Tens of thousands of migrants are in limbo in Mexican border towns because of the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy. The migrants wait for months in sometimes-dangerous conditions before they may appear in a U.S. immigration court. So some volunteers decided to transform a problem into an opportunity. They opened a special school for migrant children in Matamoros so that the kids' education could continue.
On a recent Sunday morning, heat and humidity filled the air in a small plaza in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville. But those stifling conditions didn't matter to children gathered there, all of them eager for class to begin.
“Who likes to paint and decorate?” a volunteer teacher asked them. The students rushed forward to grab markers.
The day's class began with arts and crafts. The kids drew whatever they wanted on paper plates, then outlined them with glue. They sprinkled the artwork with glitter, and then the teachers hung the students' creations on tree branches.
Felicia Rangel-Samponaro founded the Sidewalk School. She and the teachers meet every Sunday morning, and like regular educators, they teach the children numbers, letters, arts and crafts and much more.
But these teachers are not regular educators. They are volunteers, and they, like their students and the students' families, also seek asylum in the U.S.
“I wanted this to feel like a community because they do have to stick together,” Samponaro said. “Matamoros is one of the most dangerous cities, and [the migrant families] take turns sleeping out here. They have to watch out for each other, so I want them to feel like they’re in this together because they are whether they want to be [or not].”
Samponaro, a former teacher who taught in Houston, said it was difficult for her to watch migrant children lose the opportunity to learn basic knowledge and skills because the asylum process had them and their families in limbo in Mexico for months. So she created the school to help fill that educational void in their lives.
She said she also saw the many skill sets the migrants had, and she didn’t want their talents to go to waste. She also wanted them to simply enjoy something positive while they endured this difficult part of their lives.
“Like today when they decorate the tree and the fountain," she said. "I wanted them to see other people appreciate the artwork they did and let them know how important they are ... even to people who are just walking past and driving by. It’s beautiful work.”
And the students aren't the only ones who benefit from the school. Samponaro said the parents are also happy about it, and some also participate in the educational process.
“These are just like any other parents who want the best for their children. They don’t have to stay out here for two hours with their kids, sitting on the ground, messing with glue and getting stuff everywhere,” Samponaro said. “They do that because they care about their child just like anyone else cares about their child, and they want to be involved in the learning process.”
Maria, an asylum seeker, brought her 5-year-old son to the school for the first time on that Sunday. She said they had just arrived in Matamoros.
She said science is her son’s favorite subject. She said he loves animals.
“It’s very beautiful because where we were at before there wasn’t any recreation like this,” she explained.
Another woman who declined to be identified said she had recently arrived with her two sons.
“Today I have an appointment with the lawyers, so I take advantage of this,” she said, referring to the school. She explained she can drop off her sons here and then meet with her legal consultants.
Recently, volunteer U.S. attorneys crossed into Mexico to help asylum seekers waiting for immigration court hearings.
Tito, a Cuban man, said he's been in Matamoros for about four months.
He has a finance degree. He uses his expertise to help teach a math class at the school.
He said he found the work satisfying. He added that he could relate to the kids because they’re all migrants all enduring the same thing.
“I try to make the situation here a little bit more bearable for the kids and for myself,” he added.
Ray is also from Cuba, where he was an English professor. He also volunteers at the school.
He said he wanted people in the U.S. to remember that the migrants didn’t choose to come to Matamoros and live in the plaza.
“We are here because we were forced to come here, mostly because we were left with no other choice but to run from our countries,” he said. “Some people think it’s just a choice that we make to come here and wait out in the heat for like three or four months. Just be more sympathetic of what we’re going through.”
Samponaro said she’s happy the older migrants embraced the opportunity to teach at her school. She hoped she can eventually pass it entirely to them so they can continue to make it their own.