The Girl Who Broke Free: Building A New Life In America #15Girls

Oct 24, 2015
Originally published on November 11, 2015 2:29 pm

The week she turned 15, Rosi got an amazing birthday present. She was in a government shelter in New York.

And then her father walked in. It was the first time she'd seen him in almost four years.

"He brought me a big cake as a present. It was vanilla," she says.

"She was wearing jeans, tennis shoes, and this little collared blouse," her father remembers, laughing.

Until her father showed up, Rosi had been thinking she should just go back to Guatemala. That would have meant facing the nightmare she'd run away from. Rosi still has trouble talking about it. She calls it "lo que pasó" ("the thing that happened").

Lo que pasó began when her father first got to the U.S. nearly a decade ago. He had several roommates. One of them saw pictures of Rosi and became obsessed with her. He's her nightmare, and the reason we aren't using Rosi's full name or the names of anyone in her family. They're still worried about this man, who went back to Guatemala and started tracking Rosi down. She was 13. He was 31. He wanted to marry her.

Guatemalan law allows girls under 14 to marry if a parent says it's OK. The U.N. has raised alarm over child marriages in Guatemala. The organization Refugio De La Niñez, which fights for the human rights of Guatemalan children, says in most of the marriages, the man is twice or three times his wife's age.

When Rosi's father found out about his roommate's mission, he was furious. "I tried to stop it," he says. "If you don't want to have a problem, stay away from my home, I told him."

The man's answer left him cold: " 'You are there. And I am here.' Just like that."

Rosi's father pauses. "The thing is, in our country, everything gets fixed with money."

And this guy had American money. The father thinks Rosi's mother was seduced by this. Rosi tells me her mother made her marry the guy. Rosi snarls when she talks about him; she calls him "a disgusting old man."

"I wanted to be dead rather than live through that," says Rosi, lowering her voice. "I tried killing myself with a knife. But an aunt found me and told me, 'Don't do it; it's going to be OK.' "

But it wasn't OK. Now that he had his child bride, Rosi's husband decided to head back to the U.S. with her. Neither of them had papers to cross legally. As they attempted to walk over the U.S.-Mexico border Rosi got her break: Border Patrol agents intercepted them. She never saw her husband again.

She ended up in a government shelter for unaccompanied minors in California. Then Texas. Eventually she was transferred to New York, where her father was finally able to come get her. When she was released, he took her home to Pennsylvania, where he'd been living for years.

Rosi's ordeal was over. But that doesn't mean everything was all right.

I meet Rosi and her father at the small apartment they share with another migrant. It's at the edge of an industrial area, where a lot of refugees and migrants live. It's a crisp autumn day, and outside the trees are shivering. Inside it's a sauna from all the cooking. Rosi makes a mean pollo sudado — chicken stew. She also piles my plate with rice, salad and steamed plantains with sugar.

She tells me that in the months after being released to her father, she barely ate: "All I did was cry. I felt really depressed. I didn't want to speak to men; I hated them. I asked myself, why is this happening to me?"

Like so many kids who come to the U.S. as migrants, Rosi felt lost. Her lawyer referred her to a woman named Cathi Tillman.

Tillman is the executive director of La Puerta Abierta, an organization that provides mental health care for refugee and migrant communities. She says five years ago, maybe 10 percent of referrals were youth. These days it's about 60 percent.

Rosi got a green card and managed to have the marriage annulled. She recently finished high school and plans to go to nursing school. Her father still has no papers.

Tillman says when she first met Rosi, she was lucky to get a few words out of her. Rosi started attending a youth group. One of the few things Rosi opened up about was her love of dance and music — specifically bachata, romantic music from the Dominican Republic.

"And she decided one day to turn on some music, and she started dancing," Tillman remembers. "There were a couple of other girls that she'd become friendly with and we were all laughing."

Maybe it was the melancholy Caribbean guitar plucks or being around people who cared about her, but something switched. Rosi was ready to talk about "the thing that happened" in Guatemala.

It wasn't easy. "The first time, I couldn't talk," she says. "I just cried and cried with my therapist. And she told me to get it all out, what I had inside of me."

That was four years ago. Rosi still speaks to Tillman and checks in with La Puerta Abierta a few times a month.

Rosi is 19 now. She has woven a network of people who care about her, deeply. And life has changed. In the picture she shows me, the one from when she'd recently gotten to the U.S., she looks ghostly, almost shocked. She says it makes her sad to think that "I didn't have much of a childhood."

Maybe that's why she's so upbeat now. She laughs a lot and has a wicked sense of humor: She likes making dramatic pronouncements like "next year I'm buying a car" and following them with a "yeah, right."

"Farewell Papa!" she announces somewhat theatrically as we leave the house to look at some clothing. She smiles mischievously, and from the staircase adds: "I'm going to the store; be right back."

We go to H&M. Rosi loves this store and comes by whenever she has some extra money. She picks out lacy, girly blouses and wrinkles her nose at the skull print sweatshirt I've grabbed. We talk about normal stuff — her crush on Bachata singer Romeo Santos. She's started weightlifting and would like to have J-Lo or Shakira's body. She has a boyfriend, but she doesn't want kids until she has a nursing career. Up until recently she worked at a restaurant, but now she is applying to jobs in nursing.

I ask her if she's forgiven her mother. Rosi pauses, and says, "Well, you only get one mother." Still, they aren't on speaking terms.

With her father, it's a different story: They adore each other. She chastises him for standing outside in the cold; she pushes him to have seconds at mealtime and gently teases him about wanting to join her gym only so he can use the sauna. You wonder who saved whom.

"Imagine, when she was in Texas," Rosi's father tells me, "I could only speak to her for 15 minutes, every eight days — 15 minutes," he marvels.

"I'd tell her, 'How are you my daughter; how are you my beautiful girl?' And she would say, 'Don't be sad, Papa, I'm going to be OK.' And I'd say 'OK, I'm here waiting for you. I'm fighting for you.' "

Tillman says it's not your run-of-the-mill happy ending, but it's close enough. "There isn't necessarily closure. There's peace. There's reconciliation. How do you close a wound that's 100 miles wide? Sometimes you just let it scab over, you take care of it and you go on with your life."

Outside the store, Rosi and I part ways. She told her father she'd be home a while ago, and he gets worried if she's even a little bit late.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

All this month, we've been hearing about the lives of teenage girls from around the world. Some of them say they dream of coming to the United States, where they believe their lives would be better. Our next story is about a girl who was forced to come here, and, like a lot of migrants, her journey didn't end when she crossed the border. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: The week she turned 15, Rosi got an amazing birthday present. She was in a government shelter in New York and then her dad walked in. It was the first time she'd seen him in almost four years.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) Oh my God, to be honest, we were crying. She was wearing jeans, tennis shoes, this little collared blouse.

ROSI: (Through interpreter) And I felt so happy. I didn't even want a party. I didn't want anything. To just see him there - and he brought me a big cake as a present. It was vanilla.

GARSD: Until her dad showed up, she'd been thinking she should just go home to Guatemala and face the nightmare she'd run away from. Rosi still has trouble talking about it. She calls it lo que paso, or the thing that happened. Lo que paso was that when her dad first got to the U.S., he had several roommates. One of them saw pictures of Rosi and became obsessed. He's her nightmare and the reason we aren't using Rosi's full name or the names of anyone in her family. They're still worried about this man who, once upon a time, went back to Guatemala and started tracking Rosi down. She was 13. He was 31. He wanted to marry her. When Rosi's dad found out, he was furious.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) If you don't want to have a problem, stay away from my home, I told him. Well, you know what, he told me. You are there, and I am here - just like that. The thing is, in our country, everything gets fixed with money.

GARSD: And this guy had American money. The dad thinks Rosi's mom was seduced by this. She forced Rosi to marry the guy.

ROSI: (Through interpreter) I wanted to be dead rather than live through that. I tried killing myself with a knife. But an aunt found me and told me, don't do it. It's going to be OK.

GARSD: It wasn't. Now that he had his child bride, Rosi's husband decided to head back to the U.S. with her. They got caught at the U.S.-Mexico border. This is what most migrants fear. But for Rosi, it meant getting away from her husband. He made a run for it. She never saw him again. Rosi's ordeal was over but far from finished. She ended up in a government shelter for unaccompanied children in California, then Texas, then New York, where her dad was finally able to come get her. When she was released, he took her home to Pennsylvania.

Rosi and her dad share a small apartment with another migrant. It's a crisp autumn day, and outside, the trees are shivering. Inside, it's turned into a sauna from all the cooking. Rosi makes a mean pollo sudado - chicken stew with rice, salad and steamed plantains with sugar. She tells me, in the months after being released to her father, she barely ate.

ROSI: (Through interpreter) All I did was cry. I felt really depressed. I didn't want to speak to men. I hated them. I asked myself, why is this happening to me?

GARSD: Like so many kids who come to the U.S. as migrants, Rosi felt lost. Her lawyer referred her to a woman named Cathi Tillman.

CATHI TILLMAN: You know, five years ago, we maybe had 10 percent of our referrals were specifically of youth. And now it's probably 60 percent.

GARSD: Tillman is the executive director of La Puerta Abierta, an organization that works to give migrants improved access to mental health care. Rosi was able to get a green card and the marriage annulled. Her father doesn't have papers. Tillman says when she first met Rosi, she was lucky to get a few words out of her. Rosi started attending a youth group.

TILLMAN: She was pretty shut down - very, very quiet. But one of the things that helped her connect was that she loves bachata.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

TILLMAN: And she decided, one day after group, to turn on some music. And she started dancing and showing - there were a couple of other girls that she had become somewhat friendly with - and they started doing it. And we were all laughing.

GARSD: Maybe it was the melancholy Caribbean guitar pluck or being around people who cared about her, but something gave. Rosi was ready to talk about the thing that happened in Guatemala.

ROSI: (Through interpreter) The first time, I couldn't talk. It was hard. I just cried and cried with my therapist. And she told me to get it all out, what I had inside of me.

GARSD: The next day we go check out clothing at H&M. She loves this store and swings by whenever she has some extra cash. She picks out a lot of lacy, girly blouses and wrinkles her nose at the skull print sweatshirt I grabbed.

It's been almost four years since Rosi started going to therapy. She tells me about her boyfriend and how she doesn't want kids until she has a nursing career. I ask her if she's forgiven her mother for selling her out. Rosi pauses and says, well, you only get one mother. They aren't on speaking terms. But she and her dad adore each other.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) Imagine, when she was in Texas, I could only speak to her for 15 minutes every eight days - 15 minutes. I'd tell her - how are you, my daughter? How are you, my beautiful girl? And she would say, don't be sad, Papa, I'm going to be OK. And I'd say, OK, I'm here waiting for you. I'm fighting for you.

GARSD: Cathi Tillman says it's not your run-of-the-mill happy ending, but it's close.

TILLMAN: There isn't necessarily closure. There's peace. There's reconciliation. There's acceptance. But closure - how do you close a wound that is, you know, 100 miles wide? Sometimes, the wound stays open, and it scabs over. And you just have to take care of it and then go on with your life.

GARSD: Outside the store, Rosi and I part ways. She told her dad she'd be home a while ago, and he gets worried. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News.

SIMON: We'd like to hear your stories about life at 15. You can share them on Twitter at #15girls. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.