In light of our current national heartbreak of our government breaking apart families in our names, I want to share a simple message: the antidote to heartbreak is to give more love.
Here’s how my family was given a chance to do that.
Maria was seventeen when she fled the violent gangs of Guatemala. She had already suffered their brand of torture, and if she stayed it was only a matter of time before it happened again.
Still, the only alternative to staying was also unimaginable: leave everything she knew – her mother, father, siblings, grandparents, friends, school, chores – her whole world. Leave not only her childhood but her future – she had planned to attend medical school. Funds for tuition went instead to a coyote. She traveled through harrowing dangers – both nature-made and human – and arrived in Texas as an “unaccompanied minor.” She asked America for asylum.
During a year of waiting, she was temporarily housed in a detention center for youth in Texas, then transferred to the care of an aunt in Los Angeles. She lived with her aunt, went to high school, did homework, made friends, and met with her pro bono lawyer to pursue her asylum case.
When her aunt’s illness prevented her from caring for Maria, her lawyer took steps to find her another home. That e-mail came to my inbox. “Is there someone out there who might foster this teenage girl?”
To be sure, I was not sure that I was up to the task. I knew it would be challenging, would up-end our family dynamic, impact my two sons, and involve responsibilities I couldn’t yet fathom. (It actually helped that I couldn’t fathom them, they were too abstract to dissuade me.) But louder than all of these challenges was a singular truth: If I were in her mother’s shoes, if I had been forced to send one of my children across the world to keep him alive, I would do it. And then I would pray with every cell in my body that some mother across the world would receive him into her care, would say, “I’ll take care of him.” We said yes.
The day Maria moved in, she did not speak a word of English. I was the only person in our family who spoke Spanish. But the moment she stepped over our threshold, our then-10-year-old son melted the language barrier by asking her to build Legos with him. We all played card games and Rummy Cube (numbers being universal) and I translated to bridge the gaps. Our younger son has referred to her as his sister from the get-go. Our then-14-year-old son had a longer arc to accepting the new normal of our family. Admittedly, so did I.
A few weeks after she joined us, she received the letter saying that asylum had been granted; America had said Yes. She doubled over with tears of relief, and perhaps tears for what was lost. She would be able to apply for citizenship after five years. But it also would be at least that long before she could see the family she left behind. I had only known her a little while, but I cried with her.
She went to high school and took ESL, along with Algebra, World History, and more. My husband confirmed his sainthood by tutoring her every night. When summer came, a job as a camp counselor at the local YMCA pushed her to try out the sounds of her adopted language, and she flourished. She became the local YMCA’s most-loved and most-sought after caregiver. Walking around our neighborhood with her is like walking with the Pied Piper, as children and their parents call out, “Hi, Maria!”
She worked hard in school, got good grades, enrolled in community college, and recently completed a Pre-school Teacher Certificate on her path to getting her B.A. All of this in her second language. She applied for and was hired to be a pre-school teacher at our synagogue, and starts in August. She’ll continue her schooling to graduate from college. This is a young woman who indisputably makes our community an even greater place. Under Jeff Sessions’ new rules, she likely would not have been granted asylum; that might have been her death sentence.
Being Maria’s American family has given our extended family a personal connection to the stories of immigrants coming to our border. When our government talks about building a wall to keep “them” out, we need only look across the dinner table and know they are talking about Maria, and countless other kids like her who have gifts to offer our country, if only we would let them.
If the antidote to heartbreak is to give more love, we need to open our hearts wider. Opportunities for kindness abound. It can be as big as opening your home to foster an unaccompanied minor, or as small as bringing a toy to a shelter. It can be a donation of money or a donation of time. It is doing a just little more than you’ve done before. It’s taking action so that when you look back on these times, you can say you helped cure the world of a measure of heartbreak. Starting with your own.