Brave and Resilient
May 15, 2017 Cedars-Sinai Staff
Ana was 10 years old, growing up in a poor, rural community in Honduras, when she first heard Katy Perry sing her self-empowerment anthem "Roar."
"I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire/'Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar." The words were foreign, but the music helped her find strength and courage in a world where gang violence was a constant threat.
Ana would sing "Roar" over and over as she faced multiple traumas during the next few years, including her father's death, a two-year separation from her mother and a dangerous journey to the US without a trusted adult to protect her.
Today, Ana (her name was changed to protect her anonymity) is 13 and lives with her mother in a small apartment in Los Angeles. She struggles with the effects of trauma and adjusting to a new culture, but she is making progress—thanks to the support Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services offers unaccompanied, undocumented migrant children with funds from a Cedars-Sinai Mental Health Grant.
"We're very grateful for Cedars-Sinai's support. It makes a big difference in the lives of these children and their families," says Kita Curry, PhD, president and CEO of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. "Our main goal is to give young people new coping skills so the pain of their early years won't define or limit their future prospects for health and happiness."
"They have so many strengths and so much potential. I'm in awe of what they accomplish when they get the support they need."
Oscar Gonzalez, program director at Didi Hirsch, says Ana's story reflects the types of challenges faced by unaccompanied minors who illegally enter the US from Mexico and Central America to escape extreme poverty and violence. In 2016, nearly 60,000 young migrants were apprehended after crossing the US border, according to US Customs and Border Protection.
"These children must cope not only with complex emotions and physical symptoms resulting from trauma, but also with culture shock as they begin new lives in a country where they don't speak the language and have limited resources," Gonzalez says.
Ana's life in Honduras began to fall apart when her father was murdered by a gang after he refused to turn over a portion of the modest earnings from his small business, a fruit stand that brought in barely enough to pay for basic needs. Ana's mother soon moved to the US, crossing the border with the goal of seeking asylum and bringing her daughter to safety. While Ana lived with her grandmother, her mother stayed with a relative in Los Angeles and worked long hours waiting tables. She eventually saved enough to pay a "coyote" to smuggle Ana across several borders on a dangerous, month-long journey to the United States.
Ana was 12 when she left Honduras. She carried a small purse containing her birth certificate and her mother's name, address, and telephone number. At one point, she rode for days on top of a crowded freight train known as La Bestia (the beast). She saw others suffer serious injuries along the way. At the Texas border, Ana was held for three weeks in a detention center. Then she was sent by bus to Los Angeles to be reunited with her mother. They were allowed to remain in the US temporarily to seek asylum.
Didi Hirsch bilingual therapist Maira Vargas met Ana about 6 months after she arrived in LA. Ana was struggling to learn English, keep up with schoolwork, and get along with classmates. Teased for being different, she would strike back by yelling and pushing. She was grieving for her father and angry with her mother for leaving her behind. She also suffered bouts of anxiety and had frequent nightmares.
"Our main goal is to give young people new coping skills so the pain of their early years won't define or limit their future prospects for health and happiness."
The Didi Hirsch team helped Ana get into a new school and a special education program to give her the individual attention she needs. Vargas focuses their therapy sessions on helping Ana understand and learn how to manage her complex emotions.
"Sometimes I just sit with her as she grieves the loss of her father and her home, and I help her process what life was then and what it is now," says Vargas, who also helped Ana's mother understand what her daughter was going through so she could be more supportive.
Therapy can lead to dramatic changes for children like Ana, Vargas notes. "They learn to manage their anxiety and communicate their feelings rather than acting out. As they overcome depression and fear and begin to trust more, they start making friends and doing better in school. At times it's a roller-coaster ride because they're dealing with so many issues, but it's rewarding to see their lives improve."
Ana has been seeing Vargas for about a year. Today, she has a steady group of friends with whom she hangs out, jokes, and listens to music. "She likes her school, and she's eager to learn," Vargas says.
The bond between Ana and her mother is growing stronger. Ana loves the quiet talks they have while her mother braids her hair.
Vargas has encouraged Ana to use her artistic side as a therapeutic outlet for her feelings. As a result, Ana has been creating drawings that reveal some of her harrowing experiences. Eventually, she may show these to her mother as a way of sharing memories and feelings too painful to talk about.
"I can't imagine going through the traumas these migrant children experienced before fleeing their homeland, and then arriving in a new country and having to adjust to so many changes," Vargas adds. "They have so many strengths and so much potential. I'm in awe of what they accomplish when they get the support they need."
Today, Ana still loves to sing the Katy Perry song that sustained her through so many times when she felt alone, sad, and scared. "I am a champion and you're gonna hear me roar,” she sings. She is getting stronger every day.