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December 18, 2023

In Our Shoes: Voices of Youth on the Move

Bertha, Isaias, Jimmi, Sasha, and Zahra, youth activists; Sweta Shah, Co-founder, ChildArise, and Research Fellow, Georgetown University Collaborative on Children’s Issues; Kelly Yzique-Zea, Assistant Director, Vulnerable Populations and Migration, UNICEF USA.

Have you ever wondered what it feels like to have to leave your country, your family, your friends, all that you know? Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be the “Other,” the one identified as using up education resources, taking jobs, and putting pressure on the health care system? Have you ever been called a terrorist? Have you ever worried that even if you have legal status, you can feel like an alien? Imagine if you, your son, or daughter became displaced or was on the move.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are currently over 11 million undocumented migrants living in the United States and millions more that are documented but without citizenship. Globally, about 43.3 million children had been displaced as a consequence of violence and conflict by the end of 2022. Although children make up less than a third of the global population, they are overrepresented (at 41%) among the world’s refugees. These displaced children, like every child, have the potential to grow into resilient young people who possess talents and skills that can contribute to innovation, economic growth, and peace in both their countries of resettlement and origin. 

“Day by day we are trying to show people that we deserve to be in this country. We want to make a change and contribute to our new home.” - Isaias, 21 years old

We come from Afghanistan, Burundi, El Salvador, Honduras, and Ukraine. We were all once children on the move, who came to the United States as refugees, documented immigrants, and undocumented migrants. We are also university students, working professionals, poets, activists, and musicians. 

Due to circumstances out of our control, we stepped into adulthood as children who are now forced to advocate for ourselves, our families, and friends, a responsibility that should never be placed on the shoulders of any child. At a young age, we mourned the loss of a childhood that was stolen from us by war and instability. We had to leave all that we knewour cultures, food, mother tongues, routines, friends, and relativesto come to the United States. As we settled into this country, we faced discrimination and uncertainty.

“I feared I would be deported if I stepped out of my home. The first question a school classmate asked me, after the 2016 elections, was ‘Are you ready to go back to El Salvador?’ Undocumented children fear deportation everyday.” - Jimmi, 20 years old

For International Migrants Day we urge you all to see us and invest in us!

“Although our refugee journeys differ, we continue to feel like the ‘other’ and gain a sense of belonging. The sense of home has now become a journey rather than a destination. We are the lucky ones because we made it. And we are only making it because people invested in us.” - Bertha, 28 years old

We ask local and federal U.S. policymakers to:

1. Give us a seat at the table

  • Actively engage us as you make policy decisions. Our lived experiences, identities, and past are expertise, and we can help develop win-win policies.

  • Support youth with lived experience in developing and leading initiatives that meet the expressed needs of communities.

2. Protect us from violence, abuse, and exploitation

  • Provide knowledge on basic resources for survival and functioning upon arrival in the United States.

  • Implement robust reporting mechanisms that can be easily accessed by children and youth experiencing trafficking and other forms of violence, abuse, and exploitation.

  • Provide supportive services to all newly arrived youth and children, including case management and subsidized legal counsel.

3. Provide access to quality and affordable primary, secondary, and post-secondary education

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon that can be used to change the world.” Worldwide, close to half of all refugee children (48%) remain out of school because many are excluded from national education systems. Although all children, regardless of immigration status, are included in the United States’ public education system, we have encountered refugee classmates that complete high school without being able to read at an 8th grade level. Education continues to be a fundamental human right, yet 68% of fourth graders in the United States are not proficient in reading. We ask policymakers to:

  • Enable all children, regardless of immigration status, to access in-state tuition and financial aid for post-secondary education.

  • Establish more education and career-focused mentorship program opportunities for children and youth who were on the move.

4. Provide access to quality health care, including mental health services

Health care is a fundamental human right, yet there are 28.9 million people in the United States who remain uninsured. Health insurance and financial resources available to undocumented youth and children are limited. As of August 2022, only four states had programs that provide health care coverage to undocumented children and adults with low incomes. We ask policymakers to:

  • Invest in programs that provide quality health care services, such as well-child visits and immunizations, to all newly arrived children and families, regardless of immigration status. 

  • Prioritize access to affordable trauma-informed mental health and psychosocial support.

5. Enable families to obtain jobs

“Children depend on the environment in which they are raised. By supporting newly arrived families and helping them with their job search, children on the move can have healthier and safer childhoods where they do not have to worry about getting food to eat or shelter to live in. So that children can finally turn the ‘survival mode’ off and get to experience childhood.” - Sasha, 18 years old

6. Invest in local communities where we settle

  • Prioritize funding for communities that receive migrants and immigrants to address housing needs and ensure newly arrived children and families have access to wrap-around services as they navigate immigration proceedings.

  • Allow children on the move to build social support networks by advocating for immigrant-friendly programs run by institutions like schools and libraries.

  • Streamline resettlement and integration policies, procedures, and processes. 

We ask the general public:

  1. Humanize us. We are more than statistics: we are students, musicians, educators, and activists.

  2. Imagine yourselves in our shoes. Listen to our stories and wonder what is behind our smiles.

  3. Help combat xenophobia and discrimination by welcoming us and giving us the opportunity to build communities together. Learn about our cultures because it will enrich you.

  4. Get to know us on a personal level; ask us about our hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

“Although I did not choose my place of birth and where I arrived as a refugee, I see myself as the pillar of American society, a country that embraced me and welcomed me with open arms.” - Zahra, 22 years old

We were once children on the move and people invested in us. Will you bet on more young people like us? Will you help us contribute to this country and make it better?

This blog was co-written by young activists Bertha, Isaias, Jimmi, Sasha, and Zahra—who have all experienced displacement and are now advocates for children and youth on the move—with Sweta Shah (ChildArise and Georgetown University Collaborative on Children’s Issues) and Kelly Yzique-Zea (UNICEF USA). The youth were also featured in a September 2023 panel discussion, moderated by Shah, that highlighted the lived experience of children on the move.