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Schools in Orlando have enrolled nearly 2,000 Puerto Rican students since Hurricane Maria hit the island. Most don't know when or if they will ever go back, and it's taking a toll on everyone. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: The first stop for Puerto Rican kids and their families when they arrive in Orlando is a couple of tables the district has set up at the airport to register them for school.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: Parents and guardians are told they'll eventually need to produce school transcripts, medical and immunization records. But because most left Puerto Rico with just the clothes on their backs, the district is waiving these and other requirements and assigning kids to schools anyway. Still, school superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins says she's gotten angry calls about taking in Puerto Rican kids.
BARBARA JENKINS: They thought we were talking about immigrants. And we said these are citizens of the United States. And they are welcome here. And we will take every last one of them into our classrooms immediately. They are our children. We will never run short on compassion.
SANCHEZ: That compassion runs deep at Colonial High School where principal Jose Martinez has already enrolled about 95 kids, not just from Puerto Rico but the Virgin Islands as well. It helps that of 240 faculty and staff members here more than half have family ties to Puerto Rico including Martinez, which is why every chance he gets he reminds students...
JOSE MARTINEZ: ...My family was you. My grandparents were you. My cousins were you. And you all have a story. And although, you may be leaving some of your family behind - you may be leaving them behind, but you are carrying them with you in your hearts.
SANCHEZ: Martinez clears a table in his office and brings in five recent arrivals from Puerto Rico.
YERIANNE ROLDAN: We only had an hour to say bye to our families.
SANCHEZ: Yerianne Roldan is 17.
ROLDAN: So I'm just, like, really worried. Like, most of my family are elderly, so...
SANCHEZ: For Yerianne's younger sister Darianne, the first few days were the hardest.
DARIANNE ROLDAN: In my mind, I was like, OK, this is only temporary. I'm only going to stay here for a month. And then I'm going to go back. And, like, I kept on waiting, but we never really got that call that we were going to go back.
ZULEYKA AVILA: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: Zuleyka Avila, 17, says she wants to return, but she's not sure if Puerto Rico will ever recover. Zuleyka, a senior, had plans to attend college and study medicine in San Juan next spring. But her mom doesn't want to go back. Zuleyka says she feels lost, alone.
AVILA: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: I know exactly how that feels, says 16-year-old Oxzuen Casta Rodriguez. He just doesn't want to show it.
OXZUEN CASTA RODRIGUEZ: I don't want to feel overwhelmed. I don't want to be in emotional stress all the time.
SANCHEZ: The group grows quiet.
REBEKAH FELIX LAMBERT: I would like to say something.
SANCHEZ: Rebekah Felix Lambert, a shy 16-year-old from Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, says she has some advice for anyone who wants to listen.
LAMBERT: If you're living somewhere and there's an earthquake, hurricane, tornado or anything, some kind of disaster, you might think you're in despair. But there will always be help there. Something good is going to come out of the bad.
SANCHEZ: They all nod in agreement.
It's lunchtime at Colonial High. The students say goodbye and fade into the crowd. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF AGNES OBEL'S "SEPTEMBER SONG")
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