We were strangers once, too

The YAC youth media team seeks to understand and share the voices and stories of undocumented and unaccompanied minors in the region, as well as to identify resources and stakeholders who are currently working to assist and advocate for this population. What is happening in terms of addressing the issue, and what is being done on the policy level, both locally and nationally?

Among the photos is a profile picture of Manuel, a 17-year-old student at Mission Bay High School who came to the United States when he was 5 years old. His father was living in the United States and saved enough money for Manuel and his family to join him.

After traveling by plane and bus within Mexico, Manuel crossed the border with a family he did not know. “I had to act like I was their child,” Manuel said. Once in America, his parents told him to always tell people that he was from the United States, fearing deportation.

“When I was little, I grew up with the mentality of avoiding conflict with the police or law enforcement,” Manuel said.

When he enrolled in Advanced Placement classes in high school, he grew less talkative out of fear of discrimination and isolation.

“My (past) teacher from second grade helped me apply for (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status),” Manuel said. “She helped me file the application, drove us to the offices and helped me throughout the whole process. Now, I see her as a friend.”

After being approved for DACA status, Manuel feels safer and more protected. He is currently a member of Reality Changers, a City Heights-based nonprofit that transforms lives, schools, and communities by providing youths from disadvantaged backgrounds with the academic support, financial assistance and leadership training to become first-generation college students.

Manuel’s advice to undocumented youths is to “look to organizations like the Reality Changers because they can help you achieve your goals.  They can support you and make you feel like you are not alone.”

The AjA Project is a nonprofit organization based in City Heights. Utilizing participatory photography methods and an assets-based model, AjA’s programs transform youths and communities.