“Home is a sensation of relief … a place where you feel comfortable walking around in your pajamas … where there are people who one minute are driving you crazy, and the next minute you know they love you.” — from an essay by a Kingston High School student
“I was walking home one day and saw my parents in front of my house, talking to some gang members. The gangs wanted my 15-year-old brother to join, and my parents did not want him to join. … I hid behind the house, and then I heard shots. I knew they had killed my parents. I hid in a closet until my brother found me, and we decided to leave. We rode on top of a train all the way through Mexico … I was 10 years old.” — from an essay by a Latin American refugee.
The writings are the product of workshops held in local high schools and at the Children’s Home of Kingston, one of 265 shelters across the country where young refugees might end up after fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Shauna Kanter, director of the Woodstock-based Voice Theater, has led these sessions. She encourages teenagers to write about the concept of “home” and then holds readings to present the writings to students at Kingston and Saugerties high schools and two vocational programs, Hudson Valley Pathways and the Alternative High School in Port Ewen.
On April 7, about 30 teenagers sat on the floor of the stage at Kingston High School, listening to the writings of fellow students and young refugees. Some of the compositions were read both in English and in Spanish, and most were not read by the people who had written them.
Not all the Kingston students’ essays were warm and fuzzy. One writer described running away from home twice because she was overwhelmed by her parents’ constant fighting and her struggles to care for her younger siblings. “But I went back because I was needed,” she wrote. Ada Lowengard, the student who read aloud this writer’s work, said after the presentation that she found it painful to read.
Still, the refugees’ accounts reached a whole different level of starkness. One boy described fleeing after his brother murdered a half-brother for joining a rival gang: “Leaving my family was one of the worst moments of my life. But I was going to be killed like my brother.”
Another boy wrote of leaving because there was not enough work for his family to buy food. He had also been asked to join a gang, whose members told him, “Everything your family cannot give you, we will give you. But we will be first, before your parents.”
Wrote another, “My parents were always negotiating with the gangs. On all sides, everything looked dead.” His sisters arranged to get him to the U.S., where, he stated, “A boy who excels in all aspects can do anything in this world.”
After a previous presentation at Saugerties High School, said Kanter, “The refugee kids said it was important to see other Hispanic kids in a high school. They so want next September to be enrolled. They say it’s important to them to have their stories heard.”
Some of the accounts brought Emily Rosario, one of the Kingston High School readers, to tears. She lived in Puerto Rico until she was five. “My oldest brother was forced into a gang,” she said. “That was the last time I ever saw him.”
Christian Dedovich, also a reader, said of the visitors afterward, “I shook their hands. I didn’t know if I was making them uncomfortable.”
Aquarius Creamer reported that before her reading, “They looked sad. I smiled at them. One of them gave me a bracelet.”
‘These kids are not criminals’
“I’ve gained an enormous amount of empathy and respect for these children,” said Kanter. “On CNN, I heard a border patrol officer say, ‘I don’t know why they’re coming to this country. I guess they just want a better life.’ I want Americans to understand, these kids are not criminals, they’re literally running for their lives.”
Kanter’s theater company has a history of addressing social and political issues through performance. In 1995, she wrote the play Legacy, based on the rescue of her Jewish ancestors from Germany under Hitler. Using the play as a springboard, she has conducted workshops in Europe and in the U.S., encouraging students to write monologues about their personal experiences of exclusion, discrimination and bullying.
Legacy is about prejudice, but it’s also about refugees, pointed out Kanter. “It’s about people having to leave their country and seek a home elsewhere. As a Jew, I feel it’s my responsibility to help people because this was my family’s experience. The Voice Theater method is to take disparate groups, people who would never come together, and put them in the same room.”
To help lead the recent series of workshops, she selected actors Sean Marrinan, an acting teacher who appeared for five years on 30 Rock, and Jordana Rubenstein, who teaches at a Palestinian summer camp in the West Bank.
When a minor crosses the border illegally from Mexico into the U.S., without parents, he is immediately detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has 72 hours to send him to a shelter such as the Children’s Home of Kingston. Boys at the shelter are connected to family members or past acquaintances who are now living in the U.S. and are willing to take care of them. Sponsors may either drive to pick up the boys or pay for airfare to transport them to their new home. “One family drove all night from Kentucky to Kingston,” said Kanter, “picked up their relative, then drove right back because they couldn’t afford a night in a motel.”
An official at the Children’s Home said sponsors go through an extensive vetting process that includes background check for any criminal offenses, child abuse registry in their state, and FBI fingerprinting. Youth are expected to attend school, not work per child labor laws, and attend all immigration court proceedings.
Ironically, U.S. intervention is said to be responsible for the gang rule in Central America. The book Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer documents the actions of CIA head Allen Dulles and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles under President Eisenhower in the 1950s. As part of the government’s policy to fight Communism, according to the book, the CIA armed, funded and trained revolutionary forces, installing a right-wing dictator in Guatemala. The Dulles brothers, the book states, were on the payroll of the United Fruit Company, whose Guatemalan plantations were losing profits because of the socialist government’s effort to end exploitative labor practices. The coup resulted in civil war and a long-term destabilization of the government. “The gangs are the government,” said Kanter. “One boy’s aunt had to go to the hospital but didn’t want to go because the gangs own the hospitals. You have to join the gang to get what you need.”
She told students at Kingston High School, “Now you are the bearers of truth that will inform people.”