Day 6

How a sidewalk school became a lifeline for migrant children stuck on the Mexican side of the U.S. border

A group of teachers and volunteers are working to keep child asylum seekers educated — virtually, thanks to COVID-19 — in border towns across Mexico.

A group of teachers and volunteers are working to keep child asylum seekers educated

Gabriela Fajardo, 26, teaches a Zoom class for Central American children living in camps, various shelters and apartments in other parts of Mexico, from a hallway of an aged building in Matamoros, Mexico. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

A group of teachers and volunteers are working to keep child asylum seekers educated — virtually, thanks to COVID-19 — in border towns across Mexico.

The Sidewalk School, as it's known, offers an hour of schooling in English, math, science and art each weekday, as well as physical education, to children awaiting asylum in the United States.

When Felicia Rangel-Samponaro co-founded the program in 2019, she says an estimated 700 children were living inside an encampment of asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico.

One young girl in particular highlighted the need for a formal education program, she recalls.

"I saw a little girl go through severe depression, something that I've never seen before. She stopped talking. She stopped coming out of her tent," Rangel-Samponaro told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"That's to be expected if you're just sitting around all day with nothing to do, and education was being cut off to them, so we decided to start a school."

Felicia Rangel-Samponaro co-founded the Sidewalk School in 2019 to offer schooling in English, math, science and art each weekday, as well as physical education, to children living in Mexican border towns while awaiting asylum in the United States. (Submitted by Felicia Rangel-Samponaro)

Though the camp in Matamoros, previously the largest on the U.S.-Mexico border, has largely emptied since the Biden administration rolled back the Migrant Protection Program — a Trump-era rule that forced Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States to stay in Mexico until their claim was processed — thousands of children are still arriving at the border.

As of Wednesday, more than 11,000 unaccompanied children are in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the highest number since 2019. The administration recently recently issued a policy change, allowing unaccompanied minors to enter the United States.

For those awaiting their turn to cross, teacher and academic director Rainier Rodriguez — who now lives in Washington, D.C., after his own asylum claim was approved — says that their organization is providing the children a lifeline.

"It's sort of giving them the space to be a kid again instead of worrying, like, 'When are we going to get out of here?'" said Rodriguez.

Sidewalk School goes virtual

When the Sidewalk School started, teachers were working with students in person, often gathered on sidewalks. But last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic upended close contact, the school shifted to virtual learning.

Initially, teachers including Rodriguez used the messaging platform WhatsApp to share worksheets with students and collect their answers. 

Rainier Rodriguez, teacher and academic director of the Sidewalk School, says the organization is providing the children a lifeline. (Submitted by Rainer Rodriguez)

"We were trying to, I guess like the rest of the world, trying to figure out how to do this virtual thing — and on top of that, to do it in a community that doesn't have the resources that other people may have," Rodriguez said.

Tablet computers were eventually provided to some students, paid for with Rangel-Samponaro's own savings and donations collected through crowdfunding campaigns, while others gather around a television set that broadcasts lessons over Zoom.

Internet connections have proven to be less than stable, adding to the challenge of leading remote classes. But local assistants offer support when things go awry.

The teachers meet students where they're at, said Rodriguez. Though they follow the Mexican school curriculum as closely as possibly, they scale their lessons to students' needs.

Simple science experiments and basic English classes are intended to help level students' knowledge so that when they are granted asylum, and placed in a school, they aren't too far behind their peers.

"When you see some kids like this — that they've been in a refugee camp for a couple of years without going to school — then when you try to send them back to school, they find themselves surrounded by younger kids and they may be subject to bullying and stuff like that," said Rodriguez.

WATCH l U.S. President Joe Biden's less restrictive immigration policies give hope to asylum seekers.

Migrants flood U.S. border with hope of looser immigration policies under Biden

2 years ago
Duration 3:13
Thousands of migrants crossing irregularly into the southern U.S. through Mexico see U.S. President Joe Biden’s less restrictive immigration policies as a new opportunity to chase the American dream.

'They need to be fed; they need to have shelter'

Rangel-Samponaro says that the Sidewalk School goes beyond classwork, however. By providing food, clothing and health care to students, she said it's more like a rapid-response organization.

"We know in order for a child to be successful in school, they need to be fed, they need to have shelter and they need to be healthy. So we do all of that," she told Day 6.

With the encampment at Matamoros largely cleared, the Sidewalk School has set its sights on Reynosa, Mexico, another border town about an hour's drive away. 

They're building a school there to house child asylum seekers looking for an education.

The Sidewalk School for children awaiting asylum in the United States is building a new location in Reynosa, Mexico. (Submitted by Felicia Rangel-Samponaro)

Under the Biden administration, Rangel-Samponaro said that the situation for migrants is turning a corner. Just last week, a Sidewalk School teacher she calls Melvin the artist was granted asylum after more than a year of waiting.

"People need to go back to where this all started and this all started under Trump," she said. "Trump is the one who kept people stuck over in Mexico for two years. Plus, he's the one who forced people to live outside the woods with their families, their parents."

"Biden is trying to take us back to where we were before Trump's administration," she added.

But while movement between the two countries is increasing, Rangel-Samponaro expects there to be a need for organizations like hers for a long time to come.

"I think there will always be a need for the Sidewalk School," she said. 

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Reuters. Interview with Felicia Rangel-Samponaro produced by Pedro Sanchez.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?