Child Migrants' Harrowing Journey Brought To Life On Stage : Code Switch Shelter is a play based on interviews with Central American kids about the violence that drove them to migrate north, and the experience of living in limbo in the U.S. It opens this weekend.
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Child Migrants' Harrowing Journey Brought To Life On Stage

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Child Migrants' Harrowing Journey Brought To Life On Stage

Child Migrants' Harrowing Journey Brought To Life On Stage

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many of the kids who left Central America and headed for the U.S. two years ago are still in limbo. Tens of thousands came on foot escaping gang violence, hoping that if they got here, they would get to stay. The ones who made the journey without their parents have been called unaccompanied minors, child migrants, asylum-seekers. From NPR's Code Switch team, Shereen Marisol Meraji tells us about a new play called "Shelter" that gives them names.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SHELTER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Mariana) Soy Mariana.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Sandra) Sandra.

MORIAH MARTEL: (As Eloisa) Eloisa.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: In this scene, or chapter as they're called in the play, Mariana, Sandra and Eloisa are bunking together in a government-funded shelter in the U.S. They just met. Sandra is from El Salvador, Mariana Honduras and Eloisa Guatemala. They can't sleep, so they're exchanging stories about their journeys and what it was like back home.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SHELTER")

MARTEL: One day, our mayor found a head - a human head at his doorstep. That was it. My mother packed my things the next day.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Mariana) I've seen worse than that.

MERAJI: Actor Moriah Martel plays Eloisa, the girl who left home after the mayor of her town found a head on his doorstep. She's done a year's worth of research to get into character and says it's still really hard.

MARTEL: Falling off trains in the middle of the night or losing arms or having a severed head on the doorstep or being - making it to the border and being sent right back. There's just so many aspects of it that feel larger-than-life.

MERAJI: Martel is an undergrad at California's Institute of the Arts, CalArts, where the play was the brainchild of this woman.

MARISSA CHIBAS: Marissa Chibas and I head Duende CalArts out of the CalArts Center for New Performance.

MERAJI: Chibas founded Duende CalArts seven years ago to make bilingual, bicultural theater in collaboration with Latino and Latin American artists. She says she saw blog posts about the surge of unaccompanied minors even before the mainstream media latched onto the story and was compelled to tell it from the kids' perspective. Chibas visited a shelter in San Diego and talked with volunteers and kids there and says she couldn't help thinking about her own 12-year-old.

CHIBAS: Oh, my God, this could be my son. What kind of desperation would I have to be in that I would send my son on this dangerous journey?

MERAJI: She also interviewed teens who made the dangerous journey and are now attending high school in Los Angeles at the School of History and Dramatic Arts. She invited some of those students to workshop the play so that actors like Moriah Martel could meet the real people these larger-than-life things were happening to.

JASMIN: My name Jasmin, (speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: Chibas used a lot of Jasmin's story as inspiration for "Shelter." We're only using her first name for her safety. She's waiting to see if she'll be granted asylum. If not, she'll be sent back to face the tormentors she left back home.

JASMIN: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: Jasmin says she came here because a girl in school kept harassing her to join a gang. And when she refused, the girl threatened to kill her. And those aren't empty threats in El Salvador. Kids who refuse gang initiation are retaliated against and end up in black bags, as Jasmin puts it. So Jasmin's mom found a group leaving for the U.S. and made her go with them.

JASMIN: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: She says, "the group was mostly kids because that's who the gangs recruit." So imagine Jasmin at 14, chubby-cheeked and barely five feet tall taking her first trip outside of El Salvador, not on the eight-hour flight with a stop in Mexico City and beverage service, but on foot, in strangers' cars, clinging to the top of freight trains. She says they traveled at night mostly and slept during the day on dirty floors and in holes in the ground. The total cost - $8,000. Her mom borrowed the money to pay multiple smugglers along the way. The amount of time it took - one month.

JASMIN: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: And two days

JASMIN: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: And a hundred more days in immigration detention because Jasmin turned herself into the U.S. Border Patrol. That was two years ago. She says the absolute worst part of the journey, though, was riding La Bestia, the freight train in Mexico where the mafia, random thugs and even tree limbs can kill you. And in the play, "Shelter," the train plays a huge role. In multiple scenes, actors are arranged in horizontal or vertical lines on stage to simulate a train. Sometimes this is because the action is happening on a train but not always.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SHELTER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Step three.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) If not Mexican, anyone appearing to be a child will receive mandated TVPRA.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Trafficking victims protection reauthorization act.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Screening...

MERAJI: The actors are in lines facing the audience methodically listing every step of bureaucracy the kids must go through when they reach the U.S. and all to the rhythm of a freight train on a track.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) (speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Chapter three, the shelter.

MERAJI: "Shelter" has four chapters. You've got the kids' journey and historical context and today's debate over what to do with these children. But there are also sweet moments of kids being kids, playing soccer, sharing their dreams for the future. The play opens this weekend at a community park in a predominately Latino neighborhood in LA. Chibas says she wanted to share it first with the community closest to the story. She hopes it shows not only the kids' trauma but their courage and resilience.

CHIBAS: And they have high hopes. They've got big dreams. And I want to support those dreams in any way I can.

MERAJI: Jasmin says she's conflicted about living in the U.S. without her mom and her two younger sisters and brothers. She told me she's in love with this country, but her dream is that things back in El Salvador get fixed.

JASMIN: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: Her sisters are getting older, and she's worried they'll be recruited by gang members one day and told you have to join because if not, we'll hurt you.

JASMIN: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: She doesn't want them to have to make the choice she was forced to make - stay and die or leave and live, if you're lucky. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

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