It’s the modern day “Odyssey.” This is how Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sonia Nazario describes the dangerous journey thousands of immigrant children make every year to escape the violence and poverty of Central America.
The author and journalist, who grew up in Kansas, appeared at a speaking engagement and book signing Monday at Indian Trail Middle School in Olathe to talk about her bestselling book “Enrique’s Journey.”
The book tells the true story of a Honduran boy named Enrique on his dangerous trek to reunite with his mother who illegally immigrated to the United States to find work. In reporting the story, Nazario herself retraced the journey that lasted 122 days and covered 12,000 miles. She faced many similar and terrifying challenges as Enrique did riding atop freight trains, hitchhiking and crossing rivers through Central America and Mexico.
Nazario’s speech led the audience of about 75 students, educators and members of the community through the perilous and often unsuccessful journey of thousands of people, mostly children, on their way to the United States. These migrants face extreme obstacles for months on end, including hunger, thirst, and exhaustion, she said. The trains kill some and maim others. Many are robbed or beaten by gangsters. Girls are raped.
“I had gone through one percent of what they go through. The hell of this journey crushed my faith in human beings and humanity,” Nazario said about the experience, which drove her to become an advocate.
The Department of Homeland Security reports that 68,541 unaccompanied children entered the United States illegally in 2014, a 77 percent increase in comparison to the previous fiscal year. One in six of these children are 12 years old or younger. Most are from Central America.
“It’s actually safer to do this crazy journey than to stay in places like El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala,” Nazario said. “Today’s child migrants, many of them, are refugees. They are fleeing persecution. Fleeing for their lives. And they have no viable government to protect them. In some places like Honduras, the gangs are the government.”
Nazario offered possible solutions to the problems of immigration. Eradicating the poverty in places such as Honduras and Guatemala that cause mothers to search for work in the United States and their children to follow them is one option. Educating women is another. When young girls are expected to focus on education, they are likelier to have fewer children and be more qualified for better jobs. Fewer children and better jobs reduce poverty.
There are ways to help the immigration crisis all the way from Kansas too, she said. Nazario suggests those inspired by the story to write letters to political leaders about the U.S. government’s treatment of unaccompanied immigrant children. Donate or volunteer to help organizations like Kids In Need Of Defense, a nonprofit whose board Nazario sits on that offers a lifeline to immigrant children in the form of free legal services. Children who are represented are five times more likely to be granted protection and the right to stay in the U.S. There are other resources on the book’s website at enriquesjourney.com
“If Enrique can make it to his mother’s arms, I know anything is possible. I believe if we push with the determination I saw on top of these trains, we can help these refugee children get a little bit of the justice they deserve in this country. We can bring about a new, completely different approach to our immigration dilemma to slowly, surely change things in Central America,” she said.
Originally published in 2006, “Enrique’s Journey” was adapted from Nazario’s Los Angeles Times newspaper series that won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2003. The book has since been republished in eight languages and adapted for youth. It is a popular text in classrooms across the country, including in the Olathe School District as it offers a personal perspective on the divisive issue of immigration.
“It’s good to raise some of these issues in communities that are changing so dramatically. I’m grateful for the library for sponsoring me to come in and talk about these issues,” Nazario said.
Many in the audience brought their dog-eared copies of the book for the author to sign. The speaking engagement and book signing were made possible by Latino Americans: 500 Years of History, a grant from the American Library Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The $10,000 grant was awarded to the Olathe Public Library to host the event and others for Hispanic Heritage Month.
Copies of the book have been popular at the Olathe Public Library. Ralph Tomlinson, adult services librarian and project director for the grant, said the story resonates in Olathe, where more than 10 percent of the population is Latino.
“With this particular event, I wanted people to understand the trials and tribulations immigrants go to in getting to this country,” Tomlinson said.
“It’s really sad that parents actually have to leave their children to feed them,” he said. “It’s a story that lots of Latinos can associate with.”
Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close Thursday with a historical overview of the Latino struggle for civil rights presented by Gene Chaves and music by Enrique Chi at the Heritage Center at Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop & Farm, 1200 E. Kansas City Road. Visit olatheks.org/hispanic heritagemonth for more information.