A Rotary fellowship challenged a writer’s perspective and helped bring her idea for a book into focus
Just before heading to the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok as a peace fellow in 2014, I had started to think about writing a book. For several years I had been reporting on issues faced by unaccompanied minors – young people, most of them from Central America, who cross into the United States without papers or parents. I wrote one article, then another, then another; each time, instead of finding answers, I arrived at more questions. The number of these child migrants crossing into the United States had doubled each of the previous two years. Why were they coming? What was compelling them to flee their homes?
I work at a school in California that serves immigrant students. At Oakland International High School, I oversee programs that address students’ social and emotional needs; we provide after-school programs, therapists, medical services, and assistance navigating the immigration system. In February 2014, as I was finishing an article on unaccompanied minors, one of our teachers mentioned that many of his students had upcoming immigration court dates. We conducted an internal survey and found that of 400 students at our school, 60 were unaccompanied minors. All 60 were in deportation proceedings; none had lawyers. (Today, three years later, more than 100 students – over 25 percent of our student body – are unaccompanied minors.) I had been reporting on this issue around the country, and it was right there in front of me.
A few months later, as I arrived at the peace center at Chula, this issue exploded into the headlines. Suddenly everyone was talking about unaccompanied minors. Between lectures, I followed the news. Most of it went along these lines: Children were crossing the U.S. border by the thousands; the government had nowhere to put them; this was a crisis, and we had to do something about it. Depending on the media outlet, the definition of “something” differed substantially.
But what about the more complex questions of why and how those children had arrived in the United States? What were their lives like beyond the sensational headlines? What were their stories? I didn’t see many articles that grappled with these questions, so I decided to take them up on my own. In fall 2017, after several years of reporting, my book, The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, was published.
Writing a book requires time and space away from normal life to wrestle with the magnitude of the material and the complex questions it provokes. A writer needs to challenge her own perspectives and assumptions, and that is what I did at Chula.
A writer also needs to research like mad. During my summer at Chula, I studied and mapped the root causes of the gang conflicts in El Salvador that had led to the child exodus. The gangs had started in Los Angeles, I knew, and had been exported to El Salvador when thousands of young people were deported in the 1990s. But there was much more to learn. During the 1980-92 civil war, the U.S. government provided training, funding, and weapons to the Salvadoran government forces – forces that perpetrated some of the most horrifying brutalities of the period. Atrocities such as the 1981 El Mozote massacre – in which government troops massacred hundreds of men, women, and children suspected of being guerrilla sympathizers – caused many Salvadorans to flee their country.
Many of the guns supplied by the United States during the civil war are still in use in the region. El Salvador also has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. In September, nearly 15 people a day were murdered in a country of just over 6 million. In 2011 – a year the murder rate was more than 65 per 100,000 people, which translates to almost 12 a day – high numbers of Salvadoran kids began to flee their country. When you compare the homicide rates with the numbers of unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States, you see that the exodus of young people follows the same trajectory as the violence.
What one might think of as the “border crisis” is a complex, long-standing crisis of history, violence, economics, failed intervention, and botched policy. My book, and the themes I would need to address in it, became more complicated and ambitious. But the research I was able to do at Chula, and my conversations with the other peace fellows, allowed me to think about what the book might be and how I might responsibly write it.
Looking back, my time at Chula was an exercise in getting beyond the headlines. At the time, Boko Haram was terrorizing northern Nigeria – and here was Esther Sule, the headmistress of a school there, who spoke about the impact that situation had on her students and on her own life. Arshi Hashimi, a professor from Pakistan, talked about the radicalization of young people and the role of the government and the law in combating such radicalization. Another classmate from Pakistan, a lawyer named Shabnam Nawaz, became a good friend. She insisted that the vilification of Islam had a part in radicalization, a perspective to which many of us had been blind. At the same time, I noticed that Shabnam tended to speak of America as a monolith; from my experience, I could explain how “America” is not one single place or set of beliefs at all.
It wasn’t only the fellows from abroad who challenged my assumptions. Jeff Runyan, from Colorado, also became a dear friend. As the director of missions for Focus, a Catholic student mission group, he had conservative views that were often completely different from my own. And yet he was a social justice warrior, a force for good in the world, from whom I learned a great deal.
By the time I landed back in California and started the 2014 school year, unaccompanied minors had started to fall off the media’s radar. Yet the kids kept coming. Before the first surge in 2011, about 7,000 used to cross each year. In 2014, the year President Barack Obama deemed the influx “an urgent humanitarian situation,” more than 57,000 arrived. By 2016 the number had ticked up to more than 59,000, and although it dropped sharply in the first half of 2017 (perhaps in response to the 2016 presidential election), it has since gone up again.
My hope is that my book tells a nuanced story of young people who are fleeing the violence of their home countries – without sensationalizing them or their experiences. The “far away brothers” I write about came to the United States, above all, in search of peace.
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