EDITOR’S NOTE: Photos of children warehoused in detention centers have compelled Americans to ask, “Why would parents send their children to the US alone?” A team from World Vision recently traveled to Central America to hear the stories of mothers who decided that the best option for their family was to send children to the US. Meredith Hastings recalls one meeting with a mother she met in El Salvador.
Her eyes were gaping black holes, as though they’d absorbed the darkness from every sleepless night, her pupils dilated by fear alone. The frantic way her eyes shifted in every direction was unnatural, even unnerving, beneath grey, swollen eyelids that begged to close.
Suddenly I was following suit, checking our surroundings as if she saw something I didn’t. Though we sipped cool water and reclined in the shade, it was obvious relaxing was a luxury she could rarely afford. She barely dared to blink – always on guard, always watching.
Her skin glistened in the humidity, at once youthful and aged. The lines on her face weren’t deep; even so, they were there too early. Her hands gripped the cup in her lap more tensely than her lips strained across her teeth, doing her best to seem at ease. I wasn’t sure whom she wanted to convince: us, or herself.
The small microphone looked out of place against the collar of her pink t-shirt. She spoke liltingly, each word seesawing up at the end of each phrase so melodically it was almost eerie: how could words so devastating sound so sweet?
She told me everything: the threats against her sons’ lives; the demands for money; the devastating choice she had to make – lose her sons to keep them, or keep her sons to lose them; and, after she’d lost them, the threats continuing anyway, now against her one-year-old daughter.
When she started to cry, I felt something almost indescribable, as though her sadness forced every sad memory in my mind to the forefront of my conscience to be experienced as one great movement of emotion, and suddenly I felt like a child: vulnerable, overwhelmed, and afraid. My eyes stung with the beginning of tears as I mentally wished for my own mom. Even my cheeks had begun to feel heavy as I struggled to stay calm and attentive when I realized that she is haunted by these emotions every day.
The interviews were intended to shed light on harsh realities, so I had anticipated tears. I’d also anticipated creating a viable solution, and I had none – not for one story I’d heard. The number and complexity of problems destroying innocent lives had gradually collected until the moment I watched her cry and was overwhelmed – more eyes black with fear, another deadened gaze, more premature wrinkles across another tired face plagued with worry.
The part of me that arrived believing I could do something to help the people there trickled slowly down my cheeks to the tip of my nose, hung for a moment, and died.
I wiped the mascara stains from my cheeks, returning to the group after a quick break to cry alone. We said our goodbyes while she held her daughter, a beautiful brown-eyed girl with tufts of wavy, chocolate hair. My heart raced with fear. Having heard her story firsthand, I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to return to such a harsh reality.
But, as I watched her go, I was surprised. She seemed to stand a little taller, even with 30 pounds of baby in her arms.
Her face was resolute and strong.
Though still the same woman I’d interviewed, I suddenly saw her for more than a victim. She wasn’t fatigue, worry, or sleepless nights. She was mother and protector; and though she feared the potential consequences of telling her story, she’d risked courage over everything else.
She risked everything, her very life, because doing nothing meant gaining nothing. The only thing she had was a voice. A voice to speak out, speak up, speak the truth. “I don’t have the help I need, ” she must have thought, “but if I tell this story, maybe someone will be able to help.”
She decided her helplessness was not powerlessness, and she did what she could.