News and Stories


Jul 22, 2021

Turning Struggle into Growth: The Story of Brizeida Santos

By: Gabriela Perez Jordan

Brizeida came to the U.S. speaking no English. She worked hard, studied and dreamed, but felt increasingly isolated and frustrated. When she needed mental health services and a supportive community, we were there for her.

Her Journey to Migration

As someone who struggles with adversity, Brizeida Santos, a native from El Salvador, has learned to overcome it. Change has become a constant in her life ever since she lost her mother at four years old. Shortly after her mother’s death, most of her siblings moved to the United States, where her father permanently resided. Due to her parents' absence, Brizeida does not consider herself to have been raised in a typical family. She spent most of her life living with her grandmother, aunt, and cousins in a small municipality, called Chapeltique, in the San Miguel Department of El Salvador. Brizeida describes her life in El Salvador as one that was peaceful and without worry.

"In El Salvador, there was more liberty to talk with neighbors, friends, and community members. It was more common that we would go to a family members house in the evenings or go play with friends." She explains people in El Salvador tend to live in the moment, “I loved that, not to have to live by a specific routine.”

When it came to school and financials, Brizeida explained she and her family had what was needed and often times, more than enough compared to the people around her. She explained she and her cousins had a good education, due to her sister's support from the United States.

Once again, adversity came knocking at Brizeida’s doorstep, when at the age of 15, Brizeida lost her father to cancer. Although she had a great life in El Salvador and was very involved with school, she found herself desiring to be reunited with her older sister, whom Brizeida viewed as a mother-figure. A year later she decided to pursue the American dream and migrated to the United States on her own, in pursuit of a better life alongside her immediate family.

Brizeida explained her journey to the United States was sudden and full of emotions. She came home from school one afternoon, and found out she would be leaving to the United States the next day at 11:00 a.m. She quickly had to pack a backpack, with the very basic necessities she would need on her trip.

“My backpack could only fit three pants, three shirts, underwear, a towel, my personal documents, important phone numbers, and some money. In the end, almost everything was lost since we had to leave things behind as our trip progressed.”

Brizeida travelled from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico to get to the United States. She had little to no communication with her family members during her journey and details travelling by foot, cars, buses, planes, and even boats to arrive to her destination. To stay positive and encouraged, she imagined herself on a big an adventure. She focused on it as an experience that was intended for her to learn more about different cultures, countries, and people.

When she arrived in the United States and crossed the border into Laredo, Texas, Brizeida was placed in a home shelter for immigrant children. She spent nearly six weeks at the shelter while they helped her arrange her entrance into the country. After 10 weeks from leaving El Salvador behind, Brizeida was finally reunited with her sister and moved to Virginia.

Change Did Not Stop There

Despite having completed two years of high school in El Salvador, Brizeida was told she’d need to enter high school in the U.S. as a Freshman. Brizeida struggled to establish herself, start a new life, learn a new language and adapt to a new environment.

“I spoke no English, I was desperate to learn English, and wished I could just learn it instantly. My sister pushed me to learn as much as I could because she had not had the same opportunity to do so,” Brizeida said. Her sister, Yessika, had to learn one or two words a day as she went around the city. This became a huge barrier for her, and made it difficult to obtain work, insurance, and receive medical services. As a result, Yessika implored her to learn English as much as she could, as quickly as she could.

With some time, Brizeida found a community of friends and teachers in Virginia that encouraged her to learn English, adapt in school, and made her feel welcomed. After a year of adjusting, Brizeida received word, that due to immigration reasons, she’d have to move to Maryland.

Brizeida felt foreign in this new community that did not reflect who she was. She did not see as many Latino people who spoke Spanish as she did in Virginia, and she had lost all interest in looking to find her place in Maryland. At 17, she was feeling more alone than she ever had. Not having friends in Maryland was a much more difficult challenge than not knowing English in Virginia.

“For a whole year; I would go to school, learn what I had to learn, and go home. I wouldn’t talk to anyone. My first year in Maryland I had no desire to make friends because I felt I had already lost the ones in El Salvador, the ones in Virginia, and having to start over and make new friends, I just didn’t want that,” shares Brizeida.

Mi Refugio

Brizeida first learned about Mi Refugio, La Clínica del Pueblo’s school-based mental health services program for immigrant students at Northwestern High School, during her first year at school. She considered joining for a very long time – because some of her teachers were not encouraging of her joining. Eventually, Brizeida gave herself the chance to join since she had no friends in school and was struggling in her classes.

“During that time Paola was there, and she helped me throughout the whole process of settling into Mi Refugio and adapting to the new environment. The fact that I got into Mi Refugio made me change my opinion about [Maryland] and about the people around me. It was an experience I [will] never change for anything in the world.”

Similarly, Brizeida tended to isolate herself and not ask for help. Through Mi Refugio she received tutoring, counseling, and group talks that helped her to change her mind set about the state of Maryland. As she began to settle and involve herself in the program her grades changed, her behavior changed, and her attitude towards her new environment changed.

“The talks that we had in Mi Refugio, where many people came to discuss with us different topics like HIV, community relations, etc... all of that helped me a lot, to learn and meet new people, and make new friends.”

Immigrating to a new country, culture, and language is already a big challenge for many, but doing it alone and at the age of 16 is incredibly impactful and life changing. Brizeida shares the counseling she received at Mi Refugio allowed her to heal and grow from the state of loneliness and isolation she was in.

“One thing I would never change about Mi Refugio was the counseling we received. I am a closed off person, I usually do not like to talk about how I feel, much less tell someone I am not ok. But the way the staff and participants at Mi Refugio made me feel, the way they accepted me, led me to talk to them and express myself for the first time.”

To Brizeida, the people in Mi Refugio became like brothers and sisters to her. Their love and support led her to have the confidence to share and talk about what was going on in her life. They provided an environment where Brizeida felt safe and understood.

“The people in Mi Refugio, are people that you can trust. They have that open and understanding mind every young person wishes they had in their life, and they know how to give advice when you need it the most,” shares Brizeida on her experience opening up with people at Mi Refugio.

Moreover, the program provided all kinds of experiences that make Brizeida smile. One of Brizeida’s favorite memories was when she went to the Anthropology Museum in Washington, D.C. with her Mi Refugio peers- it was the company of her friends, the rich experience at the museum - it all sparked her deeper interest in anthropology – which has become a topic she is highly interested in studying further when she goes to college.

Becoming a Board Member for La Clínica

Brizeida aspires to become a social worker and shares that her experience with Mi Refugio was the final push she needed to choose that career path. Although she has graduated from high school and from Mi Refugio, she continues to be involved with La Clinica as a patient and as a board member.

“La Clinica has played one of the most important roles in my life. When I arrived, I had absolutely nothing. The help they provided me to navigate complex systems was life-changing for me. The fact that when I get sick, I can get medical services despite not yet having health insurance, is an immense help.”

Furthermore, Brizeida shares she became a Board Member of La Clinica because La Clinica gave so much to her, when she had nothing to give back. Now that she can, she wants to help others the same way she was helped. Brizeida currently works and saves money to pay for college in the future. She shares, “whether I can accomplish my career goal or not, I will always strive to help as many people as I can, especially kids that have endured similar experiences as me.”

To anyone interested in joining La Clinica del Pueblo or Mi Refugio she shares “if you have the opportunity, and you want to improve as a person, don't think about it. La Clinica changes lives. The experiences, the friendships, and the aid never seizes at La Clinica. It will be one of the most beautiful and impacting experiences throughout your life.”

Looking back on her journey, Brizeida shares it was all worth it. She has graduated High School, she has learned English, she has obtained a job, she is on the board of an organization she loves and has the opportunity to go to college. She shares, “there are many benefits that I have received in the U.S that I never imagined I could have received. I set goals for myself but said that maybe it was going to be difficult, and it has been, but I have achieved them in a very short time and that shows me that it has all been worth it.