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Teens who fled peril for U.S. get 1st Thanksgiving feast in S.F.

Jill Tucker | November 26, 2014 | SF Chronicle

Original article

It took 17-year-old Yancarlos Santos Lopez three months to get to America, riding on top of trains, sleeping when and where he could, risking his life to escape an even more dangerous existence in Honduras, where he said gangs either killed boys or recruited them.

He arrived in San Francisco in September — following 40 days in a Texas detention facility — and for the first time in more than four years, he went to school.

At Mission High School, he’s learning how to learn again, how to speak English, and on Tuesday, how to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, his first ever.

In the school’s industrial kitchen, he and several other students put on aprons, got a turkey in the oven, then prepared mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows, and an apple pie.

Most of the students are among the surge of unaccompanied minors who have come to the United States from Central America in the past year. They all have a harrowing tale of how they got here — and why they risked the journey.

More than 57,000 children have been detained at the U.S.-Mexico border since October. Most are being placed in California, Texas, Florida or New York. The vast majority of these children come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where gang violence and poverty offer little hope for the future, especially for the boys.

“The gangs,” Yancarlos said in Spanish. “I never wanted to be a part of that, but they come after you. There, they’ll kill somebody and the police don’t do anything. Here, you’re safe.”

Mission High School has become a safe haven for many of the unaccompanied minors landing in San Francisco. About 60 of the school’s 1,000 students came to the country alone, often traveling with human smugglers called coyotes, Principal Eric Guthertz said.

Across the school district, there were 1,000 recent immigrants enrolled on the first day of school in August in San Francisco — many unaccompanied minors.

The district hired an unaccompanied-minor coordinator this year to address the needs of these students.

“As young as they are, they’re doing it for family,” said Angelina Romero, district coordinator for Hispanic unaccompanied minors and other newcomer students. “It’s a very selfless endeavor even if they are running for their own life. As terrible as that was, it’s still better than where they were.”

Romero is meeting with all the unaccompanied students and connecting them with any legal or social services they might need.

Mission High also got funding to hire an additional teacher specifically to handle the influx of students — most of whom, like Yancarlos, have gone years without any formal education and have experienced significant trauma in their home country and on their journey here. The vast majority are boys.

The teacher, Bill Wallace, carved the turkey Tuesday afternoon as sweet potatoes cooked in the oven and the gravy cooled on the stove. He had organized the “First Thanksgiving” for the students.

“It’s a way of showing our traditions and that we’re really glad they’re here,” Wallace said. “They get up every day to come to school, and it can’t always be easy.”

Amalia Agustin, 15, was the only girl in the kitchen helping cook the meal.

She arrived at the Texas border in May, crossing the desert in four days — just her and 50 men. They walked day and night with little rest.

“It was very scary,” she said, adding it was worth it to be able to continue her studies, something her family couldn’t afford in Guatemala.

The U.S. is “very beautiful and very big,” she said.

The turkey sitting on the counter, however, was kind of strange, she said. So were the sweet potatoes, the mashed potatoes and the stuffing. The apples in the apple pie were the only thing she knew.

“To be honest,” she said, “everything looks strange to me because I’ve never had it.”

This would be her first taste of turkey, her first Thanksgiving.

“They’re so resilient,” said Dawn Woehl, Mission High’s counselor for newcomer students, or those in the country less than a year. “It’s quite amazing that they can adjust so easily.”

Page updated on 11/26/14