For Detained Migrant Children, Fremont Teens Create Postcards of Hope

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Karina Silvestro, 16, holds postcards she designed with migrant kids in mind, at Washington High School on Feb. 13, 2019. "I want them to know there are people here who care for you," she said. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Art and Spanish students at Washington High School are teaming up to design and write postcards for some of the thousands of migrant children in U.S. government custody, hoping it will bring a degree of comfort to kids who crossed the border on their own.

Karina Silvestro, 16, designed several postcards with black and white images of holding hands, which she said are meant to show unity and solidarity. As she edited her images to add an etched texture on a computer program, Silvestro said she tried to put herself in the shoes of the children who are far from loved ones.

Feeling it could be a "scary and tense situation," Silvestro said she thought the postcards were maybe "something that I would like to receive or could keep close to me, something that could give me security."

Anaya De Leon, a senior at Washington High School, shows a postcard she created in her digital imaging class on Feb. 13, 2019. De Leon designed it for migrant children who were separated from parents at the border and are now being held at shelters. "They need somebody to speak up for them," she said. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Silvestro, whose mother came to the U.S. as a refugee from Nicaragua in the 1980s, finished her postcards by adding messages in Spanish. One says, "You are welcome," and another, "I'm with you."

"I know people like my mother who basically had to leave everything and come to a place that was unfamiliar and probably scary for the first few months she was here," said Silvestro. "I want these kids to know that there are people here who care for you and appreciate you."


Most of the 11,500 minors being held at government-run shelters nationwide were first apprehended by U.S. immigration authorities while traveling from Central America without a parent.

More coverage of migrant children

Unaccompanied minors are spending an average of three months at the shelters before being released to parents or sponsors in the U.S., according to data for this fiscal year. While critics say it's detrimental for children to be held that long, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services says the speed of release depend on its work with other federal agencies to identify and run background checks on potential sponsors.

At Washington High, teacher Barbara Boissevain assigned the postcard project to students in a digital imaging class. She was inspired by a 2015 exhibit by renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei at the former prison at Alcatraz.

Ai Weiwei designed the installation about human rights and freedom of expression while he was under house arrest in Beijing. At the exhibit, visitors could write postcards addressed to political prisoners around the world as part of a campaign to free them.

"It was just a beautiful experience," said Boissevain, a photographer and visual artist based in Palo Alto. "To be able to communicate with somebody who is in solitary confinement, or they're cut off from their community, from their family."

It wasn't until last year that Boissevain read a book by Ai Weiwei, Truly Yours, and found out prisons were inundated by the postcards — and some of those detainees had been released. That's when she decided to try a similar project with her art students.

"I always want them to think of art as a very powerful tool in the world. And this is such a great example," she said.

Postcards designed and written by students at Washington High School on Feb. 13, 2019. Teacher Barbara Boissevain plans to send more than 300 cards to shelters for unaccompanied minors in California and Texas. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Boissevain said students decided who to create artwork for: While some chose to design postcards for victims of the recent California wildfires, others gravitated towards the plight of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum.

"The kids identify with them because they are the same age," she said.

The diverse ethnic makeup of the high school played a role, too, Boissevain said, noting some of her students from Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced life as refugees.

The more than 1,900 students at Washington High School are overwhelmingly kids of color, with about half identifying as Asian and 23 percent as Latino.

Other postcards that students at Boissevain's class designed show birds flying out of a cage; a blossoming tree, with the words "Stay Strong" emblazoned in the middle; and the shapes of kids and adults — a family — holding hands with the word "Together."

To help write messages on the back of cards for the Central American minors, Boissevain brought in students in a Spanish class.

Spanish teacher Brandon Pierce translates notes for colleague Barbara Boissevain that his class wrote for unaccompanied minors. "What was going on in their minds was very heartfelt and that's what ended up getting put down on paper," said Pierce of his students, some who are immigrants. "Hopefully that makes a difference in somebody's day when they get to read this." (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Getsa Jimenez, 15, wrote on a postcard: "I know things don't look so great right now. But don't worry, things will turn out OK in the end."

Before writing the messages, Jimenez and her classmates interviewed immigrants about their journeys to the U.S. and researched the issues of asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors.

"It's very important for them to know that they're not alone because these are very tragic moments for them and their families as well," said Jimenez. "I think they're really brave and strong to be there by themselves and keep going."

Her classmate Kenneth Alvarado has another message: “You’ll get through it.”

"Just to give them hope. Just to remind them to not give up," said Alvarado, 16. "That this isn’t the whole world. This little cage isn’t everything."