I Was an Unaccompanied Minor. Don't You Dare Say My Parents Didn't Love Me | Opinion

The images captured at the U.S.-Mexico border flooding social media in recent weeks are devastating: Thousands of unaccompanied children are streaming into the U.S. from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and parts of Mexico. Most of them are teenagers, but some are as young as six or seven, who have walked thousands of miles to seek asylum.

As a volunteer with a San Diego nonprofit that focuses on migrant children, most Americans I talk to are sympathetic and ask how they can help. But some I've spoken to lately—on both sides of the political spectrum—have expressed a sentiment I found chilling: "I could never send my kids into danger like that."

I find it upsetting to hear this, and not just for the lack of compassion it shows to those whose lives are unlivable. It's also personal for me: I was one of those kids. So I know what I'm talking about when I say that it takes a powerful, selfless love to send a child to a safer place.

I was born in war-torn and oppressive Iran. When I was just 14 years old, my parents made the heart-wrenching decision to send me to America; like today's migrants, I was left alone in the U.S.

The author, aged nine, in Iran

The reason for sending me was simple: Life in Iran had become untenable for me.

I was seven when the Iran-Iraq war began, a year after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Like the ills today's migrants are fleeing, the war would not have happened without U.S. meddling, a CIA-staged coup, and U.S. arms sales to both Iran and Iraq. It lasted eight years and destroyed more than one million lives.

There wasn't a kid in my school who hadn't lost someone, either to the war or to the regime's crackdown on anti-revolutionaries. With every passing year, I grew more depressed and more daring in equal measures. At night, when an unquenching rage stole my sleep, I would sneak out of the house to write anti-regime graffiti on walls, an act that could have landed me in jail or worse.

A neighbor's daughter, my sister's friend, was arrested and later executed. She was a senior in high school. When my dad asked the girl's father what the charges were, he shook his head: "They never told us."

My parents were terrified about what might happen to me. They felt urgently the need to get me out of Iran. But how? No country was welcoming Iranian refugees. We heard stories of smugglers who charged hefty sums to dress their clients in sheep costumes, instructing them to walk on their hands and knees among the sheep grazing on the Iran-Turkey border. They told others to run in a zigzag pattern while running towards Turkey, so as to make them tougher targets for the snipers guarding borders.

Through spectacular good luck, I ended up in Las Cruces, New Mexico and was granted a student visa. For a few months, I lived with an American family and then my brother, who I hadn't seen for ten years (he couldn't visit Iran after he left and we couldn't visit the U.S.).

I was homesick and didn't speak English. When I talked to my parents and sister on the phone, we were on the verge of tears, though they tried to sound cheerful. They loved me deeply. They hated the circumstances that made our separation a reality. They had done the best they could to get me to safety.

That's what I see when I watch the news, or when I volunteer when asylum-seeking families in Tijuana waiting to be processed by U.S. authorities share their stories with me. I've talked to frightened migrants who were sent back to Mexico as part of the Remain in Mexico policy. I've listened to a woman describe her agonizing miscarriage in a detention center without any help or medical attention. One family of grandparents and children watched as gunmen killed the children's father in cold blood. The killers told the family if they didn't leave, they'd be next. Another young man had his eyes gouged out by a drug gang. On one of my visits to a shelter in the heat of July, I watched children shivering, even with blankets around them, due to the trauma they had experienced.

border crisis
A U.S. Border Patrol agent questions families, as a group of unaccompanied minors looks on after they crossed the Rio Grande into Texas on March 25, 2021 in Hidalgo, Texas. John Moore/Getty Images

The reasons for unsustainable life in parts of Mexico and Central America are complicated. Climate disasters have become more common and more intense in the past decade. This past November's Hurricane Eta and Iota devastated entire regions in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala, displacing over 600,000 people. There is also the widespread government corruption, and the authorities' ties to gangs. There is rampant police abuse, and environmental rights activists are routinely assassinated.

But as with Iran, some of the destabilization in Central America is a result of U.S. interventionist policies. Guatemala's long civil war can be traced back to a 1954 U.S.-backed coup against a democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz, in order to protect the profits of United Fruit Company. In 2009, the U.S. supported the military coup in Honduras that ousted president Manuel Zelay, resulting in chaos and instability. In El Salvador, the U.S., in the name of fighting communism, funded and supported rightwing death squads that killed 75,000 people.

When parents in the U.S. shake their heads and wonder how parents in Central America can send unaccompanied children for a journey of several thousand miles for the slight chance they might get U.S. asylum, the dangerous message is this: These parents must not love their children as deeply as we do.

It's time to realize that our foreign policy and our apathy has helped create impossible choices. Let's be clear: No amount of deterrence and abuse will quell the dream of desperate people who will risk everything for a better life for their children. We have no right to question the love of migrant parents. Instead, we should be asking: Why aren't we doing everything in our power to care for these children?

Ari Honarvar is the founder of Rumi With A View, dedicated to building music and poetry bridges across war-torn and conflict-ridden borders. She conducts Resilience through Joy workshops for refugees and volunteers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The views in this article are the writer's own.