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Welcoming the Stranger: Refuge for the Refugees

Posted on Aug 7, 2014

By Bill Boyarsky

  A group of migrants from Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border are stopped in Granjeno, Texas, in June. AP/Eric Gay

A long and dangerous journey brings teenage Central American refugees to a community health center in South Los Angeles where pediatricians, psychologists and social workers treat them for post-traumatic stress disorder. In their native lands and during their treks to the United States, they have been victims of rapes, kidnapping, beatings and other horrors inflicted on them.

But this welcoming clinic could be just another stop in their travels. If President Barack Obama and the rest of official Washington does not grant them legal refugee status, they will probably be deported back to the countries from which they fled.

Hoping to find out what happens to the children once they arrive in the United States, I visited the health center, St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, which runs a network of clinics serving the poor in a wide area of South Los Angeles.


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Los Angeles, with a large population from the Central American nations of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, is a destination for many of the 57,500 unaccompanied young people seeking refuge in the United States who have been apprehended since October. St. John’s, with its physical and mental care programs, serves the Central American community among others in South L.A.’s predominantly Latino and African-American population.

Dr. Michelle Aguilar, a St. John’s pediatrician, said some of the youngsters arrive in this country “with a phone number or name” of a relative. Others “may have no idea of where they are going.” Hopefully, they connect with a relative or family friend. Then illness brings the family to St. John’s, where the child exhibits symptoms that often seem to have psychological roots. They add up, Aguilar said, to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“They have headaches, abdominal complaints, nightmares,” Aguilar said. “These are likely from the stress they have endured. It manifests itself in physical complaints.” In addition, she said, “They’re depressive. …”

Aguilar and the other pediatricians offer information on psychological help. Sometimes it’s hard to convince conservative Latino caregivers of its value, but once they agree the child is sent to a psychologist or social worker.

When I talked to Elena Fernandez, director of behavioral health services, and social worker Hypatia Ostojic, they told me about the destructive results of life in impoverished Central America and the journey northward.

Fernandez described the problems of a 17-year-old girl from Guatemala with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“She came from a loving family,” Fernandez said. “Last year, she was kidnapped and violently raped for a month. Her family raised the money to free her. She was threatened with violence if she stayed. She left her parents, everything she loved. She was brought here by a family friend, who was a coyote. Her parents call her every day.”

Ostojic is treating a 15-year-old girl who left Guatemala traumatized. “It took her 10 days to get to Texas. As they traveled through the hills and mountains, she (suffered additional) trauma as they moved from country to country.”

I thought of the determination of these two girls and the many others who have made the perilous journey north. These are the kind of people who would add strength to this country, as did previous generations of immigrants.

“She has a very strong will to live,” Fernandez said of the 17-year-old. “A very strong sense of self. She said ‘I want to go to college. I want to be a doctor.’ ”





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