Estefanía Rebellón knows the trauma that arises from being forced to flee her home for safety. She understands the fear and uncertainty felt by the more than 70 million migrant and forcibly displaced children around the world.
She was also a migrant child.
“My family’s case is the case of many refugees and migrants on the border. For our family, leaving our home was never an option. They forced us to leave there,” said Rebellón, 32 years old.
He was 10 years old when his family fled Cali, Colombia, due to death threats to his father, who had been forced into hiding. They settled in Miami and, with the support of the school’s teachers, Rebellón prospered. Now, through his non-profit organization, Yes We Can World Foundationprovides education to children living in limbo in shelters on the US-Mexico border.
Rebellón moved from Miami to Los Angeles when she was 21 to pursue an acting career. In 2018, she was so moved after volunteering at migrant camps in Tijuana that she put her career on hold.
“Schools were not created to help these children. They walked barefoot through the fields,” she said. “I couldn’t forget what I had just seen. And I thought, ‘I literally have to go back.'”
Rebellón and his partner, Kyle Schmidt, used about $1,000 of their savings to buy tents and supplies and set up a makeshift school on the border. They recruited volunteer teachers to provide learning opportunities at the camps.
“We set up a school overnight and… we only told a couple of kids,” Rebellón said. “It spread throughout the camp and we had like more than 50 kids surrounding us.”
In the following months, when families living in the camps were moved to shelters, Rebellón and Schmidt wanted to continue offering educational services.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we turn a bus into a mobile classroom and we can take it to all the different shelters?'” Rebellón said. “We literally just Googled and YouTubed how to turn a bus into a mobile classroom.”
Over the next year, Rebellón and Schmidt purchased and dismantled a bus, partnered with shelters, and drove the converted bus across the border. Their goal: to offer bilingual educational programs to keep children in school.
“All the families we work with and all the children we work with on a daily basis are legally seeking asylum,” Rebellón said. “They are going through all the processes that are required of them.”
The Rebellón organization hires professional teachers and adapts its curriculum to the specific needs of each student. The program has been accredited by Mexico’s Ministry of Education and serves children ages 3 to 15, a crucial period for education, Rebellón says.
Despite the challenges she faced as a migrant child, she says she was lucky to have teachers who advocated for her and guided her along the way.
Many migrant children do not have this support and are often marginalized and miss valuable school time. Many have been traveling for months, if not years, and struggle to attend school because they are often in transit, without a permanent home. Security, economic instability, poverty, lack of transportation, and perceived legal status are also factors.
“People don’t realize that this is such a long process for families,” Rebellón said. “It’s not just that you arrive at the border, seek asylum and your life is a rainbow. “It takes decades, a lot of work and a lot of pain.”
Rebellón’s family navigated a decades-long legal process to obtain political asylum and then American citizenship. His parents, both lawyers by profession, were forced to abandon their careers in Colombia and accept new jobs in the United States to support their family of five. Her mother worked several jobs as a caregiver and her father worked nights at Walmart. He has worked there full time for almost 20 years.
“Every time I have the opportunity, I share my immigration story with (the children),” Rebellón said. “I always want the children who go through our programs to realize that being a migrant is not something they should be ashamed of.”
Today, the Yes We Can Foundation educates between 250 and 300 children per day through its four schools along the border and three mobile school buses. Since 2019, Rebellón says the group has served more than 3,100 migrant children from 10 countries.
Its program runs from Monday to Friday from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. The school runs all year round, without summer holidays. They also provide free uniforms, backpacks, and school supplies. Lessons focus on common core instruction in the subjects of language arts, mathematics, and science, as well as addressing immediate, practical needs, such as how to translate basic information, including phone numbers and addresses.
“I want our efforts to be something permanent,” Rebellón said. “And that when all is said and done, we will be proud to look back and say that we were there when people needed us most.”
Do you want to get involved? Verify the Yes We Can World Foundation website and see how to help.
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