RESTON, Va. (ABC7) — As unaccompanied children continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border at an alarming rate, a brother and sister made the same harrowing, terrifying journey four years ago. That's when they reunited with a mother they barely knew but missed dearly.
The reunification, that moment they embraced for the first time happened at Dulles International Airport in 2017, the moment Erlinda Avalos held two of her three children for the first time in 12 years.
"I left my three children while they were sleeping in the middle of the night back in 2005." says Avalos, "I didn't wake them because I didn't have the strength to look at them in the face as I was leaving because I wasn't sure when I would see them again."
Alejandro Avalos was 5 years old when his mother left him with an aunt in El Salvador. His sister Emeli was only four.
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"Finally able to know your mom. It's like your whole life you've been wondering how is it to be with her, how is it to spend time," exclaimed Alejandro.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington's Newcomer Services has helped reunify more than 200 children.
Stephen Carattini, the President & CEO of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington says what we are seeing is a combination of push-pull, the children are desperate to be with their families and the families want their children with them.
"For example in the last year, two hurricanes and a pandemic are probably already exacerbating issues home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras primarily," says Carattini.
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Since their reunification, the Avalos siblings have learned English and graduated from South Lakes High School in Reston, Virginia. But when they were growing up in Central America, they also grew angry and confused.
"It's tough to come home every day and to not have anyone to talk to, to not have your mother especially when you're a grown woman," recalls daughter Emeli Avalos.
Now as they inch closer to permanent residency and college degrees, they understand a mother's love and sacrifice.
"When I was with my children in El Salvador there was a time that we only had half a cup for the four of us to eat," says Erlinda.
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In many cases, the displaced children are fleeing violence and extreme poverty and are currently living in temporary government-sponsored shelters. Each year, Newcomer Services provides placement and pre-and post-placement services to approximately 200.
"We know our communities and our country are stronger when families are together. Catholic Charities provides expansive, comprehensive services to help reunite these children separated from their families," says Carattini.
Most children who come to us have experienced significant trauma, having left their families and home countries to embark on a dangerous journey in search of safe harbor and hope for the future. We provide holistic care and, most importantly, place these children in nurturing homes so they can thrive in a stable, safe, and loving environment.
Newcomer Services provides a wide range of pre-and post-placement family reunification services, including home studies to ensure a safe and nurturing environment, background checks for individuals in a placement home, trauma training as needed, mental health services for the child, assistance with school enrollment, and ongoing post-placement assessments.
Post-placement assessments take place for three months after the child is placed in a home. For children who have been victims of human trafficking, assessments continue until the child ages out of the program at 18 years old.
With the recent reinstatement of the Central American Minors (CAM) program, Catholic Charities will also re-open cases it was handling when the program was suspended in 2017.
Under CAM, legal residents of the United States with minor children residing in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras can apply for their children to take up residence with them, protecting them from potential trafficking or victimization in their countries of origin.
Today, more than 14,000 children are waiting in border patrol custody alone.
Alejandro Avalos, now 20-years old knows how difficult this is for families right now. "It's to have faith that one day they are going to be able to see each other again, and also to have hope."
Families interested in applying for this program can contact Catholic Charities' Migration and Refugee Services at 571-364-8010.
Individuals interested in donating much-needed home, school, and personal care items to these families can do so through Amazon Smile.
For more information on Catholic Charities' work with immigrants and refugees, click here.