Youths find refuge in art

"What it means for me? Freedom," 20-year-old Flavio Jiminez said in broken English as he looked at a photograph of a padlock that was part of a December art exhibit in Richmond.

Upon hearing the Honduran native's tragic, yet inspirational, story, it's easy to understand why the close-up photo of a padlock would be so deeply moving to him; and that understanding goes much deeper when the observer learns Jiminez took the photograph himself.

Like the others whose works were displayed at the Rio Bend Community Administration Building, 1515 Pultar, Jiminez never thought of himself as having any artistic talents until volunteers like Terri Bieber and Becca House came along.

Bieber is the founder of ARTreach, a nonprofit arts and educational outreach program, and House is one of the artists who volunteer with the group.

On Thursdays, volunteers with ARTreach work with 16 children of all ages at Rio Bend Community, which is operated by Catholic Charities. The children are refugees and immigrants, and each one is less than 18 years of age when they come to live with foster families in Fort Bend County.

"A refugee is someone who is being persecuted or tortured due to their political affiliation, race, nationality, religion or for being affiliated with a particular social group," explained Felicia Coffman, living skills coordinator for Catholic Charities at Rio Bend.

Through the program, she said, Fort Bend families have made new lives possible for 25 refugee children from places such as Burma, Dominican Republic, Congo, Sudan and Mozambique.

Children hoping to escape their lives of horror are referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the United Conference of Catholic Bishops, which then assigns those accepted to a Catholic Charities program.

Nine more children have found homes in Fort Bend after being referred to Rio Bend by the U.S. Unaccompanied Alied Children Program.

"They are children who are walking across the border from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico," Coffman said. "Usually they are apprehended by Immigration."

And they are alone, as in Jiminez's case.

His mother died when he was only 11. With no father, he was left alone to care for himself and his younger brother.

"Sometimes life is not what you expect, but you just have to do it," he said. "When my mother died, I didn't believe in God. I went to the mirror and I look and say, 'Why You do this to me?' "

Although he didn't want to, Jiminez was forced to steal from time to time in order to feed his little brother, who calls him "Dad." He was caught more than once, thrown in jail, and beat across the hands with a police baton.

An older sister turned the two children away when they went to her home, and Jiminez knew there was only one way to make a better life for his little brother: He had to get to America.

In order to protect the boy, he can't say where he is, but Jiminez made sure his brother was safe and then risked his own life with a plan to eventually be able to help them both.

"It was really hard," Jiminez said of the 15-day train trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, moving from box car to box car along the way. "Sometimes you have no food and you have to find a way to get food. It was crazy. It was long and scary. It was rainy and really cold, and you just squeeze the water out of your clothes."

Seventeen, alone and scared, Jiminez thought he'd finally reached the Promised Land when he left the train in Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border from McAllen.

There, with freedom so close he could taste it, the human traffickers - or "coyotes," as they are called - told Jiminez they were going to call his sister and demand $10,000 to spare his life.

"They have hot irons and they put them on your arms and beat you across your back to make you cry so your family will pay. I tell them she will say she does not know me. I'm crying and I ask, 'Can I please make one phone call? I want to tell my little brother good-bye and I love him'," Jiminez recalled.

For some reason, the call was allowed and when an emotionally wrought Jiminez hung up the phone, one of the coyotes took pity on him and drove him to Houston.

"Then I say, 'God, You are real'," he said.

From Houston, Jiminez eventually found his way to Rio Bend.

His fingers and back are still painful at times, as are the memories, but Jiminez is grateful for what he has and still working on that plan to provide his brother with a wonderful life.

When he came to the United States, Jiminez could only say two words in English: "church" and "friend." These days, although his accent is heavy, he's on his way to mastering the language.

He attends English as a Second Language and General Educational Development classes and just completed an eight-week job preparation course. He plans to pass his GED exam on Jan. 31.

"Coming here, I think, was the best thing I ever do," he said. "If I can go to college, I want to go to college and be an engineer or lawyer; something really good. I want to join the army and get my citizenship, and then I can bring my brother over here. I am really worried about him."

Programs like ARTreach help Jiminez and the others in the Rio Bend program forget their stressful situations for a while and learn to cope.

"This is what ARTreach is all about - working with foster care and helping children at risk," said Bieber. "There are many unique situations the children have to overcome. Their countries of origin were war-torn and their previous life was very chaotic. Now, they are safe, but they exhibit various levels of post-war stress syndrome and, certainly, grief. Our ARTreach program tries to bridge the numerous communication gaps, and build new relationships by introducing the wide range of cultural art influences represented in America."

It also involves the children in other fine arts such as music and drama, and Bieber and her volunteers are always exploring different tools to help them creatively cope with stress and express emotions.

In doing so, they taught the youngsters about various artists and techniques, and had them re-create their own versions of Picasso's "The Dream." They also took photos with the guidance of a professional photographer, and Bieber had all the finished products framed for the Dec. 15 art exhibit, appropriately titled "Inspirations."

House, who works with the children nearly every Thursday, said the program is as therapeutic for her as it is for them.

"I guess I'm selfish. I just really like the smiles on their faces and the pride they establish in themselves when they see their work," she said. "It's also just an opportunity to be an ear; a presence in their lives. It's something they can count on."

Jiminez said "an old guy" in Honduras provided some stability when everything seemed too much to bear.

"He gave me advice," Jiminez recalled. "That day that I was crying in the mirror, he said, 'Get up. You'll have your ups and downs. God knows why He did this to you. Maybe He has something better for you.' Then, when they tell me I can stay (in the U.S.), I remember. I said, 'You are, God!'"

Jiminez said he tells his story "because here are some people who don't appreciate what they have. People have different lives. They see the life in different ways. I had a really bad life; it happens to some people. It's not just me; it's a lot of people living on worse situations than me. Now I'm proud of myself. I really like myself."

"He's always laughing, always smiling," Coffman said of Jiminez. "That's the amazing thing about these guys and girls: You carry their smiles with you, not their traumas."
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