Child refugees play, while parents fret
JACKSON, Miss – Thomas Brown is thankful that his family survived Katrina, that his 12-year-old son and his eight nieces and nephews lived to frolic at a shelter, racing toy trucks and sparring with plastic swords.Still, he can’t help but fret. These kids, he says, should be learning.If his son misses a month of school, or two months, “that’s going to set him back a year,” says the New Orleans man. “You’ve got all these kids just playing around. They should be in school. But I don’t know when we’ll ever be able to go back, and I wouldn’t know who to talk to about registering them here.”The academic year started weeks ago in much of the South, but young refugees whose homes and schools were washed away have nowhere to learn. And for most, it’s not clear when or if classes will start again.Among the 3,000 refugees in shelters set up at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds are hundreds of children, killing time by playing with mounds of donated toys.Thousands more are living in hotel rooms from Memphis to Atlanta to Houston, eating most of their meals at fast-food restaurants. Others are staying with relatives in bulging homes, sleeping on futons, couches or carpets.Brown fled New Orleans’ flood-ravaged Seventh Ward the day before the storm with his wife, son, and as many relatives as would fit in his truck. He is now homeless, jobless and nearly penniless, and unsure when the other children in his care might see their parents again.For days, he has been in limited contact with their mothers, who, last he heard, were still stranded in New Orleans without food, water or protection.”I don’t know if they made it out, or not,” he said.An untold number of children were in similar straits this week in Katrina’s wake. Some have been separated from a parent. Many are living on handouts. All have had their schooling disrupted.Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and other states have pledged to open their schools to displaced children and waive normal entry requirements like immunization records and proof of residency.”We want to get the children back in school as quickly as possible, whether they are staying with relatives, or friends or in a shelter,” said Caron Blanton, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Education.She said the state had no estimate on how many refugees might need to enroll elsewhere, but the number was likely to be at least in the tens of thousands.Displaced families were spread over several states. Some 75,000 people displaced by the hurricane were expected at shelters in Texas, with maybe as many staying in hotels. Officials said about 10,000 people had fled to Memphis. Thousands more were in shelters in Louisiana and Mississippi.Children probably make up a third of the people in shelters, estimated Jimmy Downs, director of emergency services for the central Mississippi chapter of the Red Cross.Downs said officials with Mississippi’s Head Start office have been working to set up a day care program that would allow parents to go out and seek work.It is not clear how many will remain where they are, in extended-stay motels, shelters, or inexpensive apartments, or try to go home.Many don’t know yet whether their homes or schools still stand.”You can’t worry about it too much. It will make you sick,” said Karen Sanders, 32, of New Orleans.She said she is content, for now, to let her children think of their homelessness as an extended camping trip.”You just try to make it as normal for them as possible. Let them have fun,” she said, before wondering aloud how she might arrange for her 3-month-old son, squirming in a donated crib, to receive his scheduled immunization shots.Her eldest child, Peter, 11, said was in no hurry to return home. Clutching a toy, he said he ran into a classmate from New Orleans and has been having a good time.”I’ll go home when the water goes down,” he explained, as if it was that easy.Vail, Colorado
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