Imagination, innocence, and trust. Qualities I love about children.
On the days I’m fortunate enough to serve at the Nazareth Hospitality Center, I get to witness these qualities. Interacting with the children is the highlight of my day.
But when the migrant children first come through our doors, their faces reveal anything but trust. Their eyes search me, as if for a sign. Some cling to their parent’s side or try to crawl in their mother’s lap. Others sit quietly on folding chairs as I explain to their parents where they are and ask the necessary questions to fill out our paperwork. Sometimes when I bend down to tell a child my name and ask his or hers, I get no answer. The little girl glances away shyly. The little boy pulls closer in to his mother. I wonder what they’ve experienced on their journey. And I’m aware of the place they just came from—an Immigration and Customs Enforcement holding facility.
I ask if they are hungry. And I smile. A lot.
After a while, they respond. They begin to trust that we really do care about them here and that this place is safe. Once a child joins in my game of peek-a-boo or lets me chase him like a make-believe dragon, I feel reassured that despite whatever they’ve experienced, their imagination and innocence are still intact.
Besides, once they see the toy room, they can’t hold back. Before long, I hear the sounds of giggles traveling down the hall and plastic wheels being dragged across the linoleum. Or I’ll walk by and catch a budding artist concentrating on her picture. Later she’ll ask me for tape so she can add it to our wall collection of drawings from the hundreds of children who’ve passed through this center. Most likely her colorful drawing will include words like “blessed” and “thank you” and “God.” Always the children are thankful. No matter what they’ve experienced.
Luis, a young man who volunteers at Nazareth, knows a lot about the migrant children. About their innocence and imagination. Their trust. And their faith. In addition to taking classes, studying, and juggling a full schedule, for the past six years Luis has volunteered with his church’s immigrant ministry. On weeknights and some weekends he visits and works with the children and youth confined to detention centers.
These children are what our government calls UACs — unaccompanied alien children. That means they’ve come to the border without a parent. Unaccompanied children under 12 are put in a foster care-type system until they’re reunited with a parent or deported. Youth 12-17 are placed in a very structured and secured detention center.
When Luis asks the children why they’ve come, the top two reasons he hears over and over are:
#1 – “To be with my parents/my mother.” Often the child’s parent came to this country years ago to work and support the family. Some haven’t seen their mother since they were toddlers.
#2 – “To escape the violence.” Now more than ever children tell Luis of being threatened by gangs. Girls often don’t even go to school for fear of being raped. They tell him no one can protect them.
Luis has many stories about the children and youth he’s encountered. Tough stories to hear. Stories about the pain of being separated from parents for years. Stories about things children shouldn’t have to endure.
But Luis has something else, too. A very special scrapbook filled with drawings and letters from the children. They say how blessed they are to have known Luis. In their neatly printed letters, they thank him and thank God for him.
And then there are the drawings. So precious. A seven-year-old’s version of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A young teen’s intricate painting.
But there’s one unusual drawing that Luis especially likes to explain.
One day he’d asked the little kids at the center to draw a picture of what God looks like to them. Six-year-old José presented a colorful, oblong-shaped object up at the top of his page with his name above it.
Not having a clue as to what it was and not wanting to hurt José’s feelings by trying to guess, Luis simply asked him.
“An airplane,” the little guy answered.
Confused, Luis asked, “So, José, why is God an airplane?”
“Because God is fast like an airplane. And I know that if I have God in my heart, God will be the fast plane that will take me to my mom.”
Trauma. Heartbreak. Disappointment. Uncertainty about what’s going to happen tomorrow.
This is what these children experience. Yet they remain innocent. They still have faith and trust in a God who is present no matter what. And their imagination soars. Just like José’s airplane.
It makes me wonder. If I’d been through what these kids have, how might I draw God?