From rural villages to the gritty streets of Philly, kids displaced by Maria map their emotions

At first glance, Angel Burdoy looks like any other 16-year-old spending time with friends over summer break.

At Providence Center in Fairhill, a mostly Latino neighborhood in North Philadelphia, he just returned with other kids from taking a survey of neighborhood residents about sidewalk trees. Some teenagers were playing chess. Burdoy was laughing.

But his demeanor changed when asked about his home in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico, on the northwestern shore of the island.

“We lost everything,” Burdoy says in Spanish. He is talking, of course, about Hurricane Maria.

Burdoy, his parents, and two siblings — a younger brother and sister — came to Philadelphia in November after Maria left many on the island without homes or electricity for months. Burdoy’s town was one of two hit particularly hard after the Guajataca Dam failed days after the hurricane struck Sept. 20, sending torrents of water that destroyed homes and roads.

But it’s not just the loss of their homes that’s been traumatic for the children who have relocated here, said Charito Morales, a community organizer at the Providence Center, an agency that provides community service and education programs for adults and children. Many kids have come from small towns, rural villages, or oceanfront pueblos to arrive on the gritty streets of Philadelphia.

“In Puerto Rico, they don’t need jackets, hats, and gloves in the wintertime. They don’t know how to cope with all that, and you have to guide them,” she said. “We help them with the transition of what they have to live with here and what is gone, what they have given up back home.”

Now, on the wall in a spacious first-floor room at the center on Fifth and Huntingdon Streets, is one way to help the children adjust to their lives here while paying homage to the lives they left in chaos.

A giant cloth map shows the island territory on the right side, a grid showing the streets of North Philadelphia in the center, and the Dominican Republic on the left.

The children stretched pieces of yarn from their towns on the island to the streets in Philadelphia where they now live or go to school. Pouches in the map hold iPod minis for children to record their stories. Those who were too shy wrote letters instead.

Even if they were not physically hurt because of the hurricane, she said, young people still suffer: “The pain is not on the outside, it’s inside their hearts. It’s in the feelings and in the mind.”

>> READ MORE: Puerto Ricans fleeing island picking Philly as home

The map project was first created during the school year by Christy Halcom’s eighth-grade ESOL students as part of the WHYY media lab at Julia De Burgos Elementary School. Originally proposed by their WHYY instructor Ariel Goodman, the project gave the students, many of whom were also displaced by Maria, there license to talk about the people, places, and memories of their homelands, all while learning new skills — like how to use a sewing machine. The students also wanted others to contribute and add their stories, so the map was loaned to the Providence Center in June.

Then Morales’ son, a 17-year-old at Olney Charter High School, told her about his classmates displaced by Maria — They don’t know what a hoagie is or how to navigate a multi-floor school to find their classes, he told her. So she created Youth Advocacy, or YA, which means “enough” in Spanish. And their work on the map continued.

“It means enough with thinking teenagers are lazy and don’t want to go outside,” Morales said. “It means enough of saying youth only like electronics. It means enough of thinking they don’t have a voice. If you talk to the youth, they have a lot of great ideas and a lot of potential. They are our future leaders.”

The idea was to offer a leadership-training program, and in doing so, to show teenagers they aren’t isolated or alone in their experiences. In the last several weeks, the teenagers have cleaned several community gardens and helped to paint the mural Families Belong Together, about the migration crisis, that Mural Arts Philadelphia dedicated July 16 at Front and Huntingdon Streets. YA complements another program at Providence called Teen Leaders.

Camera icon VALERIE RUSS / Staff
Yariel Nieves (left) and CrisJoel Morales participate in a leadership program at Providence Center, conducting a survey about neighborhood trees.

CrisJoel Morales, 18, who is taking part in the YA program with his sister, Judy Morales, 17, will be a senior at Olney Charter in September. On a pink cloth attached to the map, CrisJoel wrote that he is from Fajardo, a town on the eastern part of the island bordering the Atlantic Ocean, and “Cariduros de Fajardo — For Life.” That is the name of his favorite professional basketball team on the island.

“I miss home,” CrisJoel said through a friend, Yariel Nieves, 17, who translated. “In Puerto Rico, my house has been blown away.”

Edwin Melendez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, City University of New York, said Pennsylvania ranked second after Florida as the most popular stateside destination for Hurricane Maria evacuees, with about 135,000 Puerto Ricans coming here.

More than 3,400 people moved to Pennsylvania as of June 8, according to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. Of those, more than 2,000 registered through Philadelphia’s Disaster Assistance Services Center.

>>READ MORE: Deadline looms for families who fled Puerto Rico after Maria to leave transitional housing

Yandel Rodriguez, 12, said he and his family moved here from Caguas, near San Juan, in November and will start seventh grade at John B. Stetson Charter School in the fall. At Providence, he’s enjoyed weekly field trips to Bartram’s Garden, the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Philadelphia  Zoo.

But last week’s trip to Wissahickon Valley Park, where the kids took bathing suits and splashed in the creek, brought back memories of Puerto Rico.

“It was beautiful,” said Rodriguez. Of all the places he’s gotten to see in Philadelphia, he said, the Wissahickon was the best. “I like being in the forest and in nature the most.”

This story has been updated to correct information about the origin of the map. It was created at Julia de Burgos Elementary School.