student-authors are anonymous, often not even revealing their gender.  Most were forced to immigrate by climate change or the murder of family members or other threats by gangs. This post focuses on the majority who immigrated from Central America.

They begin with a description of life in their previous homes, and with the stress of departure.  A 15-year old, who had “always considered myself the man of the house” left Guatemala when it became too hard to get food and water. Early in the trip, his family was starved by the “coyote.” They were crowded into a truck full of 50 people until reaching the border, and walking through the desert.  Separated from his mom by Immigration, he spent three frightening days without seeing the sun. Fortunately, Texas church members accepted them and helped them travel to Oklahoma City.

A 13-year-old started the trek, alone, from Guatemala. He or she was picked up by the coyote, who charged $3,000, and was crammed into a truck with 35 people, along with the “zetas’” marijuana and cocaine. This was followed by the terrifying ride on the train called “the Beast.” After four months in detention, he or she was reunited with their mother and is now the “happiest child because I have [had] a lot of years without my mom.”

Similarly, a 12-year-old left Honduras and was crowded into the Beast. He or she saw passengers thrown off the train and killed. A 13-year old girl left Honduras after being sexually accosted and almost kidnapped. During the trip, she and others were stored in an ice cream trailer without food for three days. She learned two valuable lessons though. “There are good as well as there are bad people,” … and if molested, children should “trust their parents and do not remain silent.”

Then there was the cruelty of the American detention system. It was bad enough, said one immigrant, to be locked up in Sinaloa for 15 days, but upon arriving in the U.S., the young person was thrown into “the cooler.” Another was “put in the cooler’” and then sent to a “safehouse” for 2-1/2 months. One of 3,000 detainees described immigration officers who “were very rude to everybody,” and put them in a freezer for up to 4 days. Another spent 8 days in the cage and then was sent to foster care in New York.

Some revealed complicated endings to their story. A girl started working at 9 years-old, but kept her grades up until she had to leave Guatemala at 11. When she was put in truck and babies cried, the guide put rags in their mouths. The babies turned purple and the immigrants were afraid they’d die. They later had to sell their clothes for food and water, and escape from kidnappers. She’s since moved back and forth among family members in Oklahoma. Another Guatemalan student concluded that now, “I am half agony and half hope, although perhaps more agony.”

A Guatemalan was 5 years- old when “they” killed his grandfather, who was a father to him or her, in front of their family. He or she started to “grow up with the mentality that everything in my life would be wrong,” and has had to mature without a stable family. He or she observes, “I’m a good student, I respect who gives me roof, I have many values in my life,” but would like “a life without so many questions, that nobody answers [for] me.” The author understands that humans have to make difficult decisions, but his or her story is “so painful, so empty” and it warns about the effects of “the lack of love and feelings protected.”

Others had unambiguously happy endings to their stories. A student-author had been comfortable in Guatemala, before losing everything. In the U.S., they found a house and a job, and bought a car. So, “Now we are blessed … now I get to go to school. This is the start of a new journey.” Similarly, a Guatemalan girl helped her dad sell bananas, and had enjoyed parades. In Oklahoma, she learned “no matter who you are, if you are small, skinny, fat, pretty, ugly or colored if they are real friends, they will love you as you are.”

Another Guatemalan was threatened by police for money, locked up with 30 people for 2 weeks, and traveled across Mexico with 28 people in a van. But the story closed with a thank you for helpful Americans, concluding “If you think of Oklahoma, I hope you’ll think of Jim and Jean Dawson. …”

Read the book, and comparably profound insights will be offered from immigrants from other countries. The father of a 16-year-old  from Juarez was murdered by extortionists, but now he is happy and calm in Oklahoma City, and tells the story in support of others who have endured worse. Another high school student concluded, “Mexico still calls me,” and “Oklahoma made me strong.  Mexico makes me safe.”

An elementary student said her life in Mexico made her mature, but she also loves clean, beautiful streets, and stores of the U.S. Some of her Oklahoma classmates made fun of her, but others were helpful. When feeling broken, she relies on God. And she concludes, “I wanted to exceed the limits people thought I had because I was Latina.”

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