SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We've heard a good deal lately about migrant families being separated at the southern border, but most migrant children coming to the U.S. from Central America in recent years arrive without their mothers or fathers. They travel alone or with a sibling to reunite with a parent who's already living here. That reunification, after years of separation, rarely goes as smoothly as everyone hopes. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee has the story.
RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Ericka and her younger sister Angeles came to the United States from El Salvador.
ERICKA: (Through interpreter) I remember it was the 5 of September that we left from there.
CHATTERJEE: That was September 2016. She was 17, and her sister, only 12. Their grandmother, who raised them, had just passed away, and the family decided it was best for the girls to join their mother in suburban Washington, D.C. Their older brother would stay behind for now.
The siblings hadn't seen their mom in more than a decade.
ERICKA: (Through interpreter) Practically, I couldn't remember her because I was really little when she left.
CHATTERJEE: But when her mom came to pick them up at the airport, their reunion was emotional. Angeles says she burst out crying.
ANGELES: (Through interpreter) I cried because I was happy. I only knew her through photos.
CHATTERJEE: Their mother, Fatima, had moved to the U.S. so she could provide a better life for her kids back home. We're not using her last name because she's undocumented and her daughters are now seeking asylum. Fatima says she was overjoyed to see her daughters again.
FATIMA: (Through interpreter) What I wanted most was to touch them and have them with me. It was really emotional because as a mother, you want your kids with you.
CHATTERJEE: They were beyond happy to be together, but Fatima says living together was hard in the beginning. For example, Angeles acted out a lot at home and in school.
FATIMA: (Through interpreter) She would be really rebellious in school. Sometimes her schoolmates would tease her because she didn't speak English. But she'd say, I have a pupusa face, I only speak Spanish.
CHATTERJEE: She also took frequent bathroom breaks at school and wanted to eat all the time. Ericka says she used to have nightmares about their journey to the U.S., traveling for weeks with a group of strangers, not knowing where they'd sleep each night or whether they were safe. And in those first months in this country, she says she was anxious a lot.
ERICKA: (Through interpreter) It was a little hard 'cause you have to adapt to something new. How do you start over?
CHATTERJEE: And she desperately missed her brother, Billy.
ERICKA: (Through interpreter) We were always together since we were little. And we never imagined that at some moment, we'd be separated.
CHATTERJEE: This longing for family left behind, the nightmares, the stress-eating - these are common experiences for children who come to this country unaccompanied. Rachel Osborn is a licensed social worker at Mary's Center, a health clinic in Washington, D.C.
RACHEL OSBORN: To try to understand the reality of what it's like to be an unaccompanied minor or any type of migrant youth, you really have to suspend your belief of what's normal.
CHATTERJEE: Osborn works with migrant youth, and she says these kids have to deal with a mountain of challenges. There's the stress of adapting to a new country, learning a new language. And she says...
OSBORN: They have these layers of trauma that have been layered on top of each other. And so they come into school, and they are carrying the enormous, you know, weight of their stories with them.
CHATTERJEE: The journey to the U.S. without the protection of a parent is often traumatic, she says, as is their time in detention centers or shelters. In the case of Ericka and Angeles, they were separated for a few days at a shelter in Texas. Osborn says these are kids who've had to survive multiple separations from their family members.
OSBORN: There's been these major breaks in consistent, reliable caregiving. That is what we know helps the child develop, you know, a sense of being safe in the world, of being protected, of not feeling vulnerable, of being comforted.
CHATTERJEE: And very often, the parents are coping with their own traumas and the stress of being undocumented. All of this together creates a toxic stew that gets in the way of families building a happy life together. Luckily, for Fatima and her daughters, they got some help through a program at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.
ROSARIO CARRASCO: OK. My name is Rosario Carrasco (ph).
CHATTERJEE: Carrasco is a parent liaison with the school system and leads a three-day workshop called Families Reunite.
CARRASCO: (Through interpreter) I truly believe that a family given the proper tools can overcome all this.
CHATTERJEE: She says the most important tool is communication because most immigrant families she's worked with don't talk about things that hurt them. Carrasco helps change that by encouraging them to talk openly with each other.
CARRASCO: (Through interpreter) They can sit down and talk about their feelings and figure out how they're going to act going forward.
CHATTERJEE: She also teaches positive parenting skills. Fatima and her younger daughter, Angeles, participated last year, and it really helped.
ANGELES: (Through interpreter) I listen to my mom now, and I understand her. Before, I didn't really understand where she was coming from.
CHATTERJEE: These days, they do activities together, like go to church or cook. On this evening, Angeles helped her mother make tortillas and chicken for dinner.
FATIMA: (Speaking Spanish).
CHATTERJEE: The sisters still struggle with speaking English, fitting in at school, but Ericka says they've come a long way.
ERICKA: (Through interpreter) I mean, it's hard. But as time goes on, you get used to it and the hard times get left behind.
CHATTERJEE: She says what helps make it a little easier now is having their mother with them. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.