A story about a little boy who, for a while, filled a chair in a special education classroom

An SNN journalist reflects on the importance of public schools for immigrants

Erin Albanese

“Why do you cry for them?”

A Hispanic woman in the Godwin Heights community said she was asked that question concerning why she risked her own anonymity to house undocumented immigrants who had to regularly report to authorities. For two years, this woman — whom I will call Jane — welcomed into her home a mother and her young, severely disabled son, Brayan Ramos-Cabrera.

Brayan and his mother were deported to Guatemala at the end of February.

“I am just asking God constantly for help and for Brayan to come back here. I see disabled kids around here and they are happy and living their lives,” was her answer. “It was just something in Brayan; he was so happy and so affectionate.”

There are moments as a journalist, like this one, when I realize I’m not doing enough, when I know so many stories are left untold, and certain voices are still only whispers drowned out by the loud, persistent, dominant culture in which we live.

These moments often occur only after I’ve made multiple attempts to reach someone from a marginalized population, when finally they feel comfortable enough to talk to me and things reach a certain level of candor. Then they say something that never fails to humble me.

Brayan Ramos-Cabrera

It’s when someone shows altruism that goes beyond even self-preservation, or unveils a truth that gets down to meeting basic human needs for those who cannot do for themselves. I freeze for an instant, stop typing or grip my pen in a sort of hyper-aware wave of emotion. These voices are more powerful than any prepared answer, oft-repeated sound bite, rhetoric or talk of laws and rules and policies.

It’s then that I glimpse the people in the shadows, the many, many human beings who live under a threat of speaking out or asking for help; who instead rely on their own families and community members facing similar circumstances, and sharing resources at a level many Americans simply do not understand. These are moments that reveal the humanity of others and make me feel my own. They have shaped my views and beliefs.

I realize the privilege I have in being a conveyor of others’ words and stories, as well as the responsibility to do them justice and not use them in an exploitative fashion. I’ve had a few punch-you-in the gut moments in this profession, particularly in covering some of the most diverse schools in the country, when I was forced to see past borders, both physical and the kind I build in my own mind and set in neat categories.

Coming to America for Help

I am writing about my interview with Jane as a first-person commentary because when I spoke with her, Brayan and his mother were already gone, back far south of the U.S. border. I could not talk to Brayan’s mother or access court documents to verify details, though I tried. All I had was my interview with Jane, translated from Spanish; the words of the educators who knew Brayan and his mother when they were here; and a tattered photograph of a smiling little boy.

In Guatemala, many disabled children often don’t live long and do not receive opportunities to thrive, Jane said. Brayan’s mother brought her son across the Texas border in search of medical care and any resources that could help him. She and Jane were connected in the Godwin Heights community, through relatives and a local church.

“I realize the privilege I have in being a conveyor of others’ words and stories, as well as the responsibility to do them justice and not use them in an exploitative fashion.” — Erin Albanese, SNN reporter

As an infant, Brayan had brain surgery, but follow-up care in Guatemala was poor. His mother, a farm worker who brought the little boy to the fields with her while she worked, was desperate for help. She was told to institutionalize Brayan, Jane said. Instead, the single mother made the journey to the U.S with a group of other undocumented immigrants. They were all immediately apprehended by immigration authorities at the border and deported, except Brayan and her mother, who were allowed to stay because of the boy’s condition. His mother had to wear a tether.

‘On Such a Good Path’

After arriving in Wyoming, Brayan and his mother came to North Godwin Elementary School. The 6-year-old was about the size of a 2-year-old, remembers Principal Mary Lang. He was unable to walk or talk and had severe difficulties swallowing. Brayan needed more assistance than North Godwin could provide, and he was referred to Pine Grove Learning Center, in Wyoming.

During his time in the U.S., Brayan grew rapidly. Throat surgery allowed him to swallow normally, which improved his ability to eat. He learned to walk, use a cup and spoon and follow simple directions. He was always happy and smiling, Lang said.

Brayan was even learning to communicate using a picture exchange communication system, according to Pine Grove staff.

But at the end of February, Brayan and his mother were deported by order of Detroit Immigration Court. They returned to their native country where there are few options to help him.

“It’s devastating,” Lang said. “It’s heartbreaking. They were on such a good path for him to have a successful life, and now that has just been completely taken away.”

“He got all this medical care for him that he wasn’t able to get in Guatemala. … He was finally flourishing,” added Sarah Schantz, Kent School Services Network community coordinator.

At Pine Grove, Brayan was a fun and energetic student with many close friends who miss him dearly, said his teacher, Rachel See.

“Brayan had the biggest smile that caught the attention of many staff and students at Pine Grove,” she said. “Brayan was constantly learning new things at school.”

While in the U.S., his mother remained in touch with immigration authorities and kept her court dates, but she and Brayan’s future in the U.S. was never guaranteed.

Immigrants’ Options More Limited

I talked to Hillary Scholten, staff attorney for Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, for her perspective on the situation. She said she can’t speculate on the legal specifics of Brayan and his mother’s case. But “while unconscionable, it’s not technically against any laws to deport a family in that situation, absent any showing that they would persecuted or tortured by the government in Guatemala,” she said. “Persecution and torture have very specific definitions.”

Humanitarian reprieves can be considered, but aren’t a given.

“We are seeing less and less of that,” Scholten said. “We are really seeing a rollback of the enforcement priorities we saw in the prior (federal) administration.

“There really are very limited immigration options right now for people, and I think the administration is trying to make them even more limited.”

Scholten said it’s important for people to consider situations like Brayan’s and his mother’s.

“The reason these stories are so important to tell are the humanitarian aspects of the case,” she said. “That’s where we, as citizens, need to check our consciences to say, ‘What can we do for people like Brayan and his mom? What kind of country do we want to be?’”

After hearing Jane tell of Brayan and his mother, I felt hopeless. I don’t know what comes next in their story, but who are we, as a nation of immigrants, to lack compassion for the neediest among us: a brain-damaged child and his desperate mother? I realize I am no authority on immigration, and I know countries must enforce borders, but a recurring thought of mine is that I just can’t imagine a God who intends for certain people stay on one side of a line – a manmade line, at that – and others to remain on the other.

I think many of us draw our own lines, sheltering ourselves from people we see as different, whether by color, socioeconomic group, religion, language or many other factors that make us diverse. My job has served me well in pushing me past those boundaries and into communities and schools where I have been able to learn the stories of some of the most marginalized people.

Schools Serve Everyone

Over time I’ve realized our public schools, which must educate every child who comes through the doors, are caring for the least of these, in ways no other institution does. I am a white, Catholic, middle-class, heterosexual woman and I have interviewed a DACA Dreamer, refugees, Muslims and members of the LGBTQ community, and never once left without feeling like their perspectives changed me in some way.

Comments I remember clearly from interviews I’ve had include:

“Ever since I was little, I grew up struggling economically. I want to be able to, in the future, not have my parents have to work anymore.” – Godwin Heights senior Maria Aguirre, who is enrolled in DACA, about why she wants to go to college in the U.S.

“Many of them just (retreat). They don’t want to talk about the situation because of the fear.” – Lee Middle/High School Kent School Services Network community coordinator Nazhly Heredia, about students who face uncertain futures in the U.S. due to immigration status.

“Throughout my life I have always been afraid of losing the people I love, but then I wonder is there anyone out there afraid of losing me?”Arafat Yassin, a Somali refugee and 2017 East Kentwood graduate.

“I think there is a place to hold onto their culture and be part of this grand American culture. It’s very much possible to do both. Success is not contingent upon the background that you come from. I try to be a living example of that.” Kentwood Public Schools Glenwood Elementary English-language learner teacher Amina Mohamed about teaching refugee children from many countries.

The books we read, the histories we study, the information we pass down from generation to generation are incomplete and often leave out the voices of people who were not part of the majority population or preferred narrative of the time period. As a writer, I know that. There are people who stay forever in the shadows or are cast aside and left to disappear, like a little boy who, for a while, filled a chair in a special education classroom.

If I think about Brayan and his mother and the many other people in our school districts with stories that center around belonging and who we, as a nation, are open to allowing to belong, I pose the question to myself: “Why do you cry for them?”

The answer: Justice is only served when we listen to the whispers.

CONNECT

Guatemala’s Disabled Children Face A Lifetime of Challenges

UN Urges Guatemala to Abolish Institutionalization of Children with Disabilities

Hispanic Families Struggle With Uncertainty About Dreamer’ Future

A Day in Michigan’s Only Deportation Court, Where 3 Judges Decide the Fate of Thousands

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2012. Read Erin's full bio

6 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Erin,

    Thank you for such a beautifully written thought provoking article. I appreciate the articles you have written throughout your time covering Kent County schools.

    Sara Shubel

  2. Thank you, Sara! I love covering the schools and sharing the many great things they are doing, including caring for students like Brayan! I always enjoyed working with you. Have a fantastic retirement!

  3. Erin,
    Your work is so important! Communicating the stories of real people builds empathy and understanding. Without these, things will never get better. With them, change is possible. Thank you!

    Ted Czarnecki

  4. Erin, this story is heartwarming and heart wrenching. Many of us in the U.S. take so much for granted and feel that our rights and liberties will be snuffed out if others who presently have almost no rights or liberties join us. Our country is a land of immigrants, how quickly we forget. Keep reporting with passion and love for humanity. So proud of the way you can communicate through writing. Mom

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