Texas woman risks cartel violence to teach migrant children in Mexico

Felicia Rangel-Samponaro is committed to helping young people trapped in a worsening humanitarian disaster

Meet the Texan who has spent her life savings helping migrant children on the border

Meet the Texan who has spent her life savings helping migrant children on the border
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Walking briskly through the aisles of a supermarket in Reynosa, Mexico, Felicia Rangel-Samponaro quickly fills two large shopping trolleys with tortilla chips, granola bars, juices and water.

She has driven for more than an hour from her US home in Brownsville, Texas, to one of the most dangerous cities south of the border on the front line with the country's war against the drug cartels.

Pictures of people missing or presume dead in cartel violence are plastered around the streets, on walls, by traffic lights and anywhere else someone might be able to read them.

They kidnapped me for a day and then let me go. It was just a warning so that I would know what would happen if I didn't pay them

But the Texan is unfazed by the danger. Ms Rangel-Samponaro, a 44-year-old former teacher, is determined to help some of the thousands of migrants and asylum seekers that are stuck in the city.

As the Biden administration tries to solve a growing crisis along its southern frontier, villages and cities on the Mexican side of the border are filling with people eager to enter the US.

Ms Rangel-Samponaro takes her supplies to Plaza Las Americas, where dozens of migrants recently turned away by US Customs and Border Protection have gathered.

Seconds after her arrival, children swarm around Ms Rangel-Samponaro and her friends. In a matter of minutes, they’ve handed out all their provisions.

Ms Rangel-Samponaro has made it her life's work to help US asylum seekers.

“A lot of people don't realise that these are US asylum seekers. They actually belong to us,” she said. “They don’t belong to Mexico. The US asylum seekers are our responsibility.”

Ms Rangel-Samponaro has been volunteering on the Mexican side of the border since November 2018. She felt compelled to start helping out after watching the news and hearing about former president Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies.

Handing out food and water is only a small part of how Ms Rangel-Samponaro makes an impact.

In August 2019, she started the pavement School for Children Asylum Seekers in Matamoros, Mexico, a border city near the country’s eastern coast.

At that time, hundreds of migrants turned away from the US by the Trump administration had set up a makeshift encampment on the southern bank of the Rio Grande that serves as a natural barrier between the two countries.

Ms Rangel-Samponaro was struck by the terrible living conditions in the camp and by the plight of one little girl who she said was desperate to go to school.

"I was buying her Twilight books in Spanish so she would have something to read or do, but she became severely depressed and she stopped talking, she stopped going out of her tent," said Ms Rangel-Samponaro.

“I had never seen a child depressed like that before. It was obvious that the children needed something else to do besides sitting outside just waiting for their turn to have an interview with a US official.”

What they needed, she decided, was education. The former teacher started a GoFundMe page, and with the money raised, combined with her own life savings, she opened the pavement school.

The school now has its own Etsy page, where they sell original artworks and prints from some of the teachers and students involved to help bring in extra money.

Pressure on Biden to respond to increase in migrants arriving at border

Pressure on Biden to respond to increase in migrants arriving at border

Rather than bring American volunteers to teach, she found educated asylum seekers among the migrant community in the encampment and hired them to teach.

She pays all the teachers a living wage and even helps them find better accommodation if they need it.

Tito, a Cuban national with a wide smile, teaches Spanish and mathematics to the children.

Back home, he was a bank teller. He said he fled Cuba because he did not fit the country’s societal moulds. “I was harassed all the time,” he said.

After an unsuccessful attempt at crossing into the US, Tito spent nearly two years living in Matamoros. Under Mr Trump’s Migration Protection Protocols, the US government sent asylum seekers back to Mexico as they waited for their case hearings instead of allowing them to remain in the country.

As well as teaching, Tito ran a small Cuban restaurant in the camp, a job that brought him perilously close to the drug cartel which controls much of Matamoros.

A few months ago, the cartel threatened him. “They kidnapped me for a day and then let me go. It was just a warning so that I would know what would happen if I didn't pay them to allow me to run my small restaurant,” he said.

After his encounter with the cartel, he decided he could no longer wait in Mexico. In February of this year, Tito swam across the Rio Grande by himself.

“It was very hard, very difficult because if the cartel that controls the crossings caught me, then I wouldn’t be here telling you my story,” he said.

After he arrived, Tito turned himself in to US border patrol and spent three weeks in detention and was recently released.

Ms Rangel-Samponaro opened her home in Brownsville to Tito while he gets settled in the US and waits for his immigration hearing.

Tito said teaching at the pavement school has been one of his greatest joys since leaving Cuba. “I’ve seen my kids grow up and seen everything that has transpired among the kids who are from all different nationalities and it's great to know that I’ve been a participant in helping them learn,” he said.

At the school’s peak, Tito and about two dozen other teachers were teaching about 700 pupils at the camp.

Ms Rangel-Samponaro said teachers like Tito were responsible for the school’s success. “The children asylum seekers get to see their teachers as role models and in a power position in their own community who understand what they were going through because they are going through the same thing themselves.”

In late February, Mexican officials shut down the Matamoros border camp after the Biden administration said it would allow the remaining migrants at the camp to cross into the US as part of efforts to roll back Mr Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy.

All that remains now are the charred embers from cooking fires and confusion over whether migrants from Central America seeking asylum into the US are allowed to enter. While some have been allowed in, others have not, and the shuttering of the camp has scattered them across northern Mexico.

But that hasn’t stopped the pavement school from thriving. While the closing of the camp coupled with the threat of Covid-19 has stopped in-person lessons, Ms Rangel-Samponaro decided to switch over to remote learning.

The switch to virtual learning has even allowed her to expand the school’s reach. This year, she bought more than three hundred Amazon Fire tablets and gave them to the pupils in eight different cities in Mexico. “We handed them out and then we bought a huge [internet] hotspot so the kids can go to school and the parents can call their lawyers and check their emails,” she said.

But Ms Rangel-Samponaro is already planning for life after the pandemic. She is currently building a brick and mortar school in Reynosa, an hour away from Matamoros.

On the day The National visited, construction workers were busy laying grout and building the walls that will one day form the classrooms.

Ms Rangel-Samponaro said she was pleased with the progress being made and was hopeful the school would be ready to receive its first pupils in just two weeks' time.

The school, on the ground floor of a hotel that caters to migrants stuck in Reynosa, already has 80 children enrolled.

Ms Rangel-Samponaro expects as many as 150 pupils to attend once it is complete.

Despite being in one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico, she hopes the classes will continue to help the children feel some sense of stability in their treacherous journey as they search for a better life.