ALTERNATIVE – MEXICO: Natalia, 16

Artist: Nani Puspasari

NATALIA FROM EL SALVADOR, LIVING IN AN ALTERNATIVE CARE PROGRAM IN MEXICO, AGE 16

Natalia’s family had a really difficult year.

The gangs in their neighbourhood in El Salvador have made living a safe life almost impossible.

Her uncle had been killed by the gangs, and they had threatened to hurt other members of her family.

Natalia’s grandmother decided that it was time to send her and her younger brother to be with their mother, who was in the United States. “This is no place for a 16 year old girl” said her grandmother,  “and we need to get your brother out of here while we still can.”

Natalia was scared to go but her grandmother was sure it was the only way that Natalia and her little brother would be safe.

Natalia had a small rosary that her mother had given her, and everyday she would pray to see her mom again. Just holding the beads in her hand helped her to feel that she was with her mom again.

Natalia and her brother travelled the long journey, relying on some other children they met escaping the same fate: a world in which it was unlikely they would live to be 18 years old.

There were many times Natalia was scared, tired and hungry on the way. Her grandmother told her to watch out for her brother and not to trust any adult.

When she reached the border of Mexico a policeman found her while she was sleeping. He took her to a detention centre, which was full of all sorts of people. Her and her brother were separated. The officers told her that her brother would be with the younger children and she was taken to a section with all women. They would have to take turns sleeping because there was not enough room for all of them to lie down at the same time.

Her family did not know where they were and Natalia worried that they would think her and her brother were dead.

After a month in detention, some people came and asked if she would like to go to another place, called an alternative care program. They said she and her brother could go together and even live in the same house.

In the program, Natalia got to call her family. She and her brother got to speak every week with their mum over the phone. Natalia had her own bed, a place to pray, and she got to read books and an education program was provided. She visited the doctor and found out she had developed a bad skin condition in detention.

“It was very different” said Natalia “I felt light again, for many months it had been dark. And I really liked the food. At first the salsa was too hot – now I like it with everything!”

The alternative care program allowed Natalia and her brother to live in vastly better conditions for children during the time it took to process their request to receive protection in Mexico, rather than detention, where no child should be.

Natalia and her brother were part of a pilot program to explore community placement and alternatives to detention for children. Alternative to detention programs need to urgently be strengthened and expanded. More than 40,000 children were detained in Mexico in 2016.

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Artwork by Nani Puspasari