Aug. 25 2015 05:17 PM

Families separated by deportation reconnect through a picture-book project

Sophia Sobko (front) with Emma (right), one of the parent-authors, in the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana. Emma’s three kids visit her in TJ every summer
Yolanda Varona is kneeling next to her bed, flipping through her weathered diary. It's filled with her hopes, pains and frustrations, poured from her heart to the page. Scattered on her bed are photos of her daughter, son and grandchildren, with whom she has had next to no physical contact since her deportation. Those photos are kept in a box under her small bed in a 10-by-5-foot concrete room in Tijuana's Deported Veterans Support House, which is now her home. That box contains the life she's fighting to get back to, away from her current reality trapped behind an ever-imposing fence.

“Here is where I first wrote that my daughter was a star in the sky that I named after her,” she says as her eyes shimmer with tears.

Varona was deported on Dec. 31, 2010. The former fast-food restaurant manager had crossed the U.S./Mexico border on a tourist visa with her then-fiancé, a U.S. citizen, and his elderly aunt, who asked for a ride to Tecate to be with her family on New Year's Eve. Even though her son and daughter had begged her to not cross that day, Varona chose to help the elderly aunt get to her family gathering rather than leave her to walk across the border alone. She hasn't returned since. The only souvenirs she has left from that life-altering trip is a mountain of regret and regular pain stemming from a border agent dislocating her shoulder during her detention.

“In that moment, I felt that I was lost,” she says. “I was thinking, what were my children going to do?”

Deportees like Varona often spend years running in circles struggling against a broken immigration system, attempting to return to their families in the U.S. with legal documentation. Throughout that seemingly endless cycle, they are separated from their children. Some are lucky and are able to get regular visits from their U.S.-born children. Others can only catch a peek and chat with their families through the fence at Friendship Park in Playas de Tijuana. Many go years without seeing their loved ones at all. These parents miss out on the major milestones and moments of parenthood and childhood. Among the moments they miss is reading bedtime stories. A new project, however, is remedying that missing piece from the lives of 10 deportee parents.

Yolanda Varona
Photo by Alex Zaragoza

The idea for Cuentos Para Dormir (Bedtime Stories) came from youth educator Sophia Sobko after she heard a piece on NPR about a summer camp for children of prison inmates. She thought about children of deportees and how they deal with the same pain and anxiety of being deprived of their parents.

“Here's this population right here that's suffering,” Sobko says. “I had read in the news about [these kids] and have known kids whose parents were deported. From there, I thought ‘What's something a kid is missing when they don't have their parent?' And I thought of the ritual of reading bedtime stories and how that was a thing in my family, and how much comfort it gives a kid just to hear their parent's voice and how these kids don't have that.”

She contacted Enrique Morones of Border Angels, a nonprofit that serves people dealing with immigration and deportation issues, with her idea. He told her about a group of activist mothers that meet weekly at the Deported Veteran's Support House called DREAMers' Moms. Varona founded and co-runs DREAMers' Moms with Robert Vivar, who was deported in 2011 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“The first thing that comes to your mind is when you'll be able to see your family again,” Vivar says of his deportation, fighting through tears as he sits in the main lobby of the Deported Veterans Support House.

For Vivar and Varona, Cuentos Para Dormir serves as a chance to tell their stories and hardships to their children and grandchildren, who are themselves fighting to survive without their parent and grandparent's much-needed support.

Varona had been writing her cuento long before Sobko came around, jotting little stories about a star in the sky that she named after her daughter. In her story, La Ciudad Mas Triste del Mundo (The Saddest City in the World), a mother firefly fights to get back to her children—two bright stars—after she is sent to The Saddest City in the World. Eventually, her tears create a large wave that gets her closer, then a pink bubble carries the mother firefly over the fence to her stars.

Illustration by Alejandro from the Sherman Heights Summer Camp for “Mamá Leona Contra El Muro” (Mother Lion vs. the Wall), written by Monserrat Godoy for her two daughters.

The pink bubble serves as a metaphor for Varona, who truly believes it will take a miracle on par with a magical bubble to get to her family.

“I'm not sure if that miracle will happen,” she says. “But I'm willing to do anything. If I could have my children and grandchildren here with me, I would never leave Mexico, but it's not possible. It's not natural to be separated from your children. With my story, I want to show my daughter that the tower I'm building is to be with her. I want her to know the love I have for her and the guilt I feel for leaving her, and I want my grandchildren to read the story and know they were always on my mind.”

Sobko began raising funds for the Cuentos Para Dormir project on Aug. 6 through a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. At press time, they surpassed their $2,000 goal. The money raised will pay for a hardbound copy of the illustrated stories for the children, the authors, DREAMers' Moms/Border Angels archives, Sobko's own archive and a lending library for schools and nonprofits. All additional money will go to creating digital videos of the parents reading their stories in English and Spanish so they can share them to an even wider audience.

“My goal has always been to get this to the kids but it's also important to me and the parents to be able to use this as an advocacy tool,” Sobko says. “That's a big thing they're concerned about; how people vote and raising awareness. I feel like this is a positive way to reach out to people and touch them emotionally. It's very easy for people to be jaded and numb about these issues.”

Sobko says many struggled with how to end their cuento, seeing as they're still stuck in the middle of their real-life story unsure if they'll get a happy ending.

“Half of them used a happy ending where they get reunited with their family,” Sobko says. “And the other half left it ambiguous and tried to end on the truth where they're telling them, ‘I'm not giving up, I'm still fighting for you, but this is how it is.”


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