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In a suburban classroom, learning to parent the sons she left behind

Elam Reyna makes breakfast for her sons on a Saturday morning. Her son Jeshua sits at the table as his brother, Jafet plays video games. They joined their mother in Annandale in 2016, nearly 13 years after she left them in Guatemala to forge a life in the United States. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Elam Reyna sat through her first parenting class, filled with worry.

The housekeeper from Guatemala was adjusting to being a day-to-day mother, nearly 13 years after leaving her home country and placing her two sons and their baby sister in the care of her grandparents. Now the boys had made a similar journey, fleeing gang threats. They were struggling to become a family again.

Jafet, then 15, was cutting classes at Falls Church High School and hanging out with a boy who seemed to be involved with members of the MS-13 gang in their Annandale neighborhood. Both he and his brother, Jeshua, two years his senior, had lashed out at their mother, and tension was building in their crowded apartment as she tried to assert authority. 

Elam Reyna — who asked to be identified by her middle name and only part of her last name because she is in the United States illegally  was determined to bring order to her home and be a good mother, even if seeking help with her sons could jeopardize their chances of staying in the United States.

Hoping for guidance, she enrolled in the Fairfax County Public Schools “Families Reunite” parenting class, one of dozens of efforts underway in U.S. communities that have seen a historic migration of unaccompanied minors from Central America.

While attention has focused this summer on migrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy, a far higher number of children, usually in their teens, are struggling to make their way after crossing the border themselves and applying for asylum protections.

Many witnessed or experienced rapes, kidnappings or other violence on their journeys or in their homelands, and are wary of joining parents or guardians they’ve never met or haven’t seen in years.

The vast majority are not involved in criminal activity. But the surge of young border crossers — nearly 140,000 since 2014 — has contributed to a rise in gang violence, authorities say. Helping parents and other guardians bond with and guide their children is considered a vital step in steering them away from negative behavior and toward positive, productive lives. 

“We want these families to feel welcomed, that they belong here,” said Robin Hamby, who helped create the parenting classes in Fairfax that have since been replicated in Baltimore, the District and elsewhere. “Because we know that the number-one reason kids do turn to gangs is because they don’t have a sense of belonging, either with their family or with school or their social group.”

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On the night she attended her first class, Elam listened to the instructor, Carolina Dotel, talk about the resentment many unaccompanied minors feel over having been left behind in their homelands, and the importance of communication and being alert to signs of trouble.

At the end, she approached Dotel and explained what was going on with Jafet.

“What do I do?” Elam said.

On the same path

The call came from her grandmother in Guatemala City. Jeshua and Jafet, then 16 and 14, had been threatened by gang members and were missing.

Elam felt a mix of terror and guilt. She had witnessed Guatemala’s unyielding violence in 2000, when she was 15 and pregnant with Jeshua and her boyfriend was fatally shot in front of her. She began another relationship and gave birth to Jafet and a baby girl, Genesis. But that man abandoned them.

Her paternal grandparents had raised her, after her own mother left for the United States when she was an infant. Twenty years later, she headed north as well. Her grandparents were surrogates once more.

Unlike her mother, Elam called and sent money regularly. As the years passed, she proudly shared her children’s photos on Facebook while updating her own profile to include her husband, Alex Rios, a naturalized U.S. citizen she married in 2013.

Now the boys were gone. Elam frantically phoned police and people she knew in Guatemala, learning that a friend had seen them on the street selling their clothes, skateboards and toys. Elam remembered a question Jeshua had asked once: “Mami, how did you get there?”

She’d told him about riding on the roof of a freight train, begging for food in Mexico, and, in the punishing desert, gulping from a discarded bottle of water with maggots inside.

Unwittingly, she realized, she’d given him directions.

By then, the boys were riding the same freight train line. Jafet, slight and sensitive, was scared and sad over leaving the great-grandmother he knew as Mamá. Jeshua, tall and stoic, felt guilty about leaving Genesis, then 12, but concluded it was too dangerous to take her.

They arrived several pounds lighter to the U.S. border, where they were taken to a federal shelter for unaccompanied minors near Phoenix.

A federal agent determined they had a credible fear of returning to Guatemala and began processing them as applicants for asylum. Their case may be complicated by a recent ruling by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who said gang violence usually won’t count as persecution.

A month after they disappeared, Elam’s phone rang at 1 a.m.

“Do you know where your sons are?” a border agent asked in Spanish.

Taking risks

Elam wept as she hugged the boys at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, asking them again and again to forgive her for leaving them.

But the boys rebuffed their mother’s attempts at affection. When she prepared a meal in the crowded Annandale apartment they shared with boarders, they complained it wasn’t as good as Mamá’s cooking.

“They don’t love me,” she told Rios.

“Give them time,” he said.

Frustrated, Elam dictated curfews, rules and chores. The boys didn’t listen. When Jafet refused to refer to his stepfather as Papá, Elam struck him with a belt. He called 911.

A few days later, Elam scolded Jeshua for getting angry at Jafet. This time, it was the older son who turned his rage toward her. Jafet rushed to his mother’s defense.

Elam had already met Dotel, a parent liaison at Falls Church High, where the boys had enrolled. She asked for advice, and Dotel directed her to the parenting class.

Over three three-hour sessions, social workers covered basic topics, such as showing affection, negotiating household rules and being consistent with discipline. They also taught about drugs, gangs and other potential pitfalls lurking in American schools.

Elam and the other parents inflated balloons and marked them with words describing their anxieties: “loneliness,” “guilt,” “desperation.” Then they stomped on the colorful globes in a symbolic gesture of release: “Pop! Pop!”

“It’s important that we as parents pay attention to what they’re listening to, what they’re watching,” Dotel tells her adult pupils. “If they don’t follow the rules, and if we don’t work with them, there could be consequences later in life.”

Elam vowed to find ways to talk to her boys and set limits. But she also worried that would not be enough. She’d seen a text on Jafet’s phone from the friend who she believed had gang ties, suggesting he come over so “we can drink some beer or we can smoke.”

Dotel suggested that she ask the police officer stationed at the high school to keep an eye on her sons, and find out what Jafet was up to while not in class.

Elam knew evidence of problematic behavior could impact the boys’ chances of staying in the United States. But after some agonizing, she decided to meet with the officer, Shayna Nikolas, who already knew about the friend’s gang connection.

Nikolas warned Jeshua and Jafet about the risk of being deported if caught breaking the law. “I’ll be monitoring you,” she said.

At home, Elam told Jafet that she, too, would be policing his behavior.

“If I see that you are doing any drugs, it hurts my heart and my soul, but I will call the police,” she said. “I’m not going to shield you.”

She also confronted the 15-year-old friend, an unaccompanied minor from Guatemala who had eaten at their apartment a few times.

“I care for you, and I liked that you were my son’s friend,” she told him. “But I don’t want you to be a friend anymore to Jafet. I don’t want you to be in my house, because you’re involving yourself in bad things.”

The boy looked hurt but said he understood, she said. A few months later, according to Nikolas, he was convicted of stabbing and nearly killing a man during a fight.

Growing trust

Seeking a fresh start, Elam sat down with her sons and shared her worries about being a novice parent, asking how they thought she could do better. She had learned in class that small gestures of love and support can go a long way.

When she noticed a drawing Jafet had finished of an aging Native American chief, she left a note nearby. “How beautiful this came out,” it said. “You are so smart and talented.”

Several of Jafet’s pictures are now on display in their living room, and he and his mother are discussing a formal art class.

Both Jeshua and Jafet were surprised to learn that gangs have a presence in Northern Virginia and say they are determined not to be lured in.

“Why would I come all this way just to get involved in that?” Jafet once told his mother.

He stopped wearing a shirt with a red collar after a fellow student warned him that was the color of a rival clique. But Jeshua, who has also been threatened, continues to sport his favorite pair of red sneakers, despite pleas from his mother to stop.

“Ay, papito, don’t respond like that,” Elam said during one of their newly direct conversations. “They can do something to you.”

“No, Mami,” he responded. “If I let them tell me what to do, they can dominate me.”

Since the class, the three have grown closer, the boys more affectionate and responsive. That showed at a recent soccer match when a bigger player on the other team picked a fight with Jafet, and Jeshua came to defend him. Elam, racing in from the bleachers, was able to calm down both her boys, though Jafet was suspended for two games for his role in the incident.

“In the beginning, it was like we didn’t know how to be her sons,” Jeshua said. “But little by little, with the trust growing, we started to adapt to this place and to the rules we have to live under.”

Elam still pines for Genesis, now 15, who no longer goes to school because of concerns about gang violence. Mostly, she looks after her great-grandmother, telling Elam whenever money runs short.

“My sons are here, and they bring me happiness,” Elam said. “But my daughter is still in Guatemala suffering, due to me.”

After the three-week Families Reunited course, Elam enrolled in more intensive parenting classes offered by the school system that target a broader spectrum of Latino immigrants. This spring, she and other participants chipped in for a teacher appreciation lunch, preparing taquitos or pupusas and helping to serve. The group has agreed to work with non-Latino parents at the school to organize similar events this year.

As Elam left the luncheon, she ran into Jeshua, wearing the offending bright red sneakers. She wanted to say something, but thought better of it, settling for, “Did you eat?” He said he had, but thanked her for asking and, after a brief hug, walked away.

Elam stood in the hallway, watching the red shoes shrinking in the distance.

She and her sons spent most of their days apart this summer. Jafet stayed home, playing soccer or hanging out with family friends. Jeshua, now 19, worked as a landscaper. Elam started a new, higher-paying job as a nanny.

Her sons’ asylum claims remain in limbo.

In August, she took a day off from work to accompany them to a scheduled court hearing near Crystal City.

After nearly three hours of waiting, an immigration judge continued the cases to October 2019.

As the three walked outside the courtroom, each dressed as if for Sunday Mass, they realized they had a rare weekday afternoon together.

They celebrated with lunch at a nearby Panera.

And Elam turned her attention to the immediate future, joyfully reminding her sons they had school supplies and other necessities to buy.

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