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Unaccompanied children in Miami face daunting challenges with resilience

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In March, the pandemic will have officially been a part of our lives for a year and the lasting effects it will have are still to be determined. In Miami, unaccompanied children were among those hit the hardest by the isolation, economic uncertainty and emotional toll the pandemic has brought to us all. However, by their own resilience and the support of community members--like you--many unaccompanied children have continued to adapt and thrive to their new homes. 

Unaccompanied Children (UC) are children who enter the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian and then enter the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an office of the Administration of Children and Families. Many leave their home countries to be reunified with family, while others leave to escape violence and persecution. UCs are released to sponsors who are relatives or family friends who are willing and able to temporarily offer guardianship. 

Read more about the IRC’s Unaccompanied Children program in South Florida

Once UCs arrive to their new homes, they face several challenges that are not limited to their unfamiliarity with their new communities. Many UCs have experienced severe trauma that can lead to increased levels of anxiety, depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which impede UCs’ ability to heal and effectively participate in critical activities, such as going to school. In other cases, UCs have undiagnosed illnesses that are then identified once they arrive to the U.S. and that require immediate treatment, most of which are common, though some are life-threatening. UCs have no lawful immigration status, and therefore do not have access to many the protections and services available to address these challenges.

Photo: IRC

“Unaccompanied minors go through a rigorous journey to get to the United States to reunify with family members. Our goal is to address any past trauma from the journey or that may have occurred in their home country. Through the initial transition period, families face difficulties navigating complex systems such as immigration, school enrollments, and medical access. Using a holistic approach to case management we hope to support and empower the families to achieve overall wellness and autonomy.” - Kristina Montes, Senior Caseworker, IRC’s UC Program in South Florida

Although UCs demonstrate courage and resilience, they are children and need the support of their sponsors and the community. The pandemic has brought many changes and challenges to everyone across the world, including UCs and their sponsors. They have experienced social isolation along with economic instability. The IRC’s prioritization of securing essential components to clients’ safety—such as housing and food--allows UCs and their sponsors to continue addressing the challenges that existed prior to the onset of the pandemic and its current impact on their lives. 

The Office of Refugee Resettlement reports that since 2014, a total of 25,188 unaccompanied children (UC) have been reunited with their sponsors in Florida. 

Joseph Salcedo, IRC Caseworker, who joined the Unaccompanied Minor program in January 2021 shares a client story that provides context to some of the challenges faced by many UCs and their sponsors and the IRC’s ability to provide immediate, critical support: 

(Name of the clients and other details have been substituted to protect the privacy and security of clients)

Sofia and Victoria are two sisters who currently reside in South Florida and who arrived to the area recently after being released to their sponsors. Sofia, eight, and the youngest of the sisters, was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes shortly after her release. Although Sofia is currently eligible for a special voucher program where she can receive medical services at a reduced cost, her lack of status prevents her from accessing additional forms of services and obtain medical insurance coverage. As Sofia’s condition has worsened over the weeks, her sponsor has been forced to reduce her work hours to part-time in order to provide care to Sofia, but this reduced the household income and placed the family in a precarious situation. The IRC, with the support of the community and partners, provided direct cash assistance to stabilize the family’s housing situation. As a result, the family was able to pay for two months of rent and continue to seek treatment for Sofia. 

Photo: IRC UC Program

Despite these challenges, IRC caseworkers report that most of their clients have continued to engage in services, attend school and address many of the obstacles they face as they settle in their new homes. Many of the UCs sponsors who have face economic challenges as a result of the pandemic have also managed to remain employed. With the support of the community and other partners across the region, UCs have been able to face the challenges and continue their journey towards healing.

To learn more about the work of the IRC in Florida and for information on how you can get involved with the IRC as a donor or volunteer, please contact Development Manager, JC Torres, at juan.torres [at] rescue.org (subject: IRC%20in%20Florida)  or 786-325-6257. 

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