UNICEF CEO Caryl Stern on What She Saw at the Border

UNICEF CEO Caryl Stern on What She Saw at the Border

After Jeff Sessions' "zero tolerance" policy for people crossing the US-Mexico border resulted in families being separated and detained far away from each other, activists, celebrities, journalists and volunteers have headed to the area to protest, report on what they see and see how they can help. For the most part, little access has been granted inside the detention centers where children are being held away from their parents. Melania Trump's trip to one such shelter was contained to a few rooms, and while press were granted at one point limited access to a large camp for boys in Texas, the public was concerned that it hadn't yet seen or heard from the girls, toddlers and infants aside from a leaked recording of their cries.

Amidst that chaos, UNICEF CEO Caryl Stern traveled to the border near McAllen, Texas with a team to better understand the situation. UNICEF is of course one of the largest organizations working on behalf of children in the world, with outposts in 190 countries and a 70 year track record of working with the United Nations. Stern described to PAPER what she saw at the border, how it reminds her of her mother's childhood escape from Nazi Germany and why we should still have hope for humanity:

So, you just got back from a trip to the border.

It was a really interesting experience because UNICEF International works with the countries of origin where all of these children are fleeing from. We're researching the root causes and obviously, we feel really strongly that the best solution is going to be finding solutions to the problems that are causing the kids to flee, to begin with. The intent of the trip, working on the other side of the border in Guatemala and Mexico, was to just go down and see how the children are being treated and to see what's going on first hand.

Where did you go, and what did you see?

The first day of the trip, we were briefed by a number of leaders who are doing work on the border and we heard a number of stories. We took a walk across the bridge into Mexico and back. It was a quieter day; as you walk to across to Mexico you see the river and you see a cross that is a symbolic monument dedicated to those who have not successfully made it across the border, so you're immediately hit in the face with what is going on. It was myself, members from UNICEF and members from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

We got to where you actually have to show your passport, and there was a woman who was standing there in the hot sun clearly in distress, carrying a five-year-old and crying. We stopped to ask if she was okay, and she told us that she had been standing there and was told to wait. We were being waved right in. The border guards told us that we couldn't talk to her or take pictures. They told us we were blocking the way and we needed to move. We said, "We will come in but why can't she come into the waiting room that's completely empty and air-conditioned?" We were polite and they were polite, I don't want to give the wrong impression. The guards said okay, and then took them into a back room. I asked if I could go with them and they wouldn't let me go with her. So, we got our first small taste of what it's like to cross that bridge.

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It was interesting because anytime we asked any questions, they kept saying you have to call our public affairs office. When I went to passport control, one of the border guards followed me and handed me a piece of paper with the phone number for public affairs and kind of whispered to me, When you call ask to speak to—he gave me a name—he will answer your questions honestly. These people on the border were not without compassion or concern, it was just really odd.

Then we went to Sister Norma's shelter, which was phenomenal. It was a place where people were treated with such respect and dignity was returned to them. Kids were playing and there was such a sense of warmth coming in. It's a place where they come and people help make arrangements for bus tickets to wherever they are going next, they get a hot meal and are able to take a shower. The children get checked out by the doctors who are volunteering there. The atmosphere in that room was hopeful and supportive; Sister Norma is a fierce force. Everything is being operated by volunteers with the exception of Sister Norma. People are just showing up and doing their service and it was just really amazing.

This is on the US side?

Yes, in McAllen, Texas. People go there to make their arrangements. They get clean clothes in their size and food to eat. There is just a recognition there that this journey into our country has been hard enough. It's a place where as a bus arrives from the border, people stand outside and applaud them as they walk in. We really spent some time with the people there and we spent a lot of time with this one man in particular who was traveling with his daughter, who was ill with a cold and the volunteers were giving her some Tylenol and soup. He was crying as he told us that he had to leave his wife and his son at home. He was telling us that he was so scared for them, but he said it was the only way he could possibly ensure that his children would have a future.

The next morning was spent with attorneys who were there working on behalf of the people who were trying to come into our country. After that, we went to the immigration youth court. There were 12 young people being heard that day and only one had an attorney. There was a seven-year-old girl whose dad actually came into the country earlier and he was with her in court—he was sobbing, we were all sobbing. A seven-year-old girl should not have to plead her case in court without representation.

So they have the children basically testify on their own behalf?

Right. The judge that was there attempted to engage the kids and she went beyond where she had to. She first checked out what languages each of the children spoke; there was an interpreter there that spoke Spanish. Some of the kids don't actually speak Spanish, though—they speak different indigenous languages. Then she explained every detail of the process to all 12 kids and actually asked them questions to make sure they really understood what was happening. The judge was caring and impressive. When the kids go up to the judge, it's either their first or second time in court, and this little girl went up for the second time and she was just so scared, she didn't know what she was or wasn't supposed to say.

There was also one young man who was sitting in front of me, he was 16 years old and his leg was shaking the whole entire morning. When he got up to take his turn, he was there requesting a return to his home. The judge asked, "Do you really want to go home?" And he said, "No, but my father has told me that I should tell you that I want to go home." The judge asked, "Well, why don't you want to go home?" He said, "Well I'm afraid to go home, I'm not safe there." So, the judge did not grant his request to go home.

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We have a legal system, in our country, that has been built on the best interest of the child. That's why we have family court and judges and attorneys that are specially trained in family law. You just have a really hard time watching this process and seeing it happen from the beginning to the end, from border to trial. These are children, they are not refugees or illegal aliens or any of those labels that they are given—they are kids, just like my own kids. We have to stop defining them from their borders and see them for what they really are. We need to define them by their age, they are children first. We have to treat them accordingly.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It sounds like the children you saw were not affected specifically by the zero tolerance separation policy. Is that because they came over before that happened?

At the border, you are going to find a lot of situations with children. There are those who have been sponsored who come in with an address they are going to. The problem with that is that the United States is not doing background checks on those who are sponsoring them and there is no follow up once they arrive, so there are a lot of concerns with that group—oftentimes these children are being trafficked. The second group are those that come with a parent or a family member, and those are the people who have been in the news because of the original order to separate. The third group are children who come unaccompanied and those are the kids that I saw most in the courtroom. They have come across by themselves.

They're just showing up with nowhere to go.


On a personal level, my mother was in that same situation at one time. She was six years old and her brother was four. They were living in Vienna with their parents when the Nazis came. Their parents had to make a choice to send them away, because it was the only way that they could ensure their safety. They knew that if they were to keep them in Vienna, their lives would be at risk. They sent them to the United States with a family friend, who my mother never saw again because when they got here they were put in an orphanage on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. So, I have grown up with that story.

When this was all heating up, I called my mom and asked her what that experience, that journey of coming here as a child was like. She said, "We were scared, but I knew I was going to a place that was safe and going to a place that welcomed me when we got here. The people wrapped their arms around us and cared for us. Our parents told us how much they loved us and prepared us for this." So, she never felt ripped. These children didn't get that privilege. They're living in environments that are not healthy. You think about a very young child, and the buffer between the world and that child is a parent, and then that buffer is completely ripped away from them.

Were you able to visit any children that have been taken away from their parents?

No, we were not allowed. We did apply two weeks ago and we were denied with a letter that stated that there had been too many visits and they would consider allowing us at another time. I was in Haiti, after the earthquake and I remember children saying to me, "When are they going to stop looking at us like we're animals at the zoo?" There's a part of me that understands that they would want to limit the number of people coming to look at these children that are in a horrific situation, but UNICEF and the American Academy of Pediatrics are the two largest and most respected organizations who protect the children in the world. You would think we would be a priority visit.

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How do you feel about the fact that journalists haven't been able to see the girls or the infants?

Having not been inside, I can't really tell you what that is exactly about. It's hard to comment.

People feel very helpless but want to help. What would be your suggestion, especially if for those who don't live in a border state?

There are a number of things that we can do as Americans. The first thing people can do is see them as children first, and educate themselves on the topic and stop labeling them and consider their needs. The best interest of the child should be our highest priority.

Secondly, there is a lot of care that is needed when they cross the border and that takes dollars and support. So I would say to people choose where you send your support wisely. Send it to organizations that have been doing this work for a long time and not those that are suddenly popping up. You want your dollars to be used wisely.

The third way people can help is to be welcoming when these people come in to our communities, and to help their children understand that too. Lastly, we should be demanding of our government to help solve the problems in the countries where these kids are fleeing from, and also ask future candidates where they stand on these issues.

How do you hope this situation will unfold?

I think there are many good people. For every horrific act, I see people standing up to it. I was awed by our youth standing up for it and realizing that activism brings change. I am hopeful that although there were some decisions made, that I don't believe were the right decisions, there have been changes made to them and am hopeful that as a country we will come together and figure out how we can do things better.

Photos via Getty