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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Youth Empowerment Program shares immigrants’ stories

Carlos P. from Honduras was abandoned by his mother when they lost their home and she fled to the United States. He stayed with his grandmother until she passed away in bed next to him. Carlos’ historically absent father came to pick him up at the funeral, but only a week later his dad was shot 12 times by gang members in front of Carlos’ face.

Living on the streets for months, Carlos finally got a job at a market with his dad’s friend, who helped him cross over to Mexico and then Los Angeles. Still, Carlos had no money or food and resorted to sleeping at bus stops. The happiest day of his life, he explains, was seeing and reuniting with his mother at a street light while begging for a hot dog.

This is just one of many devastating stories written by detained immigrant youth and displayed at UC Davis’ Youth Empowerment Program (YEP) Awareness event last week on May 15.

Founded in 2009 by UC Davis Law School alumna Shay Fluharty, YEP provides a network of college student mentors to immigrant youths detained in Yolo County Juvenile Hall.

At the awareness event, the lights in Griffin Lounge were dimmed, save for the few spotlights on poems, art and stories posted on black poster board. Members of YEP, formally known as YEP’ers, were also clad in all-black formal attire as maybe another way to turn the attention off of them and onto the otherwise hidden tales of displaced adolescents.

“We held this event to give them a voice. It’s bringing light, letting students know that there are kids of the same age going through so much worse, and just because we aren’t, others are,“ said YEP’er and sophomore sociology major Anissa Ruiz.

Growing up with a lot of immigrant youth and attending high school right by the Mexican border, Ruiz can remember a time when kids would come to school at 4 a.m. every day, attend classes and commute back home to Mexico.

The idea of straddling two different lives is a familiar one to many UC Davis YEP leaders. Their motivations for joining the program and mentoring undocumented children at the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Center are varied, but all agree upon a positive message: There is opportunity for life outside of prison.

“I was born in U.S. but I still consider myself a Mexican immigrant — I am stuck between two cultures. I know that I’m documented, but there are individuals, including people in my family, who can’t enjoy common rights like education,” said senior Chicano studies major Jose Pedroza. “My biggest message to these kids is, ‘Hey, you might be in here right now but one day you’re going to walk out. When you do, I want you to know there’s a better life for you. All you have to do is look for it, work for it, and know to take advantage of it.’”

Current YEP Co-coordinator and senior American studies major Roxanne Calimeris gets giddy when she speaks about “her kids” and inspiration for joining the movement. Her flaming red hair practically lights on fire from the excitement she gets out of visiting the youth.

“YEP is just looking for all the love we can get. The moment someone comes out and hears what we’re doing – teaching lesson plans to dispossessed kids, listening to what they have to say, befriending them – they are immediately hooked,” Calimeris said. “We aspire to listen to the youth and work with the facility to provide them a supporting mentor that is able to not only give them helpful information regarding college and scholarships, but also engage in meaningful conversations that help the youth to realize their potential.”

When asked what the children get out of the program, she retorts “You mean, what do we get out of them!”

Program Leader and junior international relations major Daniel Kent said that they often feel like the kids teach them more about life than they teach the kids.

“It’s amazing how much my own journey has changed because of these kids I mentor. They probably don’t fully understand their effect on us, but I feel odd at times because it seems like the relationship can be very uneven at times. Their impact on me feels like it’s in greater proportion to my impact on them,” Kent said.

As you walk around the room and take in the sights, there are certain jarring images. A painting of a child being choked by letters and numbers reads, “Words hurts. Verbal abuse is still abuse.” Another is an intricate sketch of a boy sitting in court, and the caption explains that a youth on trial for MS13, the violent Mexican Los Angleles-based gang, asked for the tip of a pen when they refused to give him any writing utensil. He spent his entire trial drawing with the small ink point absolutely detailed images.

Priscila Mendoza, another YEP’er and junior international relations major, closed the event by taking apart the word “immigrant.” Her message was that it’s hardly a foreign word, for at one point we can all relate to these young immigrants.

YEP’ers hope the event brings awareness to a typically overlooked group of people in the U.S. Their optimistic message serves as a reminder that there are multiple ways of looking at difference, they said.

“If you break the word ‘immigrant’ down, you get migrant. We can all consider ourselves a migrant, someone who has in one way or another been displaced and a traveler. When I broke the word down a second time, I thought it was neat it had the word ‘grant.’ To me, it means to bestow, to give, to agree or confer. The next time you hear the word ‘immigrant,’ think about that,” Mendoza said.

CHELSEA MEHRA can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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