Magic in the transit shelter

Migrant children

Daniele Volpe
adolescente migrante en Casa Nuestras Raíces.
©UNICEF/GUA2021/Volpe
09 June 2021

"The king, the queen, the prince and his assistant were all together, until the jester came to upset everything." And the improvised magic show begins with playing cards in one of the bedrooms of Casa Nuestras Raíces (Our Root House), a shelter for unaccompanied returnee migrant children run by the Secretary of Social Welfare of the Presidency (SBS) in Guatemala City on an afternoon in March. The magician is one of the five Central American children who are housed, that day in the transit shelter located in zone 3, waiting to be returned, as part of the procedure of attention to migrant children in Guatemalan territory.

Juan * is a 16-year-old Honduran adolescent, with lively eyes and a smile that is always about to burst, typical of his age. He arranges the cards on the ground, the three faces plus the ace, distributed by suits in 4 separate groups: the four diamond cards together alongside the four clubs, hearts, and spades. “Suddenly” - Juan takes a Joker out of the deck - “the jester decides to turn off the light to create panic and upset everything,” he announces. He grabs the 16 cards from the ground and start shuffling them. "When the light returns" - he puts the cards back on the ground and, magically, the four aces coincide in the same group, just like the four kings, the four queens and the four jacks - "whoever wanted to cheat, came out cheated" comments the magician upon completing his trick successfully.

Trabajador social le enseña a jugar cartas a adolescentes migrantes.
©UNICEF/GUA2021/Mussapp

Juan* laughs, satisfied by the good performance of his magic act, while he looks proudly at his mentor, who works as a psychologist in the shelter.

Luis Estuardo Alvarado is one of the three professionals who accompanies the stay of girls, boys and adolescents before being returned to their homes, when they exist, or while they receive a court order that solves their case, in situations where international protection is required in Guatemala.

Trabajador social en la recepción de niños migrantes.
©UNICEF/GUA2021/Volpe

The 72 hours it takes for a Guatemalan to be reunited with their family can be extended to entire weeks in the case of a Central American, depending on the procedures of the respective consulates, or if it is appropriate to delve into the case to guarantee their protection. During this period, Luis Alvarado oversees accompanying the children and support their double mourning. The first one, for having left their place of origin, their family and loved ones; the second one, for having failed in their attempt to reach their goal, to reach the north, to achieve the American dream. Alvarado and his colleagues support the recovery of girls, boys, and adolescents in the emotional, recreational, and occupational areas, since they are in a situation of confinement and face long days at the shelter. He provides ways they can take care of themselves in the most proactive way possible, without becoming depressed.

In fact, there is a certain enthusiasm in the background among the boys who are in the shelter that afternoon. In fact, without knowing in depth the life experience of any of them, it is not difficult to imagine the relief an adolescent must feel in a migratory context, tired by an unquantifiable number of days of travel, hunger, in some cases sick, and surely scared, at the time of being brought to a structure where he is received with three meals a day, bathrooms to wash up, bedrooms to rest, medical attention, a common room to watch television, two foosball tables, a ping-pong table, social workers and psychologists to chat with.

Recepción niñez migrante
©UNICEF/GUA2021/Volpe

Alvarado tells how the structure of Casa Nuestras Raíces, supported by UNICEF arises from the new demands due to the COVID-19 pandemic throughout last year, and the consequent need for larger spaces to avoid contagion among girls, boys and adolescents. In addition, the implementation of the national emergency law in the United States facilitated the immediate transfer of any migrant from North American territory to their place of origin, significantly increasing the flow of returned children.

This two previous factors determined the need for a structural expansion for the reception of girls, boys, and adolescents, adapting to the reception protocol of social distancing rules to avoid contagion. And in the event of any positive COVID-19 case, this will allow the patient´s recovery in a proper quarantine area in dignifying and safe conditions.

Alvarado says that, in the first months of the temporary shelter, from April to December 2020, more than 3,000 girls, boys, and adolescents were received at Casa Nuestras Raíces in Guatemala City. From January to March 2021, this shelter has cared for 340 returned Guatemalan girls, boys and adolescents and 124 foreigners, mainly Hondurans and Salvadorans. The flow continues without stopping.

Josue*, is another Honduran boy who left Tegucigalpa on Valentine's Day, February 14. He had not even reached the border in San Pedro Sula when he began to suffer extortion from corrupt policemen. Tired of dealing with hunger and the cold nights, at the Santa Elena´s Peten bus station, he decided to surrender to the Guatemalan authorities, just four days after starting the journey.

Josue’s* tortuous journey began as a newborn, when his mother did not recognize him as a legitimate son. At the age of 6 his father died, and he stayed to live with his paternal grandmother. At the age of 14, he dangerously moved to Tegucigalpa by himself with the hope of succeeding as a mechanic, however, given his vulnerability, he soon fell into the drug business, getting into trouble and fighting with the gangs, until he decided to definitively flee from all heading north. In fact, Josué* was not even sure where he wanted to go when he set out. He simply wanted to run away.

niños migrantes viendo televisión
©UNICEF/GUA2021/Volpe

With a fleeting and somewhat lost look, you can tell that Josué* has a hard time concentrating and despite his young age, life has fallen on him with all the weight of the difficult situations he faced while living in the street and family abandonment. At first, Josué* refuses to speak, he maintains that his past is over and that he does not want to think on the black cloud that surrounds his sad memories. Then, he gains confidence, relaxes, and regains some of the sweetness of a 16-year-old, smiles, talks, and remembers.

Josue's* grandmother no longer answers the calls that he tries to make from the shelter in Guatemala, and in the absence of a family willing to receive him back in his native country, he was subjected to a legal procedure where he had to declare his situation to a judge. At the first hearing, the judge sent him to live at a foster home in the city. He had to stay there and wait for a sentence, scheduled at the end of March.

Niños comiendo en Casa Nuestras Raíces.
©UNICEF/GUA2021/Volpe

However, the discipline imposed in the foster home was unbearable for the young man accustomed to a street life. So, he returned momentarily to the transit shelter Casa Nuestras Raíces. He would like to stay there forever. He maintains that Guatemala is a very beautiful country, although he has not taken a walk through the city or anywhere else in the country. Surely, he is excited by the novelty of a place where he does not feel in constant risk of death. Josué will have the possibility of a protection process in Guatemala, although he is still afraid of the possibility of being repatriated. He is waiting to turn 18 and start a new life in Guatemala, if possible, he no longer cares about reaching the United States or Mexico. He just wants a better life away from violence.

Josue's* story is a flow of consciousness, a much more common testimony than one might imagine, of what it means to be a child in dysfunctional contexts in one of the most unequal regions - the northern triangle - of the planet for children and adolescence.

Trabajador social jugando con adolescentes migrantes.
UNICEF/UN0458527/Mussapp

In the middle of his journey, Josué was lucky enough to run into people like Luis Alvarado, the psychologist magician of the transit shelter, and his playful methodology with which he alleviates the days of children and adolescents, making them discover hidden abilities through little tricks. He teaches them that no matter how hard life has hit them so far, it is always a good time to do things differently than before. Trusting the value of effort, patience, perseverance, like when you want to learn a magic trick, because life is like magic, it can always give you a surprise and unexpected joys.

The psychosocial and medical support provided to Juan* and Josue*, as well as other unaccompanied returnee migrant girls, boys and adolescents at Casa Nuestras Raíces, has been possible thanks to the Joint Program that support the Guatemalan Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 funded by the UN Response and Recovery Fund, as well as the Swedish Development Cooperation, The United States Government and BPRM.

* fictitious name to protect their identity