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Asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez join global trend in virtual learning amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Children caught in political limbo in Ciudad Juárez, and a global pandemic, are now doing what many others around the world have been doing since earlier this year — logging in to virtual classes. 

“I mailed the kids in Juárez school supplies, art supplies, clothing.” Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, co-director of the Sidewalk School, said. “I’m trying to mirror what we do for our kids in Matamoros for our kids in Juárez.” 

The nonprofit Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers began in Matamoros, Mexico, in August 2019. 

“We used to be literally on the sidewalk, in Matamoros, in the tent city teaching the children,” Rangel-Samponaro said. “They literally walked themselves to us. And they walked their little 2- or 3-year-old brother to school with them.”

The Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers has been operating both in-person and virtually in Matamoros, Mexico, since the COVID-19 pandemic began. (Photo courtesy of The Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers)

The Sidewalk School only hires and pays teachers who are asylum seekers with teaching certification from their native countries. Rangel-Samponaro said this is to help support and empower the asylum seekers caught in the Migrant Protection Protocols policy. Some of the teachers live in the camps themselves while others have found more permanent housing within the city. 

Students in Matamoros were equipped with school supplies, class worksheets, clothes and daily lunch. Once COVID-19 grew into a global pandemic, the Sidewalk School had to shut down temporarily until they were able to fundraise and receive grants. 

“We bought over 200 Amazon Fire tablets and we handed them out to every single one of our students inside that encampment so our teachers could stay safely away in their apartment and teach, and our students could stay inside their tents in their encampment and stay away and learn,” Rangel Samponaro said. 

These new virtual standards are what pushed the Sidewalk School to expand to Juárez, where parents began to reach out for help. 

“Of course we responded back to all of them and said yes. We will not deny education to any child who wants to be here or who wants to do it,” Rangel Samponaro said. 

Parents like Laura had already been trying to keep their kids busy. 

“Ever since we got here I’ve been checking on the kids, trying to find ways to keep them entertained like ‘Let’s do this assignment, these games, these activities.’ All sorts of things,” Laura said. 

The children of Laura, an asylum seeker in Ciudad Juárez, go over worksheets for their virtual classes through The Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers in Matamoros. (Photo courtesy of Laura)

Laura, whose name we’ve changed because she fears persecution from the Venezuelan government, has been in Ciudad Juárez with her immediate family for more than a year. She and her husband, along with their two small children, fled their homeland for fear of political persecution. 

“We didn’t plan to leave Venezuela. We knew the country was in this dire situation but we kept fighting to try and stay because that’s where we had everything, our family, home, everything. We didn’t think this was going to happen to us,” Laura said. 

However, because of their political views, they were in danger. 

“There were threats, attacks. What they wanted was much more. It came to the point that if we didn’t leave they would make us disappear. It was that simple,” Laura said. 

As they began the asylum process under Migrant Protection Protocols, a mandate by the Trump Administration to keep asylum seekers in Mexico during the duration of their asylum proceedings, Laura tried to stay positive. But once COVID-19 hit, their asylum process was halted. Their court date set for April 2020 was postponed until 2021. The family found permanent housing and Laura decided it was time to focus on her kids’ education with a long-term perspective. That’s when she contacted the Sidewalk School in Matamoros.

“They sent me some school supplies and honestly I felt really motivated. I started preparing activities for them. I even made them a class schedule,” Laura said. “I’m teaching them math, art, P.E., English, and natural sciences.”

The classes are through WhatsApp video chat. Prepared worksheets are sent from the teachers in Matamoros. Teachers have video calls daily to check on the student’s progress with the worksheet assignments. 

Laura, like many other mothers helping their children through virtual learning, has prepared a spot in her kitchen where the kids sit down to work on the worksheets between video calls with their teachers. 

“Honestly, we’re staying very busy and they are truly learning. I stay just as occupied as they do. Honestly, I’m feeling incredibly happy with these classes,” Laura said. 

Rangel-Samponaro says logistics for the Juarez students still haven’t been completely worked out. They’re still raising money to overcome issues like access to WiFi, printed worksheets and school lunches, and enough tablets for students. Rangel-Samponaro said the school is also in need of a Portuguease teacher for Brazilian children and are looking for outside volunteers to fill the role. 

For asylum seeking parents like Laura, the Sidewalk School has been a chance to bring some stability to her children. 

“We’re truly very thankful for the Sidewalk School and all of their support,” Laura said. “I hope God multiplies their blessings because it’s a lot of work that they’re doing.”

The nonprofit Sidewalk School has a GoFundMe Page set up and also an Etsy store where artwork made by asylum seekers is sold to help raise money to educate the students.

Cover photo: Laura, an asylum seeker in Ciudad Juárez, has signed up her kids for virtual classes through The Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers in Matamoros. (Photo courtesy of Laura)

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Claudia Tristán

Claudia Tristán previously worked as a television reporter for five years across Western Texas and New Mexico. She has experience in both English and Spanish television news. As a journalist, Tristán was most recently covered immigration in El Paso. Tristán left journalism to work in government and on political campaigns. She joined the office of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Later she worked on Beto O'Rourke's presidential campaign before joining Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx's reelection campaign. Tristán has centered her journalism career around immigration and politics to better keep communities informed.

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