Over the past couple of days, my wife Katie and I have been preparing to say good-bye to our daughter, Nikki, as she has prepared to leave home and re-locate to St. Paul, Minnesota. She has lived with us for this past year after graduating from Luther College, and felt that the time had come to spread her wings and experience city life. It’s a day that is inevitable for most parents and children, although that fact doesn’t seem to make the parting any easier. For Katie and me, it’s the symbolic end to our parental caregiving role; we’ve seen the last of our kids through to their independence. For Nikki, it might have felt a little bittersweet, as well, since even her college years were spent here in Decorah. She had immediate access to home whenever she felt the need. We packed up her belongings and moved her north to a new chapter of life and her future. She leaves with our love and fondest hopes for health, happiness and a fulfilling life.
I’ve experienced all of this before, of course. Nikki’s three siblings have previously flown from our nest. But through the work of Winds of Peace, I’m also acutely aware of the the seemingly endless numbers of young Nicaraguan youth who choose to leave their homes, but under some very different circumstances.
In Nikki’s case, she has moved into a very nice apartment in an upscale portion of the city, with a friend she had known from college. It’s a beautiful and vibrant neighborhood that feels safe and yet bustling with both the challenges and opportunities of a city. By sheerest of coincidences, her place turns out to be right next door to one of her sisters, a happy fact which likely blunts the separation anxieties for both Nikki and her parents. She is in close proximity to all of the supporting entities she will need: grocery, banking, shopping, fitness venues, transportation access and more. Her location is within 20 minutes of her other sister and 20 minutes of her brother. By virtue of hard and diligent work over the past year, Nikki has acquired her own car, begun paying back some school loans and created a small reserve for her move. All the pieces for success would seem to be in place. In fact, as Katie and I reflected about the move last night, we wondered what, exactly, we had to be anxious about; the odds could not be more in her favor.
But this is not the norm for many Nicaraguan youth who relocate their lives. Frequently, they are leaving the country entirely, migrating to other Central American locations or the United States, desperately seeking opportunities to earn money or discover what they perceive to be a far better quality of life than that which they experienced within their own home settings. Most often they seek means to support the family members left behind, sending remittances back to their homes to help with basic needs there. Some will take a less perilous road and seek employment of any sort in neighboring Costa Rica or El Salvador, away from family and friends, not because they want to be but because they perceive no other alternative. Others will take on the risk of dangerously and illegally entering the U.S. After the migration underground depletes them of whatever funds they may have, these kids face unforgiving hazards in rivers, mountains and deserts. They must learn how to elude border guards and citizen vigilante groups, stave off starvation and dehydration, find their way to unknown destinations where they might finally be able to blend in to a population and perhaps find work, and then live under a cloud of fear of imprisonment and deportation. In any case, the future is fraught with insecurity, danger, deprivation and minimal odds for success.
Last night we said good-bye to Nikki with lumps in our throats but with reasonable assurance that her journey would be safe and her destination would be welcoming; in any event, we knew that we would talk with her by phone whenever any of us desired to do so. But I know that at precisely the same moment, there were other parents in Nicaragua saying good-byes with decidedly different feelings about the well-being of their departing children. Their good-byes were wrapped in the uncertainty of when they might see each other again, fears of the dangers posed to unsheltered migrants, knowledge of the perils awaiting the young and a sense of powerlessness to protect a son or a daughter. Such are the motives born of desperation, and found within us all.
There may be nothing new in the entire process for either the Sheppards or our Nicaraguan counterparts; it represents a rite of passage for both parent and child in both cases, however different those passages may be. The reasons and the destinations of our youth may be very different. Their aspirations probably do not resemble each other. Their outcomes are likely to be worlds apart. But I know that the emotions experienced in a U.S. good-bye are not so different from those felt in Nicaragua. In that regard we are all alike, however different we may choose to see ourselves. Katie and I hope that if Nikki ever becomes lost in navigating her way around the Twin Cities, someone will have the kindness to show her the way. I know that a Nicaraguan mom or dad feels exactly that same hope….