Lee* learns English at the Seward County Community College Colvin Center. Attending class and learning from Sonia Hernandez and other Colvin instructors helps the Guatemalan work toward her goal of an education. (Michelle Mattich)
The impoverished neighborhood in Guatemala didn’t offer a lot for Lee’s* family. It was common for people to struggle financially. Many could only sell things on the streets like fruits and blankets but it wasn’t enough to climb the socioeconomic ladder.
Her parents wanted more, so they left a 2-year-old Lee with her aunt and grandmother, and headed for the United States.
“I knew my parents through mostly phone calls and videos,” Lee, who is now an English student at the Seward County Community College’s Colvin Adult Center, said. “When I was 15, my grandmother passed away. A year later, my aunt decided her and I were going to go to America.”
That’s when the journey to find her parents began.
Lee and her aunt left on a bus and traveled through Mexico to the U.S. with a guide to help them along the way. They made their way to Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.
“We came to a river at night and decided to cross it by foot, that’s when we were detained by border patrol,” Lee said.
Click on the map and use the arrows to navigate Lee’s journey to find her family
Map by Calen Moore and Daniela Carmona
After being picked up by border patrol, Lee and her aunt were taken to a small building and given identification numbers. Since Lee’s aunt wasn’t her biological mother, they were separated and taken to different holding centers.
“I felt very fearful, because I had no idea what was going to happen and everywhere I was taken, I was surrounded by people I did not know,” the student said.
Lee filled out paperwork, which had her explain who she was and why she was going to the states. Her paperwork was sent to a judge, who would later decide whether or not she would be admitted into the U.S.
“I was there for three days in a room with 45 other minors on mattresses this thick,” Lee said, holding her thumb and index finger three inches apart.
The girls were fed oatmeal, juice and an apple for breakfast, ramen noodles for lunch, and a burrito for dinner.
“No one ate the burrito because it just was not good, so we were usually given an extra apple instead,” Lee said, laughing.
Because Lee was no longer with her aunt, she had no way of contacting her parents. There was a border patrol officer, however, who helped her make a phone call. She called the guide who helped them make it to the border.
…That’s when we were detained by border patrol.”
“I called him and asked if he could find my mother’s number and he was able to get the information to me so I would be able to contact my mom at some point,” Lee said.
After three days at the border, the judge decided to put Lee and nine other girls into a group home in the U.S. They were all put on a plane and flown to Chicago. She flew over the states she was trying to enter, alone, even though she was accompanied by nine other girls. She looked out of the the plane window, hoping for a cathartic moment in her journey.
“My first impression of America was that it is a beautiful place, it is where my family is,” Lee said.
After arriving in Chicago she was able to speak to a social worker and a counselor. All ten girls were put into programs to learn English and to start going to school. Lee spoke with her social worker to get help finding her mother.
“The social worker helped me call my mom and we were able to find out where she was,” Lee said.
Lee stayed at the group home for 28 days. Finally, after 15 years apart from her parents, she was reunited with her family. Through the help of her social worker, she was put on a plane, and flown to Amarillo, Texas, where her parents picked her up.
“Words couldn’t describe how happy I was, it was a long and difficult path to get to my parents and this life, but it was relieving to finally be reunited,” Lee said.
After Lee settled in with her parents and new family, they discovered her aunt, who was separated from her at the border, was released and located in Cactus, Texas.
After a long trip to Cactus and back to the Oklahoma panhandle area, the family was back together. Lee’s grandmother is never far from her thoughts, however. She appreciated what the older woman taught her in Guatemala.
Click/touch photo to see full gallery and captions
“I love and miss my grandmother, but I do things to remember her. She raised me and my sister to be Catholic and we like to celebrate Catholic traditions that are popular in Guatemala to remember her,” Lee said. “Also cooking. My grandmother taught me how to cook. My favorite dish to make that reminds me of her is pepian, it’s very delicious and it’s kind of like a soup.”
After a long journey to the USA to be reunited with her family, Lee spends her time at the Colvin Center. She is learning English, while simultaneously taking classes to get her high school diploma equivalent, a G.E.D.
“She is very quiet but very smart, probably one of the fastest learners I’ve had come through here,” Elida Escarcega, Colvin Center instructor, said.
Both of her parents work full time while she attends school and helps at home. Lee’s goal is to stay in the United States for as long as she can to get an education.
* Lee asked that her full name not be used in the story to protect her family.