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We Were the Ones Left Behind

I know what happens when we separate children from their families

Credit: Art Montes De Oca/Photographer’s Choice/Getty

I know what happens when children are separated from their families. They collapse into themselves and try to become as small as an atom, infinitely divided. They fold their sorrow over and over again — hoping that by taking up less space, they may create room for their families to rejoin them.

There is no understanding, no reconciling or consoling the feeling of abandonment. We grow up with a gaping open wound in the center of our chests and shrink into ourselves to hide our permanent dissonance. When children are taken from their families, they forget their parents names: ma y pa’s love required no introduction. When their teachers ask them who they can call at home, they cry, knowing that no one is there waiting for them. Being a child and separated from your family leaves you suspended in the space-time continuum: there is no up or down, no space or ground, no logic capable of explaining your utter displacement from within and without.

The immigration system has always been complicit in the separation of families, whether by cost, process, or policy. Since October 2017, more than 700 children have been separated from their parents, some as young as 18 months old. The American Medical Association opposed the separation of families, citing the harmful health impacts and potential lifelong trauma. The bottom line is, kids need their families, and when they are taken from them we do irreparable damage to their emotional, psychological, and physical development.

I was born in 1992, the year before Pablo Escobar’s assassination in my home country of Colombia. Leading up to and after his death, the country was awash in violence. My parents remember the car bombs, friends and family being threatened or going missing, the further corruption of government by drug traffickers. My father immigrated to the U.S. first, his departure largely a blur in my memory. Then one morning, my brother and I woke up to find new socks next to our pillows. Without warning, my mother and older sister had gone, too. All that was left was the two of us, placed in the care of our grandmother. I was three years old.

Three-year-olds do not have the language to make sense of abandonment, of loss, of mourning. When my mother left I was a healthy toddler, but when I finally saw her again at age five I was severely underweight, borderline malnourished, and mute. I did not talk during my first year in America. I was the shell of a child, my inner three-year-old trapped in the corners of my mind, peering out into this unknown new world. Physically and emotionally, I was stunted by the entire experience. I began talking again eventually, but I found my voice through creating. I doodled, painted, and wrote with all the colors that had been dulled by my abandonment. It was only when I entered college that the words came back, that I began to reopen the wound and make sense of what happened to me, to us. The words I did not have as a child finally arrived: abandonment, separation, trauma, loss, orphan, pain, silence.

Even as adults, my brother and I still struggle to keep on weight. We are quite gangly, our wrists too thin to be adult bones and our sternums always protruding through our clothes. We were the ones that were left behind. Even to this day, I still shutdown at the sight of stress or hardship. Almost instantly I fall back into myself; I become a shell of a shell of a woman with three-year-old eyes peeking out at the world; I go into hiding. And I am lucky that those who love me are willing to reach into my insides and lift me out of there; they coax me out with their hugs and cooking till I can stand within myself again. The separation never leaves you. The trauma stays with you. When we separate children from their families we sever their wings, leaving scars across their backs that will always ache for the phantom ghost of being whole.

PhD Candidate, Educator, Poet, CatDog Mom. #phdlyfe

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