Sitting on a Manhattan sidewalk on a sunny afternoon, Franyerson, 9, rolled and shaped purple Play-Doh into a heart.

This sweet moment of his New York City childhood was a rare pause in a journey that has taken him and his father thousands of miles, from Venezuela through the jungle that spans Colombia and Panama, to Central America and Mexico and across Rio Grande.

Franyerson and his father were waiting outside the 30th Street Men’s Intake Center, a massive homeless shelter on the East Side, for a ride that would transport them to The Bronx Homeless Family Reception Center, known as PATH.

He spoke fondly of his father buying water-purifying tablets in Medellin, Colombia. And he happily talked about playing a game with other children while traveling with a guide through the jungle of the Colombian-Panamanian Darien Gap region. The game was called “sobrevivencia”, which translates to “survival”.

With more hesitation, he spoke of seeing the body of a dead man while crossing a river.

“I was traumatized from that moment,” he said in Spanish.

Children face serious danger traveling north as their families seek asylum in the United States. On Monday, two young children died while trying to cross the Rio Grande between Mexico and Texas.

The city’s social services agency estimates that a thousand children who have recently arrived in New York and passed through the shelter system will start school in two weeks in a strange city. Disrupted learning, illiteracy, language and cultural barriers, and ongoing trauma are just some of the challenges they face.

Franyerson’s father, Franklin, who declined to give his last name, said he has three goals now that he’s arrived in New York City: Get a job, ideally as a barber, get permanent housing and register his son him at school.

And according to Mayor Eric Adams, the city is here to help parents like Franklin. Last week, he unveiled details of Project Open Arms, a multi-agency effort to welcome asylum-seeking migrants, get children enrolled in school and help them adjust to their new lives.

Adams said in a press release: “With strong collaboration with our partners, inside and outside of government, this plan highlights how we can lead with compassion and ‘Get Things Done’ for those who need it most.”

Open Arms Project

The Open Arms project, as laid out in a nine-page document, draws resources from several city agencies and nonprofits to streamline student registration and provide social services to newcomer families, supported by translation services.

The city’s social services agency will notify the Department of Education’s temporary housing team of any new hotels and shelters so they can help families register children. The temporary housing team will also connect migrants with DOE Family Welcome Centers, where counselors identify schools for students, especially schools with support for non-English speakers.

Students must pick up school transportation from the shelters, as well as backpacks and school supplies. And children’s mental health gets a nod, with a promise of “small group access or individual support, as needed” highlighted in the plan.

Mutual aid workers distribute school supplies to immigrant children outside the 30th Street reception center, August 15, 2022.

Rita Rodriguez-Engberg, director of immigrant student rights at Advocates for Children New York, praised Project Open Arms, but raised concerns about whether the city could properly implement the plan amid staff shortages.

“We’re really happy that the city is finally paying this level of attention to immigrant families,” she said. “We just really hope that they can continue, and not just for now, but for the future, given that we see families that come into this particular situation throughout the year.”

Rodriguez-Engberg also has concerns about whether students will be placed in bilingual programs with teachers who speak both English and the students’ native language, which is not available in all schools. The alternative would be a teacher trained to teach children of all forms of English, but without the support of a teacher who knows the language.

She said it’s also vital for the city to offer emotional support to students, many of whom are traumatized or trying to adjust to a new place.

“If you can imagine for a second sitting in a classroom where everything happens in English, you can understand how frustrating and maybe just demoralizing it feels for a child,” she said.

They miss and catch up

The experiences of previous waves of asylum-seeking families provide lessons about what is needed to ensure a smooth transition into New York City schools for children who have endured the privations of long journeys across America.

Katherine Molina arrived about a year and a half ago with her husband and two daughters, then 7 and 4, after fleeing gang violence from Honduras. They had a relative in Queens, but they needed their own housing and employment. The children also had to learn to read and write, having missed school.

Before entering the country, they had been held in Mexico for about two years under the Immigrant Protection Protocols, a President Donald Trump-era policy in which families seeking to enter the United States are held in Mexico for the duration of the proceedings their immigration. .

That’s when bilingual volunteers, made up of current and retired educators, stepped in to tutor the kids via Zoom, teaching them English and Spanish.

While in Mexico, Katherine’s eldest daughter, Marilyn Nicol, received little education, as a brief attempt to get her into school was aborted. At first, her parents feared she would be kidnapped, and the family suffered from poor treatment from parents and other students. Later, the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted her education.

All in all, Molina estimates that Marilyn Nicol, now 9, was out of school for about a year and a half.

Unlike her 6-year-old sister, Marilyn Nicol struggled to adjust to school in the US. She went to summer school in person last year to make up for most of missing first grade. Her mother said she was one of the few students in the class and it brought back memories of being detained at the border.

She still hadn’t fully learned to read Spanish when she arrived in NYC, which made learning English even more difficult. Despite the obstacles, Molina said Marilyn Nicol has been able to improve significantly in English.

“Today, she can read in Spanish. She can add, subtract all of these. She has made great strides. And in English too,” Molina said in Spanish. “Sometimes we go out and people talk to us in English, and we’re stuck in the air, but she says, ‘Mom, they were trying to tell you that.’

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