Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s Welcome Children: Voices of the Central American Refugee Crisis
Turn on any news channel these days and you will find hours dedicated to the immigration issue in the United States, particularly on the Southern border. Chances are these stories will be full of pontificating politicians and dueling narratives and statistics. With her New American Story Project, UVA Creative Writing Professor Micheline Aharonian Marcom wants to introduce the voices of the most vulnerable to this discussion. Marcom launched the digital storytelling and oral-history project four years ago, at a time when a different administration faced an earlier crisis in 2014 when in one year, over 68,000 unaccompanied children sought to escape the violence of their homelands of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, an area commonly referred to as the Northern Triangle. At that time, she was doing research for an upcoming novel and learning that the humanitarian crisis in the region long predated the inflamed political passions of the day. “I realized as I researched the novel that I wanted to hear people’s stories directly, not from a journalist telling me about them or through statistics, but individuals in their own words. Eventually, I decided I could make a contribution by helping shepherd some of these voices into the world.”
The current project, Welcome Children: Voices of the Central American Refugee Crisis, focuses on unaccompanied Central American children living in the Bay Area. “These kids are 14, 15, and 16 years old,” Marcom said, “They often cannot deeply contextualize how the violence at home began, what its larger historical and actual causes are, and what the legal process for asylum in the U.S. consists of,” she said. For that context, Marcom and her colleagues on the project engage legal, social and policy experts to contribute their thoughts and expertise. But it is these children themselves, Marcom found, whose personal experiences of the dangers at home (where impunity rates for crime in all three countries, including murder, hover around 95%), their perilous journey northward, and their dreams for the future that are deeply inspiring and important. “These kids are so resilient. Our hope is that when you listen to a child tell her story or his story,” she said, “you might be more understanding of what causes a child to leave home without their parents in the first place and risk traveling to the United States. It is a dangerous journey north, and many Central Americans are preyed upon, some disappear, some die, and many simply don’t make it.” The risk, one finds in watching these powerful videos, is balanced against the near-certain prospect of violence and hopelessness at home. “Monica” (all names have been changed to protect the subjects) tells of leaving high school due to fear of kidnapping. She tells of how classmates were taken from the school and killed. Another storyteller shares that she left El Salvador after longstanding sexual abuse and rode for days on end atop cargo trains known as “The Beast,” where she was exposed to constant danger, including from fellow passengers and opportunistic attackers. Marcom and her partners on the project will continue to seek out and share these real stories on www.newamericanstoryproject.org. Meanwhile, the novel project that started it all, The New American (Simon & Schuster) is scheduled to hit shelves in 2020.