California Teachers Build a 'Nest' for Migrant Kids at the Border

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Kids project shapes onto the walls at the Nest Tijuana.  (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)

Classical music plays, silk curtains blow in the wind and comfy couches offer a place to curl up with a book. There are wooden toys, colorful magnetic blocks, and crayons organized by color in glass jars. Children use light projectors to make patterns and shapes on the walls.

It may sound like a high-end early childhood education center in California, but this is Tijuana.

The students and their parents have fled violence in Central America, or other parts of Mexico, and are waiting for their asylum applications to the U.S. to be processed.

Three-year-old Kevin, whose family fled cartel violence in Michoacán, plays at the light table with magnetic blocks at the Nest Tijuana. (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)

A California woman opened this school, the Nest, in September. It’s the first one of its kind attached to a migrant shelter in the Mexican border town.

They welcome children 6 and under, and give them a chance to spend time away from the crowded shelter across the street — and to just be kids.

“This isn't a Band-Aid solution,” said founder Alise Shafer Ivey, a veteran early childhood director from Santa Monica. “This isn't sweetening the day of a child who might be stuck on a mattress in a shelter. Of course we're sweetening the day of that child, but it's so much more than that. This is about really setting a trajectory that will have an impact.”

Families Sharing a Single Mattress in Crowded Shelter

Patricia’s 2-year-old daughter is one of the new students at the Nest. On the trip to Tijuana, Patricia's two girls kept asking where their dad was. But how could Patricia tell them? They couldn’t even go to the funeral. It was too dangerous to show up to bury her husband.

Patricia and her daughter, 2, fled their home the same day her husband was killed for failing to pay a bribe to members of a cartel in Michoacán. (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)

He had been a small-business owner in the western state of Michoacán, which has seen a recent spike in violence linked to drug cartels. When some men arrived at his shop demanding a bribe, he asked for more time to get the money. They killed him. Patricia and her girls, the older one is 5, fled that afternoon. (KQED is not using Patricia's real name to protect her identity.)

Patricia didn’t look back until she got to the shelter in Tijuana. It felt overwhelming: more than 150 people sharing four bathrooms, a single washing machine and one mattress to share with her girls.

Families like Patricia’s are arriving in Tijuana at a time when applications for asylum at the US-Mexico border have been surging.

Many are waiting in crowded shelters at the border for longer periods under the Trump administration’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” program. Although it’s been challenged in court, the program has required more than 56,000 asylum-seekers (mostly Central Americans) to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed in the U.S.

At the same time, a spike in cartel violence has forced a lot of Mexican families like Patricia’s to seek asylum in the U.S., too — and find space in overflowing shelters in border towns like Tijuana.

Families wait in line at the shelter to eat a meal donated by students at a local medical college in Tijuana. (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)

“These kids have seen things no child should see,” said Ivey. “They’ve been stripped of their homelands, they’ve left their families behind. They’ve been stuffed in trunks of cars and crossed over borders.

“To think we’re going to deliver them to a kindergarten in the U.S. and think it’s going to go well? Not necessarily,” she added.

Research shows kids who have a hard time adjusting socially before age 5 have a lot of trouble catching up. If kids who’ve experienced the trauma of fleeing their homes can play and relax away from the stress of the crowded shelter, it could give them some sense of stability, experts say.

A child walks through shapes projected on a wall at "The Nest" in Tijuana.
A child walks through shapes projected on a wall at the Tijuana Nest. (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)

An Unlikely Pair Share a Common Mission

Alise Shafer Ivey and Leticia Herrera Hernández at the Nest Tijuana in October 2019. (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)

The idea for the Nest began with a trip Ivey took to Lesvos, Greece, after retiring from decades of directing the Evergreen Community School in Santa Monica. She met a relief worker who invited her to visit a refugee camp, which then housed mostly Syrian migrants.

Children were “digging in the dirt, playing with nails in their pockets,” Ivey said. “They had old cigarette lighters that they had found. There was nothing for children.”

Ivey offered to set up a space for refugee kids to play. She returned to California, raising $10,000 through a nonprofit she helped found, the Pedagogical Institute of Los Angeles. She went on to set up Nests in Samos, Greece, then two more in the Congo.

Early childhood teachers, many from California, use their vacation time to volunteer for a few weeks at the Nests. They train refugees to work with young children, a skill that could help them find a job if they get asylum in a new country.

The Tijuana Nest got its start after Ivey visited the shelter across the street, where Patricia and her girls sought refuge. Ivey instantly connected with Leticia Herrera Hernández, who runs the shelter. They’re both strong believers in prioritizing the needs of children, especially when parents are going through trauma.

Viviana Lundgren (left) is an early childhood teacher in La Jolla who uses her vacation days to volunteer at the Nest in Tijuana. (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)

Herrera had already worked with a California group to set up a makeshift elementary school next to her shelter, in an old bus. But there was nothing for toddlers and preschool-age kids.

“The kids would just spend their days playing on their parents' phones, having tantrums, and we’d be trying to get them to play to entertain themselves,” Herrera said in Spanish.

So she was thrilled when Ivey proposed renting the house and opening an engaging play space for young children who live in the shelter.

Herrera and Ivey make an unlikely pair. Ivey doesn’t speak Spanish and was raised Jewish. She doesn’t count on God or governments to change things. Herrera is a devout Catholic, guided by her unwavering faith that God will provide.

Herrera came to working with refugee families via a different path than Ivey: through tragedy. She used to own a beauty salon and lived an upper-class life in Tijuana. Then her son was killed in a car accident in 2002 in his mid-20s.

“Everything I thought was important didn’t matter. ... I just wanted to die,” said Herrera.

After the death of her son, Leticia Herrera Hernández founded a shelter for migrants in Tijuana. (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)

A priest urged her to channel her pain into helping people. In 2010, a friend asked her to go to the border to hand out food to homeless migrants.

“It crushed my soul to see people so hungry,” Herrera said. “They were wiping every last drop of food from the pots with a tortilla. I left doubting that I had ever done anything meaningful with my life. I started to try to figure out how I could build a house for them.”


A Catholic charity helped Herrera find a space to start a shelter. It became one of the first to house LGBTQ migrants from Central America, attracting the ire of homophobic neighbors who tried to burn it down.

These days, most of the families she houses are from Mexico, fleeing an uptick in cartel violence in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán.

Parents Get a Space to Play, Too

At parent orientation night at the Nest, Ivey did what she would do back at her former school in Santa Monica: lay out a spread with wine and cheese. She talked about brain science and neural pathways, and why memorizing ABCs is not enough.

Asylum-seekers at the shelter across the street train as teachers at the Nest, gaining valuable skills that could land them a job in the US if they win their asylum case. (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)

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“The more we talk to children about their ideas and ask them ‘I wonder how that would work?’ Not quizzing them, but just wondering with them, the more all of those parts of the brain are activated,” Ivey told the parents, many of whom had never been able to send their kids to preschool in their hometowns.

She encouraged them to try out the magnetic wall where they can build a ramp for a ball to roll down. She showed them the light table, the painting area, the clay. Just like their kids do each day, the parents acted in a short play they wrote.

A lot of giggling broke out as Julieta, mom to Kevin, 3, pretended to be a grandmother in a story based on "Little Red Riding Hood." She walked hunched over, her hands on her back, to meet a wolf.

The other parents whooped and applauded Julieta’s performance. Ivey said it’s the first time she'd seen Julieta smile.

Julieta and her son, Kevin, fled cartel violence in Michoacán. They don't want to show their faces or use Julieta's real name for fear of being identified and targeted. (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)

Julieta and Kevin fled cartel violence in Michoacán. When they arrived in Tijuana in August, he had a really hard time accepting the shelter as home. He would hit other kids, yell at them. The Nest has helped him to adjust.

“Now he doesn’t fight. He plays with the other kids,” Julieta said in Spanish (KQED isn’t using her real name to protect her identity since she is fleeing violence). “I used to have to grab him so he would turn and listen to me. Now he turns and looks at me. He reaches for my hand.”

Kevin, 3, sends scarves up through a plastic tube attached to a fan and shrieks with delight as they suspend in the air above his head. (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)

Kevin loves sending silk scarves up through a vertical plastic tube attached to a tiny fan.

“Otra Vez! Otra Vez! (Again! Again!)” he shrieked as he watched them float and suspend above his head.

When a scarf got stuck on a ceiling fan, he had to figure out how to retrieve it. At the Nest, kids get to make a lot of decisions. They’ve had so little control over what has happened so far in their young lives.

Eventually, Kevin and several other kids lugged over a heavy ladder. A volunteer teacher from San Diego supervised them as they climbed up to get the scarf down.

Alise Shafer Ivey spent 34 years as the director of a private nonprofit school in Santa Monica, before founding the Pedagogical Institute of Los Angeles, which sponsors "Nests" at refugee camps and shelters around the world. (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)

That kind of waiting, watching and letting kids problem-solve has been eye-opening for some parents.

“I’ve learned to be a better dad,” said Alfredo, another asylum-seeker who has been volunteering at the Nest (KQED isn’t using his real name to protect him from being located by a cartel that had targeted his family). “I used to tell them, ‘No, do it this way. Because I said so.’ And I learned that I was wrong. Having them do things on their own gives them more confidence in their decisions.”

Paintings dry on a rack in the outdoor art area at the Nest. (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)

The Nest also seeks to offer the children a refuge from the crowded shelter, where many of their fellow residents are fleeing life-threatening violence. A few ways they do that: forbidding adults from talking about adult problems and banning cellphones. The adults who volunteer just focus on being with the kids.

“We protect the sacredness of this place,” said Ivey. “This is about children.”