Carlos doesn't have too many happy memories from his early childhood in Honduras. But he misses his cat.
"He was a very intelligent cat. I miss my cat," writes Carlos, age 10. "I also had a plant called Upi that I always cared for. Sometimes I feel worried. Who is taking care of them now?"
Carlos was five when his dad was killed, and seven when his mom left to the U.S. He and his brother went to live at his grandfather's house, but those were scary years for him.
"My country was very dangerous. There are always people who will want to rob or kill you. Even in school you're not safe," Carlos wrote.
Then his mom sent for him and his brother to join her in the U.S. But the trip there was another scary adventure, especially the part through Mexico on the infamous migrant freight train known as "La Bestia."
"My brother and I were the only children. I saw many dead people next to the train. My uncle came with us, but when he tried to jump off the train, he died. My grandmother was very sad. I do not like to talk about the train."
Carlos finally made it to the U.S. and reunited with his mom.
"I am very happy to be with my mother again, but sometimes I feel very sad, too. I miss my grandfather. I feel guilty because my cousin was sent back to our home country and did not reach the U.S. I suffer nightmares many nights."
Carlos' words are captured in a one-of-a-kind book that he dictated and illustrated with the help of an iPad and bilingual counselors at the Children's Center of Galveston, Texas. It's part of a new program sponsored by the American Counseling Association that uses the power of narrative storytelling to help refugee children from Central America deal with PTSD by unpacking their trauma and giving it a safe space to live, says Dr. Cheryl Sawyer, who is spearheading the project as a professor of counseling at the University of Houston, Clear Lake.
The idea of the book, Dr. Sawyer says, is to help kids make sense of their trauma, see that their journey to the U.S. has delivered them from danger, and give their scary memories a safe place to live on the bookshelf, where they won't be banging around inside their heads all day.
The project was inspired by Harry Potter.
In the popular children's series Professor Albus Dumbledore has a magic bowl called a "pensieve" where he is able to store memories and then retrieve them later.
Harry Potter: "What is it?"
Albus Dumbledore: "This? It is called a Pensieve. I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind."
Dr. Sawyer, who is a big fan of Harry Potter, says after seeing that scene in the movie she thought to herself "this is what these kids need."
"They need to be able to take the memory out of the back of their head, where it's always about to jump free, and put it in a safe place," she told me in Skype interview from Houston. "If they want to retrieve it, if they need to retrieve it, they can. If they want the memory back, they take it back, but until then it stays in the book."
Over the past two years, Dr. Sawyer's team has worked with 32 kids from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, producing 32 one-of-a-kind books that are filled with some pretty awful memories. Many of the kids have been exposed to unspeakable violence, the murder of family members, and sexual assaults—some of the worst things humans can do to each other. All that baggage would weigh heavy on any person, but it's especially onerous on the shoulders of a frail 10-year-old.
The books help the kids to compartmentalize those memories, but also order them chronologically in their past, Dr. Sawyer says.
"We've found that the children do not want to start at the beginning of their story; they want to start where they want to start. They only give us the safe pieces that they want to tell us, and as they develop relationship might become more comfortable going into what they think of as embarrassing or horrific stuff that they don't want to remember. Those more traumatic memories come out more towards the end of the story, then the therapist helps them sequence it and put it in some sort of an order so they can see that the moved from danger, and they are now in safety and they are sharing story with someone nonjudgemental. They are sharing their story with someone who really cares that they have been in bad trauma."
The kids' stories are told with words, drawings, art, and pictures taken from the internet, since many of the children don't have the vocabulary to explain everything that's happened to them.
The final product reads like a really dark children's book. Each page contains a simple narrative —written in the first or third person—with a story arc starting with violence in Central America, a harrowing journey north, and ending with a new life in the U.S.
The book's chronological storyline helps to give structure to the chaos of the children's early childhood memories, and comes with extra blank pages to write the happier chapters that are yet to come in their lives.
The kids who have gone through the process and received their books say the experience was helpful.
“Well she helped me tell what I had inside and it helped me take things out…and remember," said Mario, in comments to his counselor that were provided to Fusion. "That’s the way it helps me…and not to be sad. She would ask me things and I would tell her and I had someone who I could talk to…She helped me talk about my things and I would tell her things I didn’t want to tell anyone else.”
Other kids, sadly, never got their books back. Dr. Sawyer says the kids living in foster situations at the Children's Center of Galveston are oftentimes in a "revolving door" and are shipped out before the counselors return with their books. In many cases, the kids get moved to other homes around the country, but in some cases they get deported.
Dr. Sawyer says one of the kids, Victor, got deported back to Honduras and was shot before the counselors had a chance to give him his book back. Of the 32 kids her team of counselors has made books with, only 12 have gotten them back. Dr. Sawyer says she's working to return the remaining books to the other young authors, but it's not always easy to track them down.
As a result, Dr. Sawyer has 20 unclaimed books—including Carlos' story— sitting on her bookshelf, providing safe storage for the memories of the departed children.
"It's of crucial importance that these kids get their books back," she told me. "Even if I have to let the research go and try again. They need their books back."