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By Jennifer Powers

Tears of joy streamed down the faces of the Sanchez family as they reunited for the first time in 15 years, at Orlando International Airport June 9th.  Roxana and Sara Sanchez, arriving from El Salvador, were 6 and 4 the last time they saw their father, Jeremias Sanchez, who had been marking off the days on a calendar until they arrived.  Their mother Maria Sanchez, and U.S. -born brother, 8 year old Pablo, joined the rest of the family in an emotional group hug, clinging to each other in relief that they were finally together.   Jeremias says of the waiting, “These have been the longest 12 hours of my life.”  The girls first touched down in Miami before coming to Orlando. “We were pinching each other to make sure it was real,” says older sister Roxana.  “We were emotional and very excited, wondering what it was going to be like.”

Roxana and Sara came to the United States through a program established in December 2014 by the U.S. Government.  The program was developed in response to the humanitarian crisis at the U.S./Mexico border, which dominated the news in the summer of 2014, when unaccompanied Central American children were crossing the border in large numbers.  The program provides refugee processing in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, for those deemed to be in need of humanitarian protection in the United States.  The CAM program primarily gives unmarried children, under 21, trying to reunite with parents who are living lawfully in the U.S., a safe, legal alternative to undertaking the dangerous, sometimes deadly, journey to the United States.  The process is lengthy and slow, starting with a complicated application that must be completed through an affiliate organization of one of the 9 resettlement agencies in the United States.  For the Sanchez family, they were assisted by staff members at Catholic Charities of Central Florida.  Once the application was completed, the process required interviews and DNA testing to establish the family relationship, all of which took, for the Sanchez family, nearly 15 months to complete.

The Sanchez girls come from a rural town outside of San Salvador, El Salvador.  Last year in their country, the homicide rate spiked, putting the country on pace to pass Honduras as the homicide capital of the world.  With the growing prevalence of gangs and organized-crime in the region, as well as drug and human trafficking, normal activities like going to school have become very dangerous.  With no secondary school near their home past 6th grade, the girls would have to ride a bicycle for 45 minutes to catch a bus for another 1 ½ hours to get to school.  Younger sister Sara decided to work instead of attending school after 8th grade, taking a job as a housekeeper earning $1.05 per hour at a hotel.  Their parents worked multiple jobs in the U.S. to be able to send money to the relatives that were caring for their children.  Having a parent in the United States, put the girls in danger, and in 2012, a man contacted the mother and demanded a $2000 ransom.  The mother, fearing for her children’s safety, paid the extortionist who gave her explicit instructions not to contact the police and how to pay the money. Afterwards, Roxana had to drop out of school and was afraid to leave the house.  Maria sent her girls to live in another town for their safety.

Since their arrival in Orlando, the girls have been busy getting to know their father, and reacquainted with their mother, who has only been able to see them twice since she left El Salvador and came to the United States with the girls’ father.  Friends and neighbors have been inviting them to dinner and showing them around their new city.  When asked how things were different than in their home country, Sara remarked, “Everything is bigger than I imagined.  The streets are paved and you have to ride in a car everywhere.  If you want to get a coconut at home, you would just climb a tree.  Here, you have to buy it at Bravo.”

Mirta Perez, assigned to the case from Catholic Charities of Central Florida has been following the family’s progress since their mother Maria first came to the office in March 2015 to complete the CAM application.  “It is awesome to see the full circle, helping them through the process, and witnessing the love and support the girls will be getting from their mom and dad,” reflected Perez.  “The parents are very aware that they are not going to regain the years that have been lost.  They are putting it in the past and moving forward to build a better life for their daughters.”