Idalia Villalobos was only 12 years old when she was given a choice that would forever change her life.
“In the beginning of April, my mother called me from the United States and asked me if I wanted to move there,” she wrote. “I had been living with my grandparents in El Salvador. I said yes.”
And so began Idalia Villalobos’ story of her journey to America.
“Well, my first reaction was sad because I would not see my grandparents in person again,” she continued. “But, I packed clothes, a sweater and some personal things in my backpack. Then I said goodbye to my grandparents and friends. It was very sad and I cried a lot. I left my home on April 25, 2016. I came by myself. My mom paid a person to take me to the United States.”
Villalobos is now a student at Hugh B. Bain Elementary School in Cranston. As part of the annual Thanksgiving Dinner, hosted by the English Language Learners (ELL) program at Bain, the students are asked to write an essay either chronicling their journey to America or writing about the things they are most thankful for.
For many invitees attending the dinner, it’s not about the turkey or the mashed potatoes or even about the pie. Rather, it is an event that puts things into perspective very quickly as one middle school student after the next shared their stories, reading aloud what they’d written in class, for their guests.
“We got off the bus and got on a raft to cross into Guatemala. The water was very fast and I was afraid,” she wrote. “After that, we had to walk. I walked with my neighbors, two other men, and the coyote. We walked two days to get to Mexico. We walked off the main road because we did not want immigration from Mexico or Guatemala to find us. We walked through farmland, trenches, and very high grass. We climbed over many fences with barbed wire and one time I got caught in the wire. We had no food so we would eat wild mangoes.”
Villalobos tells her story of riding in the back of a tractor-trailer truck for more than a week, of being constantly afraid, of not bathing, not eating, of seeing wolves while walking and carrying smaller children so that no one would be hurt by them, and of getting very sick while traveling alone. At just 12 years old, her challenges outweigh what many adults have endured. She details her time spent in a detention center and in cages.
Even her knowledge of terminology – such as a “coyote” as described in the paragraph above, goes beyond what most adults would even be aware of. In Central American slang, a “coyote” is someone who helps people cross international borders without being detected.
“Thank you very much for listening to my story,” she concluded. “Not even my mother knows my whole story because I didn’t want her to know what I went through. I am very thankful for my friends and my teachers. I am so happy to be here.”
Josue Echeverria spoke about having lived with his grandmothers in Honduras for eight years while his parents settled in America.
“When my parents came to Honduras five years ago to get my sister, my brother and me, I was sad because I really didn’t know them,” he wrote. “Also, I didn’t like leaving because I was going to miss my grandmothers.”
Echeverria is thankful for the opportunities he has here, including his education at Bain. He hopes to be fully bilingual when he is older.
“Today I am in the seventh grade at Hugh B. Bain Middle School, my English has come a long way, but I still have a lot to learn.”
When Francis Libanan first learned he was going to be able to come to America, it was 2016. Two years later, in July 2018, he and his family took a plane to the United States from his home country of the Philippines, and to this day, he still misses those he left behind.
“America is nice and clean,” he said. “The people are good, but I feel sad because my family is in the Philippines. I am happy to see my other cousin, my aunt and uncle. I am happy to be in America.”
Yara Seab moved from Iraq to Turkey to America and remembers the huge amount of paperwork that had to be completed for her entire family to come to America as well as the moment her family feared that it might not happen after all.
“It took one year for this to happen,” she wrote. “My father had to fill out so much paperwork about us moving to America. We were so excited to be going to American, but I was sad to leave my family and friends. We had so much paperwork that my dad and mom were always busy. Everybody was excited, but one night while we were eating, someone called my dad and he told us that we could not go to America and everyone was sad. But, it was someone lying to us.”
Santiago Hernandez expressed his gratefulness this year to his teachers, to his aunt and uncle who cared for him when he was sick after arriving here, and to his grandfather who helped get him to America.
“If it was not for him, I wouldn’t be here in the U.S.,” he wrote. “Happy Thanksgiving, Grandpa! Thanks for sending me to RI.”
Many of the students emphasized that their move to the United States was one that was filled with so many emotions from excitement to fear and sadness and to wonderment.
Yaqueline Martinez Sandoval is 14 now and remembers her home in Guatemala and misses her family left there, including her older sister and her grandmother.
“In my country, I can’t have a better life because there is a lot of crime and the schools are not as good as the United States,” she wrote. “When the time came to finally say goodbye to my grandma and my sister, we all cried. Leaving Guatemala I felt many feelings. I knew I wasn’t going back anytime soon. All we left behind was memories and a house that I grew up in. The first time I went to the airport was strange. I had never been to a place like this before. When I went through the bag check, I saw these weird machines that I had to walk through. I didn’t know which way to go so I ended up going the opposite way.”
The things others often take for granted took on new meaning as listeners heard the students’ stories.
“When I landed, I looked out the window and was surprised to see snow, I had never seen snow before and it was exciting,” Sandoval wrote. “Then I felt really scared like I was in a strange place. I didn’t feel like I was home. The first person I saw was my uncle that I had never met. He was so nice and I was happy. I finally met him! As the day went on, I saw nothing that was similar to Guatemala. The buildings were high and big. There were a lot of lights in the streets and the building had lots of windows. The only thing similar were the roads.”
Ultimately, Sandoval’s experience as a new student in the United States has been a positive one and she is grateful for the things so many of her peers take for granted.
“I feel like America is finally my home. I am happy and love school,” she said. “I love that I can learn new things and try new things. I am able to make friends and meet new people. The life I live now is way better than when I lived in Guatemala. I get to go out to more places and go on trips. The benefits of living here is that if I want to go out to the mall or the theater it is much easier. There’s also lots of American food I would like to try in the future. I am so happy to be in the USA.”
Santiago Tavaras is thankful for his teachers helping him through school, his friends who have pushed him to become the person he is today, and for his family and the sense security they have.
“My dad does everything in his power to keep us happy,” he wrote. “We have a home where we can sleep and feel secure. He will do anything to keep us as a family. He always buys stuff for us and he loves and cares for our family. I am most thankful for my brother because I trust him with my life. He keeps me safe and he tried to help me become the person I want to be. I always go to him for advice. He’s the one that helps me succeed. He’s my inspiration and sometimes I think to myself, ‘Wow I’m lucky to have a brother like this.’”
Nicole Rodriguez moved to the United States last year after Hurricane Maria destroyed so much of her country where she had lived her whole life with her mother. Arriving in the United States to live with her father and stepmother brought on a range of emotions.
“I was excited and sad. I was leaving my country but then I remembered it was for the good, not for a bad reason,” she said. “When I was packing I was emotional. I was happy and sad – my emotions were mixed. I was sad to say bye to my family and close friends, saying bye was really hard because I love them. When I got to the airport I wanted to cry because of how Puerto Rico looked. Everything was dead and broken.”
For her as well, basic needs are what she is most grateful for this year.
“Today I am so thankful to have the opportunity to live in the United States,” she wrote. “I believe Thanksgiving is the perfect time to reflect on my experiences coming here and how thankful I am to have my family, a place to live, fresh water, electricity and food.”
Busra Can expressed the true meaning of Thanksgiving in a way many others can not.
“Thanksgiving is the day to be thankful. It’s the day to remember that no matter how bad you think your life is, it is someone else’s fairy tale,” she wrote. “So this Thanksgiving I am very thankful for everything that has happened to me in life and all the opportunities I have.”