'We are sending all of our love': U.S. families write letters to refugee children missing their parents

American children read the letters they wrote to refugee children who are separated from their parents.

'To help these children is something that we should all be wanting to do'

(Anny Celsi, Mike Marquez/Unsplash, Jess Watters/Unsplash)
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As the heart-wrenching sound of young children crying out for their mothers and fathers reverberated around the world this week, Morgan Walsh found herself at a loss.

"It was just a shot to the heart," recalled Walsh, a business owner and mother of three. "But we felt powerless."

The forced separation of families who crossed over the southern U.S. border seeking asylum has sparked criticism around the world — and across the political spectrum.

According to Homeland Security, more than 2,300 minors were split from their families at the border between May 5 and June 9.

It's like, 'What do we do? How do we get to these children?'- Morgan Walsh

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to end the practice of separating refugee families.

But uncertainty lingers for the thousands of children who have already been taken from their parents, many of whom are still hundreds of miles away from their families.

Walsh, whose own children are between the ages of 6 and 11, found herself compelled to help in whatever way she could.

"It's like, 'What do we do? How do we get to these children?'"

"By coincidence, I was connected to an organization who said, 'You know what? What we could use are letters, and maybe a stuffed animal. Some act of kindness for these kids.'"

That was all the prompting Walsh needed.

From left: Operation Comfort organizers Morgan Walsh, Deanna Russo, and Casey Wilson. (Anny Celsi)

Operation Comfort

Walsh started to spread the word to interested families, along with co-organizers Casey Wilson and Deanna Russo.

"Just in 24 hours, we have received dozens of boxes of teddy bears," she said.

On June 20, the women hosted the first of two letter-writing sessions where community members could drop in to write a small card or note of comfort for the refugee children still separated from their families.

"It just seems like not nearly enough, frankly," said Walsh. "But it's the beginning of a gesture to show them who we are, or who I would like to be as a citizen."

8-year-old Griffin works on a letter and illustration at the Operation Comfort gathering in L.A. (Anny Celsi)

Many of the people who showed up were parents with small children of their own, some of whom had been very upset to hear about what was happening to other kids and their families.

New mom Nicole Shabtai was among those gathered around the craft tables. Her eyes teared up as she listened to a friend reading her letter out loud.

"I just had a baby six months ago," said Shabtai. "I can't imagine being separated from her. I can't imagine what these parents are going through. I can't imagine what these babies are going through."

"I just want to do whatever I can to send love to them."

Families were encouraged to write letters in both English and Spanish. (Anny Celsi)
           

From one child to another

The letter-writing tables were also full of young kids, who enthusiastically decorated cards and drawings while their parents helped them write letters in both Spanish and English.

Among them was six-year-old Jolie. When her mom asked her why she wanted to come and write letters, her answer was simple.

"Because I want to help them feel better," she said.

Elsewhere in the room, a little boy named Santiago was writing busy writing letters of his own.

"I know you don't have a family or a love," he read out loud. "So I give you this gift so you can feel like you're in a family."

Santiago's mother, Maritza Moreno, says she hopes to send a message to the kids that there are people in the United States who care about them and their futures.

"We just came here to write some letters to these kids, give them a little bit of strength and hope in order to get them through this tough time," she said.

"I can't imagine anyone being taken away from their parents at such a young age and it's heartbreaking."

"I'm writing this letter for the kids, so they can feel like they're in a family again," Santiago explained. "I hope they like it."

8-year-old Griffin poses with his letter. (Anny Celsi)

To hear Santiago, Jolie and other children and parents read aloud from their letters, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

Special thanks to freelance producer Anny Celsi for gathering interviews for this story.