How an executive order can erase an entire childhood

Having recently returned from a medical mission to the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, I have become consumed with advocating for the rights of the children outside of our borders.  All the while the children I have spent the last five years caring for have been fighting for themselves in this changing political climate. As a pediatrician for an underserved immigrant population, I have seen first hand how a simple signature of an executive order can erase an entire childhood.

When the patient histories changed from ear pain and fever to suicide attempts and PTSD I knew I could no longer stay silent.  How can I sleep when I see a child comfort his mother the way a husband would when she recounts the story of her spouse being picked up in a raid and risking deportation? Or when a teenager with the calloused hands of a construction worker tells me he doesn’t fear what will become of him because what he escaped is far worse?  How can I forget the faces of the teenagers with cut marks on their arms who try to escape the pain by harming themselves rather than accepting that the new world they live in won’t recognize their transgender identities? Every time I leave work exhausted and depressed; I remember these are not just stories, but people’s lives. These are the stories of our children.

In the attempt to protect our borders and keep this country safe, we have robbed so many of their childhood.  Countless studies have shown the devastating effects of rushing one into a premature adulthood. Not to mention the toxic effects stress can have on the developing brain. Bullying, trauma from family separation, PTSD, depression, and worsening food insecurity has become daily concerns. Many of the children I see come from families who have already been exposed to unspeakable traumas. Now they live in fear that they could be returned to same violence they tried to escape. And so they end up in my clinic; the only place they feel safe, their eyes searching my own reminding me of the promise I made to protect them from harm and advocate for their well-being.

Haunted by these stories has made me realize that being their physician is not enough. I must fight for their ability to dream, for their safety, for their right to a childhood. I must replace their tears with laughter, their fear with hope. I must speak for the ones who cannot speak for themselves, before I am left responsible for their silence.

Henna Qureshi is a pediatrician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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