‘Sidewalk School’ for migrant children welcomes new academic year despite pandemic

Border Report Tour

School expands to towns on both sides of the border with online courses

SAN JUAN, Texas (Border Report) — A school for asylum-seeking migrant children that has operated since last year at a border tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, began a new academic year on Monday in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, and it has even expanded its online courses to migrant children living 800 miles away in Juarez, Mexico.

The nonprofit Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers is also offering its online classes to migrant children who have crossed into the United States but whose families prefer not to enroll them in U.S. public schools, the school’s director, Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, told Border Report Monday via phone from the Matamoros encampment across from Brownsville, Texas.

Rangel-Samponaro said there are about 200 children living within the Matamoros encampment who take free weekday classes from their family’s tents via computer tablets supplied by the school and donors nationwide. In addition, tablets have been sent to five migrant children who are living in the border town Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, while they await their U.S. asylum cases.

She said the Juarez expansion is a pilot program in conjunction with the nonprofit organization Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, which helped select the families who are clients and are seeking asylum in the United States while living in Juarez.

Felicia Rangel-Samponaro is director of the nonprofit Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers, which provides classes for asylum-seeking migrant children in Matamoros, Mexico, and also in Juarez, Mexico. She is seen Oct. 31, 2019, in Matamoros, shortly after opening the school. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report file photo)

“We’re just marrying what we do in the Matamoros encampment with children living in Juarez,” Rangel-Samponaro said. “We’re starting out small but if it works out well we will expand to other families in Juarez.”

In fall 2019, Rangel-Samponaro, a former teacher from Houston who doesn’t speak Spanish, founded the Sidewalk School to provide classes to children living in the Matamoros encampment that formed beside the Gateway International Bridge. At the time, there were more than 2,000 migrants and several hundred school-age children who weren’t receiving an education while they lived in the camp. Most of the families were part of the Migrant Protection Protocols program, which continues to force asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico during their family’s U.S. asylum hearing process.

All of the teachers are themselves also asylum-seekers who speak Spanish and come from various countries. In the beginning, group classes included children from various ages and included story reading, art instruction, as well as arithmetic, and was also a chance for the children of the camp to safely socialize and get to know one another.

A family of migrants are seen Oct. 31, 2019, on the steps of a building in Matamoros, Mexico, while they charge their cellphones. The nonprofit organization Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers offers free classes to migrant children ages pre-K to high school who are temporarily living in Mexican border towns. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report file photo)

But the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way the courses are being offered and currently all classes are online only.

“Each child in that encampment has a tablet,” Rangel-Samponaro said. “Because of COVID we wanted everyone to be safe and we encourage everyone to stay in their tents.”

Classes are being offered for Pre-K through high school and Rangel-Samponaro said the school now is certified to give students credit for courses taken and even to certify the graduation of a student.

Asylum-seekers, including dozens of children, wait in line to get a meal close to the International Bridge on June 26, 2019 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. (Photo by Verónica G. Cárdenas/Getty Images)
Pat Forstar, a nun with the Franciscan Catholic order based in Alamo, Texas, greets children in Matamoros, Mexico, on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019 at a refugee camp where asylum-seekers live. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report file photo)

Fewer migrant camp children

The number of children in the camp has dropped to about 1,000. This is because many families gave up waiting in the extreme weather conditions — that range from triple-digit heat and high-humidity in the summers to freezing heavy downpours in the winters — especially since they are uncertain when U.S. asylum hearings will resume again due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

All immigration court hearings held at a judicial tent in Brownsville, next to the bridge, have been postponed indefinitely since the Southwest border was closed to travel on March 20 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Migrant families are getting more and more desperate with each passing week. The Sidewalk School helps to get the children’s’ minds off of their predicament and helps to establish some form of normalcy for them, said Catholic nun Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which oversees volunteer efforts at the camp.

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, speaks in her offices in San Juan, Texas, on Aug. 31, 2020. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“They are really addressing the needs of the families as well to make sure that children get the proper education,” Pimentel tolf Border Report on Monday from her offices in San Juan, Texas. “(Rangel-Samponaro is) doing a fantastic job at the camp with some of the kids and … she has made arrangements that if the children end up coming to the United States they will be recognized as having attended the school year that they have been through because of the work she’s doing at the camp.”

In addition, Pimentel said that a principal of a school in Matamoros also is working with families of the camp in Matamoros to enroll children in the city’s school system and to provide them with online classes, or in-person classes at the campus whenever those resume.

Pimentel said whether families select to continue virtual learning through the Sidewalk School or enroll in a Matamoros school, the children benefit from continued education despite the prevalence of giant rats, mosquitoes and snakes that are currently plaguing the Matamoros camp. The river itself poses a danger to migrants of all ages. On Aug. 18, a 20-year-old “Guatemalan leader” of the migrant camp drowned.

“Our policies are keeping families there in those terrible conditions and we need to do something about replacing policies that are not respectful to human life and find policies that respond to the immigration reality in a more humanitarian way,” Pimentel said.

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