One recent weekday afternoon, Sara Huser, a high school counselor, and her student, Meydi Guzman Rivas, sit close together in Huser’s tidy living room in Crystal Lake. They share a familiar intimacy, like between a mother and daughter.
Two months ago, Meydi became part of Huser’s family.
“In the last two years, I lived practically alone,” Meydi, a petite 18-year-old with a gentle voice, said in halting English. “Now that I have four siblings, it’s amazing.”
Meydi, a Central High School senior, came to live with Huser after she was released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention in mid-February. Huser’s family took her in as Meydi navigates the zigzagging process of seeking asylum. Because Meydi is 18, she’s able to decide for herself where she lives.
Over the years, Huser, an outgoing counselor who has been in education for more than 20 years, had thought about taking students in but never did until Meydi.
“You see kids who are hurting or kids who are in situations where you just want to wrap them in your arms and take them in,” Huser said.
From Honduras to Crystal Lake
The story of how Meydi ended up living with her counselor began nearly two years ago.
Meydi and her father escaped violence in their home country of Honduras in 2018 and settled in Crystal Lake. They made a number of appearances in immigration court. But last October, after she turned 18, ICE officers arrested Meydi and her father at the courthouse. She said the officers told them they’d missed a court date, and they would soon be deported.
“It’s also strange because we supposedly missed a court date in February, but then we went back to court while I was a minor,” Meydi said in Spanish. Meydi is learning English and tells her story in both English and Spanish. “So they waited until October when I was no longer a minor to arrest us.”
Meydi and her father were separated. She was held in a facility in downstate Pulaski County from October to February.
“All of it was terrible. The food was terrible, how we felt emotionally,” she said. “It’s like they robbed us of everything we have … My schooling, friends, family, liberty, everything.”
Huser, who is fluent in Spanish, video chatted with Meydi almost every day during her detainment. Huser’s family met Meydi for the first time over those calls. She said there was no question where Meydi would stay once she was released.
“The only thing I remember is at one point saying to my husband, ‘You know, when we get her out, she’s gonna need a place to live,’” Huser said. “He was like, ‘Well, of course.’”
At the time, there was a question whether Meydi or her father would be released at all. So when Sara made the invitation, Meydi was thrilled.
“It was amazing because her family, they support me, they help me,” Meydi said.
Meydi’s father was also released. He’s now living with a friend in Crystal Lake, and Meydi sees him often. But she said living with Huser is the most stable option while her asylum case continues.
New siblings and a curfew
Huser already has a full house. She and her husband have three sons and one daughter. Her 6-year-old daughter gladly shares her room with Meydi who she considers to be a big sister.
Meydi said they’re like a second family to her while she’s been away from her own three siblings in Honduras.
Of course, there are rules, like a curfew. Meydi wasn’t assigned chores, but she volunteers to chip in.
Living with your school counselor comes with its awkward moments. Huser told Meydi she should drop the “Mrs.” and just call her Sara, but that’s been a hard habit to break.
Being detained for four months set Meydi back a lot in school, but she still plans to graduate in May, and they’re looking at community colleges. Meydi hopes to one day work in health care.
But still hanging over everything is Meydi’s asylum case. The denial rate of asylum cases is high in the U.S. Last year, 69% of asylum seekers were denied relief, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Meydi said she tries not to think about the outcome too much.
“I don’t know what is going to happen,” she said. “I just know I have faith in God that they will let me stay here because what is certain is that I won’t be OK [in Honduras].”
For Huser, she only sees one option, and that’s Meydi staying in the U.S.
“That may not happen, but I just cannot fathom another option,” she said.
WBEZ spoke to Sara Huser and Meydi Guzman Rivas days before the state mandated that schools close to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, Huser said Meydi continues to study and is making progress. The whole family has been working together on house projects, including painting.