BRENTWOOD, N.Y. – One student wrote how his parents were fed up with paying "war taxes" to street gangs in Honduras. Another told how he finally left that country after he was hit in the leg by a stray bullet from a police gunfight. And yet another described his harrowing trip from El Salvador with a smuggler who kept a pistol on his car's dashboard, just in case.
Not exactly the stories of typical sixth-graders. But this bilingual class on Long Island is hardly typical, made up almost entirely of 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds who fled street gangs in their native Central America only to wind up in a suburb that's now caught in the grip of violence from a street gang with Central American ties, MS-13.
"When I look back at how much I have suffered, I realize that challenges make you stronger," wrote Jocsan Hernandez, the boy struck by the stray bullet, who was among more than 20 students at East Middle School who have contributed stories to a class book titled "Luchando por un mejor futuro" ("Fighting for a Better Future").
The 88-page book, handwritten in Spanish and illustrated with colorful drawings, was an end-of-year project that grew out of a classroom discussion about the students' experiences back in Central America, their immigration journeys and hopes for a better life in the United States.
Some of the kids came as recently as October with a brother, sister or cousin, while others came with a parent. Some were granted asylum or came with a visa. Some were held in border detention centers and are still going through immigration court proceedings.
"Yes, they went through it all but they come to school every day with a smile on their face and they are learning," said teacher Maria Mendoza. "That is positive. They find the courage enough to put it on paper."
That theme of hope amid hardship comes through on every page. Alongside 11-year-old Ismael Esquivel's illustrated account of his passage from El Salvador with the help of an armed smuggler — "There were police stops and they would take our money" — are optimistic images of brown dirt paths that lead to the U.S., surrounded by green mountains and flowers.
Very little in the book deals with a new reality of their American homeland that most of the children have yet to experience: the MS-13 gang that's been blamed for 11 killings of mostly teenagers who have been discovered in woods and vacant lots in Brentwood and neighboring Central Islip since the start of the school year.
Law enforcement officials say gangs with Central American ties such as MS-13 have recruited heavily from the ranks of the more than 165,000 unaccompanied minor immigrants who have been placed in the U.S. since 2013. Long Island has been a frequent landing spot. Suffolk County, which includes Brentwood and Central Islip, has gotten 4,500.
"Kids that come at the age of 12 and 13 years old, if we don't grab them right away and put them into positive things and make them feel successful, they will join a gang," said Mendoza, who grew up in Brentwood.
Barry Mohammed, the school's principal, says he's always mindful of the lure of the gangs. "Outside of just the ABCs and an education, we are here to support the whole child. ... so that they won't go down that path."
On the last day of the school year, the students showed off the book to a few parents who visited their classroom and serenaded them with the song "Home" by Phillip Phillips, which includes the line, "Just know you're not alone ... 'cause I'm going to make this place your home."
Elmer Rivera, a Salvadoran who described not eating for three days on his way to the U.S., wrote a similarly hopeful message in the book.
"I thank God because I arrived well to the United States. Not everybody survives on their way here," he wrote. "I thank God for all the dreams that I will make come true in the United States."