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Stories from the field: Helping an immigrant teen stay in school

A community advocate in the SPLC’s Louisiana office helps a young Honduran immigrant who fled to the United States after witnessing a murder and being threatened by the defendant. 

It was a Friday morning when I headed to meet with Hugo.*

This was one of the first interviews I had done as an SPLC advocate. I was nervous and excited all at the same time. At the door, I was greeted warmly by Hugo’s mother, Geraldine. She asked me to have a seat on her couch.

Hugo, 16, walked toward me with a huge smile and welcomed me to his home. I could see by the black eye and cut on his face that he had much to tell me.

His mom began the conversation. “He had a bright future there [Honduras], he was already playing for the Sub-15 national team. He was going to be a professional soccer player.” She was proud of her son, but I could see the sorrow behind her smile.

Hugo’s big dreams and aspirations in Honduras had taken an unexpected turn two years ago. As he and his brother walked home from school, they were assaulted and robbed by gang members. Hugo witnessed the gang members kill someone. 

Hugo and his family reported what they had seen to the police. Several weeks later,  his mother received a disturbing call. The man who had been jailed to await trial for the murder sent a warning: “Once I am out of here, they [Hugo and his brother] will be gone.” 

The call changed Hugo’s life forever. To save their lives, Hugo and his brother decided to embark on the hardest journey there is: Leave their beloved homeland and head to the U.S. The traumatic trip to safety tested all their survival skills. But three months after leaving Honduras, they joined their mother in Louisiana, tired and hungry.

Hugo and his brother began school and instantly found friends who loved soccer as much as they did.

But, as the days went by, Hugo began to feel less and less safe in his new home. Some students and teachers were not welcoming. Other students began bullying him, but the school did nothing about it. The bullying quickly escalated to physical violence. 

One day, Hugo found himself in a fight as he tried to defend himself against an attack from the teens who had been harassing him for months. As a result, he faced expulsion.

When the expulsion hearing came around, Hugo felt the same way he feels every time he has an immigration hearing. He felt judged for defending himself and for trying to survive.

However, this time he was backed by SPLC advocates who cared enough to know his story of survival.

This time, Hugo won. He is now back in school and working hard to excel. Yet, he still lives in constant fear of deportation and being separated from his family. His fear is very real. Deportation could mean death at the hands of the gang he spoke up against.

Hugo’s story is similar to many other undocumented youths who have suffered and fought for their lives only to arrive in the U.S. and encounter bigotry and discrimination. People with whom they come in contact often don’t care about their journey or their hardships.  

Many children like Hugo have faced near-death experiences and violence in their home countries and yearn for nothing more than to contribute to this community, to succeed, and to have a shot at the “American dream.” 

I’m proud of the work we’re doing to help children like Hugo and of the SPLC’s broader role in ensuring that schools across the Deep South live up to their legal responsibilities to educate them and treat them fairly. This work is part of my own American dream.

* Names have been changed to protect the privacy and safety of the family

Nadia Salazar Sandi is a community advocate in the SPLC’s Louisiana office.