CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — His completed geometry exercise in hand and a smile lighting up his eyes above his face mask, Victor Rodas rushed to the teacher as other students were still drawing.
“I’m winning the race!” the 12-year-old exclaimed. “I’m already done, teacher. I beat everyone.”
Being enrolled in a school program designed for migrant children in Ciudad Juarez, Victor does have a leg up on many others like him who, fleeing poverty and violence, lose months or even years of schooling on their journeys.
Giving them access to education is a daunting and urgent challenge.
Just in this vast desert metropolis next to El Paso, Texas, thousands of migrant families have hunkered in shelters, waiting to cross into the United States. They’re prevented from seeking asylum there by U.S. policies that made some wait in Mexico for their court hearings and banned others under a pandemic-era order set to expire May 23.
Pastor-run shelters have partnered with educators to help — either busing children to an alternative school that teaches everything from math to reading to dealing with emotions, or bringing in specially accredited teachers.
While the curriculum is not religious, faith animates these projects, as it does many other migrant relief efforts at the border. It also informs many of the educators, who recognize schooling as crucial to the youths’ future, including their ability to socialize and eventually find jobs and feel at home wherever they end up.
“They get integrated in the educational system so they can keep gaining confidence,” said Teresa Almada, who runs Casa Kolping, where Victor studies, through a local organization funded three decades ago by lay members of Catholic parishes. “It’s also important … that the families feel they’re not in hostile territory.”
Victor’s oldest sister, Katherine Rodas, 22, fled death threats in Honduras with him and two other siblings she raised after their mother died. While she and her husband are so fearful of gangs that they don’t dare leave their Catholic-run shelter, she leapt at the chance for the children to be bused to Casa Kolping.
“They say the teacher always takes good care of them, plays with them,” Rodas said. “They feel safe there.”
Their shelter, Casa Oscar Romero, is named for a beloved Salvadoran archbishop, known for ministering to the poor, who was assassinated during his country’s civil war and later made a saint by Pope Francis. Many housed at this shelter and elsewhere in Ciudad Juarez fled Central America; growing numbers of Mexican families from areas engulfed in cartel warfare are arriving, too.
For a while after the school program started in October, teachers encouraged parents to join their children in the classrooms to build trust. Among them was Lucia, a single mother of three who fled the Mexican state of Michoacan after a drug cartel “took over the harvest and everything” in their home. She asked to be identified by just her first name for safety.
“Education is important so that they can develop as people and they’ll be able to defend themselves from whatever life will put before them,” Lucia said as she made breakfast in the small communal kitchen at the shelter, where the family had lived for nine months.
Her daughter Carol, 8, already had on her mask and pink backpack, ready to run ahead of the pack as soon as the school bus’s arrival was announced.
About three dozen children from Casa Oscar Romero and another religious-run shelter attend Casa Kolping. First to third graders like Carol gather in one classroom, and fourth to sixth graders like Victor meet across the hallway in a large room whose windows frame views of El Paso’s mountains.
Across the border, Victor imagines, schools will be “big, well-cared for,” and will help him reach his goal of becoming an architect. He already practices drawing detailed houses, when he can find paper.
“If you ask the kids, their biggest dream is to cross to the United States,” said teacher Yolanda Garcia.
Many parents see no point in enrolling children in school in Mexico, where they don’t plan to stay. Also, many public educators are reluctant to admit migrant students, for fear of losing teacher slots if class sizes shrink when they leave suddenly, said Dora Espinoza, a primary school principal in Ciudad Juarez. She actively reaches out to families, including at a shelter two blocks from her classrooms.
“Why all that paperwork if the kid is going to be gone in two weeks” is one argument that makes promoting child migrant education such a challenge, said Paola Gómez, Mexico’s education officer for UNICEF. The U.N. child protection agency helps finance Casa Kolping as a pilot program, where attendance gets a kid transferable credit for both Mexican and U.S. schools.
In addition to uncertainty, poverty and discrimination keep nearly half of refugee children from school worldwide, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
But the biggest barrier is insecurity. Hounded by violence in their hometowns and preyed upon by gangs along the journey — often right up to a shelter’s doors — many parents are afraid to let children out of their sight.
The faith-run programs address that by providing secure transportation, as in the case of Casa Kolping, or bringing instructors directly to the migrants, as in the case of another Ciudad Juarez shelter, Buen Samaritano, Spanish for good Samaritan.
Still, the children take serious traumas with them to the classroom.
“‘Teacher, I’m here because they murdered my parents.’ They tell it in detail, children don’t cover anything up,” said Samuel Jimenéz, a teacher at Buen Samaritano on a recent blustery afternoon. “In the moment they’re here, we can take them out of that reality. They forget it.”
Led by a Methodist pastor and his wife, Buen Samaritano housed more than 70 migrants that day, half of them minors. Children swept swirling desert dust out of the temple area, where the altar was curtained off to create the classroom.
Ten-year-old Aritzi Ciriaco, a fourth grader from Michoacan who had been at Buen Samaritano since August with her parents and grandparents, couldn’t wait to get started on the day’s Spanish exercises. She worried that learning English and navigating U.S. schools would be hard once they cross the border.
“The teachers were telling me that there you can’t miss a single class,” Aritzi said “Still, it’s good to know other countries.”
Other challenges for the instructors include catching up students who arrive unable to read or write.
“We are faced with all kinds of falling behind,” said Garcia at Casa Kolping. “But most of all, with a lot of desire to learn. They missed school. When you give them their notebooks, the emotion on their face … some even tell you, ‘How lovely it feels to learn.’”
One chilly spring morning, one of her students, Juan Pacheco, 12, struggled with a punctuation exercise taught in Spanish — his first language is Mixtec, one of the many Indigenous tongues in Mexico and Central America.
He had spent more than eight months at Casa Oscar Romero after his family fled the Mexican state of Guerrero, where cartel fighting made it too dangerous to farm even their meager plot of beans.
But with some coaching, Juan successfully completed another task faster than his classmates: drawing a banknote, a cooking pot, a radish and an ear of corn, and explaining which one didn’t fit with the others.
“I don’t like to talk much, but yes, I’m a good student,” Juan said, beaming.