“America, where they didn’t let me in,” writes 11-year-old Jose from Honduras in Spanish next to a picture of mountains and trees on a canvas in blue, green and brown colors. He also drew a river — the Rio Grande that separates him from Brownsville, Texas, where his family hopes to claim asylum. “La tierra prometida,” he writes. “The promised land.”
Jose is one of at least 1,450 migrants who are living in a tent encampment on the streets of Matamoros, a city in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, as a result of the Trump Administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. Dozens of children in Matamoros drew their experiences as part of an art project, photos of which were provided exclusively to TIME by Dr. Belinda Arriaga, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco who specializes in child trauma and Latino mental health. She traveled to Matamoros Oct. 19-25 as part of a group of volunteers who provided aid and psychological care to migrant children and their families.
The six drawings depict family members separated by the Rio Grande, children inside cages and images of America. In one photo, a drawing by 9-year-old Genesis depicts crocodiles in a river near a vehicle she labelled “Policía.” Her family, in tears, are standing in Mexico, while her tía, or aunt, cries for them in the U.S. “Quiero irme de aquí porque no puedo ser felíz y no puedo dormir,” she has written on the drawing. “I want to leave from here because I can’t be happy and I can’t sleep.”
In order to protect the identity of the children, TIME has covered some identifying information in the drawings.
“Their drawings become their voice,” Arriaga adds. “When they started handing me one-by-one their pieces, it was really jolting to see what they were drawing… the drawings help us understand the trauma that this country is inflicting on them.”
Arriaga has traveled from San Francisco to Brownsville and McAllen, Texas, six times to work with children released from family detention since the height of family separation under the Administration’s Zero-Tolerance policy. Arriaga provided similar drawings to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) this summer made by children who depicted themselves in cages after being released from a Customs and Border Protection family detention center in the McAllen region.
This month, on her seventh trip to the Rio Grande Valley region, Arriaga was one of 24 members of the Bay Area Border Relief (BABR) organization who traveled to Matamoros. Many volunteers provided donations, food and therapy to more than a thousand people sleeping in tents or outside at a plaza near the port of entry. Arriaga worked with children who have been waiting in Mexico under the Department of Homeland Security’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) — also known as “Remain in Mexico” — which requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their legal case for asylum progresses. Arriaga participated in group sessions with the children, including sessions that allowed children to draw and express what they’re feeling and what message they wanted to share with the world. About 40 children and some parents participated, Arriaga says.
Arriaga says her encounter with the children in McAllen over the summer was ultimately hopeful. “There was fatigue and exhaustion, yes, but there was hope,” she says. “But with these children [in Matamoros], what we walked away with was a complete sense of desperation… they’re screaming for help.”
Seven-year-old Ivone drew a picture of herself inside of a cage near the river. Her tía waits for her on the other side, standing next to an American flag. An unidentified 7-year-old drew a similar picture. “It’s an emotional trauma that is not easily going to be erased,” Arriaga says. “What they’re living with and what they’re enduring is something that is going to emotionally impact them for a long time.”