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In Mexican Border Town, A Pop-Up School For Migrant Children

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now let's visit an unusual school. It's on a downtown sidewalk in the border town of Matamoros, Mexico, where many migrants are now stuck waiting for their day in U.S. immigration court. Volunteers who created the school are hoping it gives migrant children a sense of stability. Texas Public Radio's Reynaldo Leaños Jr. went to visit.

TITO: (Speaking Spanish).

REYNALDO LEAÑOS JR, BYLINE: Tito has been in Matamoros for several months now. He fled his native Cuba because he fears being persecuted as a gay man. He asked that we not use his last name. Back home, he worked in finance. Today he's leading a math class.

TITO: (Through interpreter) I try to make the situation here a bit better for the kids and for myself. It satisfies me.

LEAÑOS: He says he can relate to the kids because they're all asylum-seekers. They're among tens of thousands of migrants waiting in Mexican border towns for their day in U.S. immigration court.

FELICIA RANGEL-SAMPONARO: (Speaking Spanish).

LEAÑOS: Another volunteer teacher asks the kids, who likes to paint? Today school is starting with arts and crafts. The kids draw on paper plates then outline them with glue and drop glitter. Then they hang their creations from trees.

RANGEL-SAMPONARO: I wanted them to see other people appreciate the artwork they did and let them know how important they are, too, even to people, like, just walking past and driving by. It's beautiful work.

LEAÑOS: Felicia Rangel-Samponaro organized this sidewalk school. Every Sunday morning, about 50 children attend the school to learn their numbers, letters, and arts and crafts. All the teachers are asylum-seekers themselves. Samponaro used to be a teacher in Houston and then volunteered for a migrant aid group that would do work in Matamoros.

RANGEL-SAMPONARO: I want this to feel like a community because they do have to stick together. Matamoros is one of the most dangerous cities, and they do take turns sleeping out here. They have to watch out for each other.

LEAÑOS: Advocates say some parents aren't sending their kids to Mexican schools because they're afraid to be apart from them. Crime is common here, and kidnappings have been reported. Other parents say registering for school in Mexico is difficult. But Samponaro wants the kids to be able to continue their education, and she says many of the asylum-seekers have skill sets they can put to use at the school. Parents are grateful, too.

RANGEL-SAMPONARO: These are just like any other parents who want the best for their children 'cause they care about their child like anybody else cares about their child. And they want to be involved in the learning process.

LEAÑOS: One mom, named Maria, had just arrived home in Matamoros the day before with her 5-year-old son, a shy boy who loves animals and whose favorite subject is science. She asked that we not use their last names because they fear for their safety after fleeing Guatemala.

MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

LEAÑOS: She says the sidewalk school is really beautiful, and she's glad the kids are being entertained. Another mom, from Honduras, who also asked to not be named for safety reasons, brings her two kids to class.

UNIDENTIFIED ASYLUM-SEEKER: (Speaking Spanish).

LEAÑOS: She says she knows her children will be safe at the sidewalk school, and it gives her time to meet with an immigration lawyer. Volunteer attorneys have been coming over on the weekends to give free legal advice. The asylum-seekers could wait for months to be able to make their asylum case in the U.S. Ray, another asylum-seeker from Cuba, says it's not an easy process.

RAY: We are here because we were forced to come here, mostly, because we were left with no other choice but to run from our country.

LEAÑOS: Back home, he was an English professor and fled his country because he also feared being persecuted. He reads with the children at the sidewalk school. He says the children look forward to it all week.

RAY: They ask you, are we doing the school on Sundays? So they're very cheerful, and they're very - they're looking forward to it.

LEAÑOS: He says the kids always hug and thank him and the other teachers. This week, the sidewalk school is adding story time on Saturday nights.

For NPR News, I'm Reynaldo Leaños Jr. in Matamoros, Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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