Everyday Heroes: A School for the Displaced

Estefanía Rebellón is helping provide an education to children living in migrant camps

Diane Peters Published Jun 25, 2024 16:29:33 IST
Everyday Heroes: A School for the Displaced Estefanía Rebellón

In a migrant camp in Tijuana, Mexico, packed with hundreds of people, a three-year-old girl wandered alone toward the exit. She was steps from a busy road and a crowded market.

Estefanía Rebellón seemed to be the only person who noticed her. The actor, producer and writer had just made the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles with a group of friends to drop off food, clothing and hygiene kits to a relief organization.

It was December 2018, a time when the United States–Mexico border was seeing a surge of migrants from Central America escaping violence and poverty. Rebellón could not believe what she saw: families lacking even the most basic supplies. The children, sometimes shoeless and often dirty, clearly had no place to go.

Rebellón dashed over to the child and took her hand. “Where are you going? Where are your parents?” she asked. Eventually, she and her friends found the girl’s panicked father, who had stepped away to line up for food.

Back at home, Rebellón could think of nothing else. “We have to do something,” she told her partner, Kyle Thomas Schmidt. A school—a safe place for the children to gather and learn—seemed much-needed. So, Rebellón and Schmidt recruited volunteer teachers via social media, and using a thousand dollars from their savings, set up a makeshift school at the Tijuana border. Classes were held in two large tents.

In five years, that pilot programme has grown into the non-profit Yes We Can World Foundation, which operates three classrooms in converted school buses and two brick-and-mortar schools in Tijuana, plus another in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city directly across the border from El Paso, Texas.

Funded by donations and grants, the foundation’s trained (and now paid) teachers have provided a bilingual education to more than 3,000 kids from ages three to 15. The schools follow an official curriculum from Mexico’s education ministry, which began accrediting the foundation in 2021. As well, Yes We Can offers special courses, including one that helps kids understand more about human migration.

“What started as a temporary solution has become permanent,” Rebellón says of the need for education at migrant camps. The process of seeking asylum in the US or Mexico can be long and complicated—most families live at the border for three to five months.

Rebellón has received numerous honours for her work, including Outstanding American by Choice, awarded to her in 2022 by US Citizenship and Immigration Services. She’s helping kids who remind her of herself, decades ago. Rebellón was 10 when her family fled their home in Cali, Colombia. Her father, a lawyer and university professor, was getting threatening letters from a powerful guerrilla group. The family of five travelled to Miami, Florida, on a tourist visa and successfully claimed asylum. “It’s been a full-circle experience,” she says.

The programme’s success is easy to see, says Josh Phelps, former director of operations for World Central Kitchen, which has provided meals to some Yes We Can schools. “The kids really enjoy it. There are huge smiles on their faces.”

More than 6.6 million people live in refugee camps around the world, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Rebellón says she’d like to expand the foundation’s reach and support migrant children globally.

“She is a powerhouse,” says Phelps of Rebellón, “and I think one of the most important people doing work at the border right now.” 

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