MATAMOROS, Mexico (Border Report) — Felicia Rangel Samponaro brought her miniature Pomeranian dog to a makeshift school that her nonprofit organization recently opened for asylum-seeking migrant children who are living on the streets of Matamoros.
One little boy gripped the dog and wouldn’t let go. He didn’t say anything, but he held the dog the entire two-hour class time, she said.
“It was very obvious that he’s hurting a lot,” Samponaro told Border Report on Thursday as she explained what motivated her to recently start this nonprofit school, the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers. The makeshift roomless-school offers classes to children who are living in a tent city at the base of the Gateway International Bridge across from Brownsville, Texas.
A former teacher from Houston, Samponaro doesn’t speak a word of Spanish, and yet it doesn’t seem to matter as dozens of children willingly come whenever and wherever classes are offered.
All of the classes are taught by Spanish-speaking asylum-seekers, some were teachers back in their homelands, Samponaro said. Other parents living in the tent city help as aides. They read books to the children, figure some arithmetic, color together, and play while all learning from each other.
For the kids, these classes provide a few moments of normalcy as they endure life on the streets of Mexico in a city that is so fraught with violence — mostly from drug cartels — that the U.S. State Department has warned Americans not to go there.
For Samponaro, it is a daily lesson in the resiliency of these children who greet each day with a smile, although they have little else in life, she said.
“I try to touch everyone that comes to the school in some way,” said Samponaro, who recently moved into an apartment building in Matamoros which she said is full of mostly Cuban asylum-seekers (Migrants who have enough money to pay for a roof over their heads).
But most days, she said, the children touch her. Because despite living in squalor, in 100-degree weather or near-freezing 40-degree nights, she said they come to her makeshift school with smiles on their faces, eager to learn something.
Beginning the Sidewalk School
A year ago, Samponaro said she would not have imagined she’d be running this school. What began with passing out a few books and spending some time coloring with children, has evolved into weekly, two-hour classes that currently are being held in the evenings.
“Children need education and I think it’s really sad everything for them stopped and then they’re some living in the woods or in the plaza or in front of a building. There was nothing normal anything more about anything they were going through,” she said.
When she first began passing out books, Samponaro said she rarely saw a child for longer than a couple weeks. But after the Trump administration implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols program in mid-July in South Texas — which requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico during their U.S. asylum hearings — Samponaro says she now sees the same children week after week.
“Before we were seeing them for maybe a week and then when MPP came into place we started seeing them for a month, two months and they needed something else to do so that’s when I decided to create the Sidewalk School,” she said.
There are almost 2,000 asylum-seeking migrants living in this tent city at the base of the Gateway International Bridge. It’s unclear how many of them are children, but for every adult there are usually at least two children in the camp. Currently, there are about 500 tents pitched in this spit of federal land where the migrants feel relatively protected from local authorities.
It’s possible that nearly half of all the asylum-seekers here are children, and as they wait with their families for weeks and months, they wait without any formal education.
For more information on the Sidewalk School, go to their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter. In addition, Samponaro encourages those who want to help to go to the website of Global Response Management, which is offering medical services from a tent at the encampment and is also helping to organize volunteers.
Many of the children in the tent encampment suffer from lice, and fleas constantly bother them, getting into their eyes. Currently, there is one tent quarantined for chickenpox, and there are many respiratory ailments from which the children suffer, Helen Perry with Global Response Management told Border Report on Friday.
On Friday, an agency operated by the Matamoros government tried to round up the children and take them to a shelter, several families and Perry told Border Report.
Despite the fleas, lice, round-ups and extreme weather, Samponaro says she hopes her little school offers a tiny bit of respite “from these horrible conditions” that the children live in.
“It’s the same kids now every day because no one’s moving on any more,” she said.
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