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What I’ve learned from Working with Young Immigrants

Children often feel as if they are straddling two worlds
What I’ve learned from Working with Young Immigrants

She was petite, with softly colored brown skin, brown eyes, and long brown hair. This tenderhearted young Latina of 15 was weeping, torn between obeying her father, full of machismo, or blending in with the American culture of her adolescence. Straddling two worlds, she sought me out for help. As a school therapist for at-risk adolescent girls in Southwest Florida, this was not the first time I’d heard stories of struggles. We have a large number of immigrants, both legal and illegal, in our community.

The goal of this article is to authentically share with you a few things I have learned after years of working with this population. My observations and interactions mostly occurred among immigrants from Mexico. I don’t claim to know all the political arguments of the immigration issue. Rather, I want to reveal to you a world that few of us outsiders get to experience firsthand.

I am a white, educated, middle-class woman. For 10 years I worked as a therapist with a population of girls who were unlike any I had grown up with. I had not the slightest inkling of their world until I had the privilege of working in a school for at-risk adolescent girls—many of whom were Hispanic. Working with these girls day in and day out, I slowly built relationships with them, which was difficult given the fact that they had a general distrust of people outside their families.

These are some of the revelations I had as I worked with these young girls. Please note, these are generalities. Certainly, not all immigrants face these same issues. As I mentioned earlier, my experiences have been with Mexican immigrants living in poverty.

• Many of the children are in the States through no choice of their own. Brought here as babies or very young children by their mothers, who crossed the border to escape murderous gangs, they entered a world very different from their parents’ world. Fearing for their children’s lives, mothers would leave everything they knew to find safety.

• As young children, they enter a public school system which speaks predominantly English. They must integrate quickly, learning a new language and a new culture. Soon they become the translators for their families.

• Many of these kids are academically behind, struggling to read and do math. They begin to feel disenfranchised. Often their families are working in fields and have little time or energy to focus on education.

• In Southwest Florida, many immigrants live in impoverished areas that attract gang activity. Often families have several children involved in gangs. It begins with the oldest member joining whatever gang is predominant on their street. Eventually, younger siblings want to be part of the gang and follow the older sibling. They gain a sense of family, bonded by an oath to protect and defend the gang, never tolerating disrespect shown by outsiders or opposing gangs.

• Family mores are often in direct opposition to American mores. Here is a scenario I ran into several times. A young woman has grown up in the United States, attending public schools. She reaches the age when she wants to date as her peers do, and she is thinking about life after high school. Straddling two cultures, she struggles to understand her place in this world. Her father doesn’t allow his daughter to date and doesn’t want her to attend college. Conflict ensues, the arguments may become physical, and often the girl runs away.

• Sex trafficking is a huge issue in immigrant communities, and Southwest Florida is no exception. Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights developed an excellent overview of the sex trade in Southwest Florida: “Florida Responds to Human Trafficking.”

As a Christ-follower, I believe the only hope for the human heart and real change comes not from a social or educational institution but through a personal relationship with Christ and experiencing community in the local church. After working with this population, my fervent prayer became “God, please send someone into these communities to plant life-giving churches.”

Many churches with large immigrant populations in their communities have started adopting blocks within these communities. My own church has adopted several blocks where every Saturday morning, people volunteer to cook breakfast on designated streets, do crafts and sports games with the kids, and develop relationships with families. As a result, many people have accepted Christ as their Savior and are attending our Spanish-language services.

After working with this population for years, my capacity to love increased. My love for these young people challenged my Christian walk. What I learned was that as a Christ follower, I am called to love people where they’re at, just as Christ loves me, no matter someone’s ethnicity or legal status. I also realized that I don’t have to go overseas to find a mission field. I have one right here in my own community.

Julia Mateer is a writer, speaker, therapist, and director of women’s small groups at Bayside Community Church. You can connect with Julia on her website.

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