Tales of love and hope on the migration trail

Uprooted families from Central America share their dreams

by Tanya Bindra and Christine Nesbitt
A child makes a heart with his hands.
05 March 2019

What if you were suddenly forced to flee violence or poverty? What if you and your family had to make the enormously difficult decision to pack up your lives and leave by car, open-air truck or even on foot?

What would you take with you?

For millions of children and their families in northern Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – and Mexico, these aren’t hypothetical questions. They’re a reality, as are the gang-related violence, organized crime and extreme poverty that many have faced every day. We asked some of the families making these journeys what objects they had brought with them. The items they carried were varied, but all were a reminder of one thing: that whether children are migrants or refugees, first and foremost a child is a child.


Jennifer holds her diary.
© UNICEF/UN0278783/Bindra

Jennifer, from Honduras

Jennifer’s mother was killed by a gang two years ago, and her father stayed behind in Honduras. Jennifer, 10, is traveling from Honduras with her three siblings. Now in Mexico, she’s holding a diary she has made, which includes pictures she has drawn of her journey. Jennifer is one of the many children who have fled gang-related violence, organized crime, extortion, and poverty.


A girl hold a t-shirt

Kylie*, from Mexico

Kylie*, 15, from Mexico, has brought her dance competition t-shirt because of the good memories associated with it. “I was walking to a dance competition with my friends and we fell in the mud, Kylie says. “The t-shirt still has mud on it, but it reminds me of my friends.” Kylie says she wants to be a psychologist because her friends say she’s a good listener. In the meantime, Kylie – and many others like her – must navigate a long, uncertain journey during which they are at risk of exploitation, violence and abuse.


© UNICEF/UN0284707/Bindra

Maylin, from Honduras

Maylin*, 15, came to Mexico with other migrants three months ago, fleeing problems at home in Honduras. “When I was with the ‘caravan’, it was difficult to have my period because there was no privacy,” she says, but adds that the girls would try to help each other find some privacy when they could. She’s holding the stuffed toy giraffe she carried on her journey. “The walking was hard, but I met people from all over the place hoping for the same thing,” she says. “That was a very beautiful thing for me.” Sadly, many unaccompanied children and women are unprotected and often traveling alone, leaving them easy prey for traffickers, criminals, organized gangs, security forces and others who might abuse, exploit or even kill them.


An open bible.

Mariza, from Honduras

“I pray with my daughters every day. The bible has always given me great comfort during tough times,” says Mariza, 38, in Tecun Uman, Guatemala. Mariza brought her bible with her on the journey from Honduras. It’s a similar journey to the one taken by many other families trying to escape desperate circumstances. Yet even if they manage to leave, they are often faced with a host of new problems – some find themselves apprehended in transit or upon reaching their destinations, for example, detained and then returned to the country from which they fled.


A cross on a necklace lies on an open hand.

Ethan, from El Salvador

Ethan*, 17, holds the rosary his grandmother made for him for his journey with the ‘caravan’. He’s in Tijuana now, at a shelter, having left behind threats of violence in El Salvador. “I had to leave to find safety, to find my freedom. I would rather end up in a detention center in America than go back to El Salvador,” he says.

The neighborhood where Ethan lived in El Salvador was operated by a different gang than the one his school was located in. The result? The gang would try to extort money from him when he tried to go to school. Eventually, he began receiving threats from both gangs. “I wish I could change places with people that are afraid of us, so they can see what my life is like,” he says.


A boy puts on a necklace.

Agustin, from Guatemala

Agustin*, 17, holds up the necklace given to him by his mom for good luck before he joined other migrants traveling in Guatemala. “I haven’t taken it off since,” he says. “It makes me feel like she’s with me all the time.”

Agustin is like many other young people and their families – wrestling with the painful reality of leaving homes, communities and countries in search of safety and a more hopeful future. Their situations underscore a simple reality – that it is essential to address the root causes of irregular and forced migration from northern Central America and Mexico, and that includes poverty, gang violence and a lack of educational and economic opportunities.


*Names changed.