Ramon Gomez and wife Melani Rivas need to set two more places at their Thanksgiving table Thursday – for their two oldest daughters who they hadn’t seen for 17 years except through photos.
Daughter Xenia was 8 months old and older sister Vanessa was 18 months when Gomez fled his native El Salvador in 1997 to seek a better life for his family in the United States.
He landed in Charlotte, where a sister lived. Rivas arrived a year later. Both paid a “coyote” guide to get them over the U.S. border and to safety.
They left their daughters with his parents in a town near San Salvador. They feared they might never see them again, until President Barack Obama announced a program last December designed to help children in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala safely – and legally – reunite with family on U.S. soil.
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The two teenagers landed at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Nov. 12 to tears, hugs and a joy that one family was whole again.
“We are so happy that they are here and they get to enjoy this beautiful country that we live in,” Gomez said in Spanish through an interpreter, Carynne Spalding, a case aide at the Charlotte-based Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency.
To leave them behind was hard, but Gomez couldn’t find work.
“You’re a father and you want what is best for the family,” said Gomez, who owns a house painting company.
So he left, running and walking for 18 hours after he crossed the U.S. border. Taking two young girls would have been dangerous. In the years since then, he said he wouldn’t allow his daughters to come to America the same way he and his wife did, even as gang violence in El Salvador soared.
“The trek is so difficult, so dangerous,” he said. “The risk was too great. ... The only way to come would have been illegally. That is not what we wanted or my parents wanted.”
Removing from danger
The sisters are the first refugees in North Carolina to be reunited with their parents – both are legally here now – as part of the Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program, processed in the Charlotte region by CRRA, the refugee resettlement agency.
The State Department program designates resettlement agencies such as the CRRA as the only organizations that can process applications from the minors program.
To date, the local agency has processed 100 applications and is holding workshops to help parents with legal status in America file applications for children under 21 they fear are in danger in those three countries.
The children must meet the U.S. definition of refugee, showing proof they’re in danger of “persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group” in their home country.
They also must clear several background checks by U.S. authorities.
The program’s aim is to prevent the surge of unaccompanied minors who have endured terrifying conditions in their attempt to flee their home countries. Last year, more than 68,000 unaccompanied minors arrived at the U.S. border scared and exhausted, surviving on little food and water, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The three countries are increasingly racked by the gang violence and an eroding economy that drove Gomez and Rivas over the border. El Salvador is one of the world’s most violent countries, with 900 people murdered last August in a country of 6.3 million.
Gomez and Rivas worried every day for their daughters. They spoke to them by phone but knew the violence was escalating.
“The situation in these countries are horrible and getting worse,” said Amber Schrenkel, a projects manager who is overseeing the minor program for the Charlotte refugee resettlement agency. “Before this presidential mandate, these people had no way to bring their relatives here.”
Completing a dream
Shortly after the program was announced, Gomez’s sister saw information about it on social media and called her brother and sister-in-law right away. They applied in March and learned a week before Xenia and Vanessa arrived that they would be landing in Charlotte on Nov. 12.
A crowd of relatives gathered, including the sisters’ three siblings born in Charlotte they’d never met: brothers Kevin, 2, and Justin, 10, and 15-year-old sister Jayleen.
“It was exciting to see my older sisters for the first time,” said Jayleen, a sophomore at Independence High. “I had talked to them on the phone, but to see them was ‘Wow, they’re finally here. This is how they are, this is what they look like.’ ”
Their first night in America, they ate pizza, a food reserved for celebrations in El Salvador. Their first weekend they went to the mall.
“So many stores,” Vanessa said about her first impressions of her new home.
As the family talked about their new life together, David Cerros, who left El Salvador in 2000, sat listening and day-dreaming, tearing up at their happiness.
Cerros, who works in maintenance and housekeeping for two Charlotte hotels, has applied for his three daughters – ages 21, 18 and 15 – to join him in Charlotte through the program.
He came on a tourist visa, but he and the girls’ mother decided it’d be best for him to stay and find work. On his visa, he’s been back twice in 15 years.
Because of the distance, Cerros and his wife could not maintain their marriage and divorced. Now, because of the danger at home, the two want their daughters to live with Cerros in Charlotte. He’s legally here, too, with a temporary protected status that is revisited every 18 months.
Last week, he moved out of an apartment he shared with a roommate into one that will house his family.
“I know that very soon they are coming,” he said. “I don’t know when. But when I was listening to this dad and mom I was thinking about me and my daughters. I cried.
“It’s a dream to have my daughters here that I thought was impossible. When they get here, my dream will be complete.”
For more information
Call Carynne Spalding at Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency at 980-272-0224 or email firstname.lastname@example.org; or www.uscis.gov/CAM.