Hope Has a Child's Face

Dressed in his yellow shorts and sports tee, Juan (not his real name), looks like any other kid.  He loves soccer, and once a week he trains in a nearby field with the neighborhood team.  "I am a mid-fielder," he says with a big smile.

He regrets that "Barca" did not win the Champions League, but is convinced that Portugal will be the champion of South Africa's World Cup: "Because Cristiano Ronaldo is the best, well along with Messi, of course," he adds.

His mother glances at him calmly, smiling.  At the age of 13, Juan began a journey that did not take him to his final destination, but that luckily did not end up in a tragedy, as many do for thousands of irregular migrants who try to go reach the United States and become victims of robbery, abuse, and in some cases, death.

On the fateful day, Juan left early in the morning hoping to reach the United States. He was accompanied by a "coyote", or smuggler, and a group of Salvadorians who were also embarking on the long and dangerous journey north as irregular migrants to the US.  He was the youngest of the group.

"We spent three days in Guatemala.  I was happy. To be honest, I was excited because I knew I was going to see my father.  It's been four years since the last time I saw him," he recalls with the innocence of someone who is straddling between childhood and adolescence.  His brother listens with admiration.

In Mexico he was detained.  The bus he was on was checked by la migra, immigration officers.  He recalls that the journey ended there for all of those whose papers were not in order.  "I didn't get off the bus; the ‘coyote' had my ticket.  But when they found it, they asked for me and made me get off.  I was scared, because I knew I was all alone."

"One day they called me to tell me he was in Mexico and that those who had been detained were going to be sent back home," recalls Juan's mother, the anguish of those days still visible when she recounts the story.

"I was afraid because we were taken to a detention center.  The older ones bullied us.  I was scared of not being able to get back home.  I wanted to return!" he says.

Finally, he returned home to his soccer and school.  "I'm having trouble learning English, but I'm doing my best," he says smiling, as his mother tenderly strokes his hair.

Juan is one of the beneficiaries of the IOM pilot project "Return and Reintegration of Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Adolescents," which facilitates the reintegration into school of children returned to their homes.

The majority of the beneficiaries of the project have started English lessons, and some have requested training in other areas such as sewing, painting and broadcast.

During this phase IOM expects to assist 20 children and teenagers who have been repatriated and are currently studying in centres near their communities.

"In the majority of cases, the minors travel with the hope of reuniting with their loved ones, because usually one or both parents are in the US, but the road is long and perilous," explains Gilberto Alas, an IOM Officer in El Salvador.

Alas has visited several communities searching for potential beneficiaries and has found that many children have experienced horrible situations.  "I knew of a 15-year-old girl that was returned and lived with her grandmother. The grandmother did not know the girl had left," he says.

The children that apply to take part in the project tell IOM that they hope to learn English and other skills that will help them fulfill their dreams of a better life in their country without risking their lives, like their parents were forced to do.

The project is financed by the US State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), the Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Children and Adolescents, the General Directorate of Migration, and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education.

For further information please contact:

IOM El Salvador
E-mail: pressiomsansalvador@iom.int