Santa Fe program helps undocumented immigrants connect, deal with loss

December 27, 2018 GMT

Lila has spent her entire life watching people come and go.

She witnessed her parents flee their home country of Guatemala to come to the United States only to be deported time and time again.

And with that nightmare as a prologue, the uncertainty continues to gnaw at the 22-year-old single mother.

She mourns the separation from her father — his last deportation was in 2013, and she hasn’t seen him since. She fears she will one day come home to find her mother also expelled.

Lila is able to express that anxiety at Gerard’s House — a Santa Fe nonprofit dedicated to providing support to grieving children, teens and families.

Lila, whose real name is being withheld by The New Mexican for her family’s safety, said she is finding solace, thanks in part to her ability to talk to others. Of the many services Gerard’s House provides, a program called Nuestra Jornada focuses mainly on assisting undocumented immigrants, including those who have been separated from loved ones due to deportation.

The idea, organizers say, is to fill the sense of loss with strength and hope. “A lot of people know this is something hard for them, but they’ve never acknowledged that this is a loss,” said Roxana Melendez, director of Nuestra Jornada, or “Our Journey.” “Once we help them understand that this is a loss, it’s a starting place for them to heal.”

Though Gerard’s House has a variety of offerings, Nuestra Jornada tends to young parents, many of whom are single and have been separated from their family.

Melendez said at least 20 women attend a weekly session focused on assisting young parents, parents-to-be and their babies.

Lila, a first-generation U.S. citizen, said she started coming to Gerard’s House about six months ago in the midst of a severe depression she said stemmed from feeling like an inadequate mother to her 11-month-old child.

“I would look at my son and feel guilty,” she said, adding that the baby was also a constant reminder of heartbreak.

Though her ex-boyfriend was the first person to provide something Lila described as stable and permanent, she said he left her when he discovered she was pregnant at 21.

When Lila found Nuestra Jornada, she said her life started to make a turn. She said she’s received diapers, baby food and a multitude of resources that have helped her raise her child and plan for his future. She said she’s also been connected to counseling, sleep therapy and a lactation specialist.

But most importantly, she said, she’s established community with people who understand her struggle.

“It feels like I have a really good connection here,” she said. “The support is really unconditional.”

On Wednesday nights, Lila gathers with a handful of other moms for a group therapy session where the women confide in one another about traumatic experiences crossing the border, or express sadness and fear for loved ones who have been, or could be, sent thousands of miles away.

Nearly all of those involved in Nuestra Jornada, Melendez said, “know about deportation.”

Nuestra Jornada also operates a weekly mobile therapy program for young Latino students. Melendez said these sessions serve at least 200, from elementary to high school, in about 10 Santa Fe schools. These sessions, Melendez said, help kids to not feel alone.

“A lot of times when families who have had loved ones deported, kids can be in the same school and in the same class, and they have no idea that the other kids have experienced what they have,” she said. “It creates a sense of community. … When you’re in a dark place, it makes it a little bit better knowing you don’t have to be in the darkness by yourself.”

Susana Leite, a volunteer, said some kids are forthright in talking about their struggles.

“There are all kinds of losses in this group,” she said.

At the end of a recent session, kids gathered in a circle.With the lights dimmed, a facilitator passed an illuminated egg-shaped light around the circle. When the light was passed, each recipient filled in the sentence, “I hold the light for …”

One boy said it’s to honor his brother who died last year. Another said it’s for the homeless people who have to sleep in the cold.

And then, “I hold this light for everybody who came here and hope they can come next week,” said one boy, looking around the circle with a timid smile.

In every age group, it seems evident the space feels closer to home.

“I’ve learned here that sometimes you need to support yourself,” Lila said. “Sometimes, we need that little push and they help us.

“It’s made me stronger as a woman, as a mom,” she added. “I’m really thankful for this place.”