Bethesda Magazine | November-December 2017

Hope Lives Here

Nearly three-quarters of the students at Germantown's Daly Elementary School are from low-income families. For the principal and her staff, academics are only part of the job.

share this

The TV is on, in English, but the little boy watching doesn’t seem to understand what anyone is saying. He has toy figurines to play with—one from Toy Story, another from PAW Patrol—but he doesn’t know their names. He’s still new here. He and his mother crossed the Mexican border into Texas earlier this year because she feared for their lives. “We’re going on a trip,” she told her 5-year-old son. 

His mom is sitting on the edge of the boy’s bed, where he keeps his prized Captain America quilt, in the cramped mobile home they share with her friend and another family. There’s a bulky black ankle monitor just below her right pant leg that allows immigration officials to track where she goes, and lately she’s been asking God, please get this off of me. 

They had to get out of El Salvador because the boy’s father was abusive and once hit her so hard while she was pregnant that she almost lost the baby, she says through tears. Palleres, who met the woman when she came to register her son at Daly, is translating the conversation. “He was in gangs and stuff,” the young mom says. “I’m afraid he’ll do something to me and my child.”

In February, she filled two small backpacks—one for each of them—and they left the home she’d shared with her  mother and siblings. She knows people who’ve gone to the U.S. without their children, planning to have them come later, but she couldn’t do that. “He’s my whole life,” she says of the boy. “So wherever he is, I am.”

Their trip took a month, she says, and she paid a man known as a coyote to help them. She never saw the man, though, only the people working for him. “All right, you go 10 miles north and stay at this little shack,” they’d say. “You’re sleeping on the floor. Now tomorrow you’ll go another 20 miles.” They traveled mostly in cars and buses, and sometimes had to walk a long way in the heat. “Mom, I wish I had a fan,” the little boy told her. 

They ate one meal a day, the woman says, and she brought a little extra money to buy her son snacks. Once they crossed the border, they were detained in “la perrera,” which is like a jailhouse, the woman explains: “There’s a place that they call the dog pound, and that’s where they stick everyone.” Then they spent time at a family detention center, she says, and it was nicer there. They had a room with a bed, and all she wanted was a good night’s sleep. “The path to get here is not an easy one—we suffered a lot,” she says. 

She doesn’t know what’s going to happen to them now. She wants to work—she likes making enchiladas for her son and thinks maybe she could be a chef someday—but she knows she won’t get a job with the monitor on her leg. (It was removed two months after a June interview.) Her immigration case is still pending, and she isn’t sure what that means, or if they’ll even be able to stay. “I want him to study, and I want to help him with what I can,” she says of her little boy. He knows a few English phrases already: thank you, you’re welcome and good night. “I want him to have a future, I want him to go to a university.”  

Sometimes Dietz worries about how she’s dealing with traumatized students. That wasn’t part of her training to become a principal, she says, and she can’t possibly imagine what it’s like for children who are escaping violence in other countries, or dealing with other forms of trauma—hunger, separation anxiety, abuse and neglect—at home. “You think you’re handling something the right way,” she says, “but you might not be.” 

The school offers an “alternative recess” so that kids who are having a rough day can hang out in the office and read or use a computer instead of being with peers, and she’s often referring children to the school psychologist and other mental health professionals for help. But she never really knows, in the moment, what’s going on with a child and what she should say. Last spring, Townsend, president of the Healthcare Initiative Foundation, told Dietz that Thriving Germantown could provide training for Daly staff on a “trauma-informed approach” to working with children. The training, scheduled for this school year, will be administered by Family Services, Inc. in Gaithersburg and covered by a grant. “That’s going to be really valuable,” Dietz says. “When we have a family that flees from a country at war, how do you deal with them?”