by Jessica Slice

Many parents don’t have the privilege of shielding their children from our world’s harshest realities. But some of us can decide at what point we will share some of the hardest truths — including the manner in which people with power treat vulnerable children at the border of the United States and Mexico; it is a terrible truth — estimates put the number of children in immigrant detention in the US at around 15,000.  

Jyothi Marbin and Zoe Ellis, two Bay Area activists and mothers with young daughters, include their 5th and 6th-grade daughters in their conversations about immigrant detention. They are careful, supportive, and truthful with their children but have not insulated them.

In recent years we’ve witnessed the advocacy impact of youth on a global scale — with climate change, gun control, and immigration law. Like so many young people today, instead of crumbling, their daughters Kaia Marbin and Lily Ellis have risen up, joined together, and taken action

Kaia, 11, was listening to a radio show which mentioned the 15,000 children in detention in the United States and was struck by just how high that number is. She had trouble imagining 15,000 and together, with her friend Lily, 10, decided to create 15,000 of something in order to shed light on the sheer number of children being detained. They are leading an effort to make 15,000 butterflies from recycled and upcycled materials.

Installation at Wood Middle School in Alameda (photo credit: Lindsay Shepard)

Incredibly, supporters have now made 20,000 butterflies and Kaia and Lily are committed to continuing until children are no longer detained, as a show of solidarity, support, and friendship.

According to their website, created by Jahan Marbin, 9, they selected butterflies because “they symbolize that migration is beautiful and because they are all different and beautiful in their own way, just like people. Every kid matters and we kids in the Bay Area want the kids in detention centers to know that we care about each one of them. Butterflies also symbolize freedom, and we imagine a day when all kids are free and with their families.” As Kaia said when we spoke, “We want to make sure the kids in detention know that we haven’t forgotten about them.”

Lily is a member of the Grammy-nominated Alphabet Rockers, a beloved Bay Area band prioritizing youth empowerment and activism led by Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd. I was able to interview Kaitlin McGaw, Lily (10), Zoe (her mom), Jahan (9), Kaia (11), and their mom, Jyothi. Their manner was easy and welcoming and it was obvious that these activists prioritize self-care and connection to fortify themselves against the exhaustion that can accompany engagement. The confront the truth about our country’s immigration policy without neglecting their own needs.

They have all led initiatives before The Butterfly Effect, but this effort has been particularly moving for their families. They have hosted butterfly-making events in the Bay Area and have empowered team captains in their own butterfly-making efforts globally. Witnessing the widespread interest and support of their movement has been meaningful to Lily and Kaia, but they never stop holding the reality that these butterflies represent real children, enduring unnecessary trauma and hardship.

As Lily explained, “There were 1000 butterflies behind us and it looks like so many. Just thinking that that’s how many children there are, it’s not a good feeling. It makes me so sad and angry. It’s fun to make butterflies with amazing people and have amazing talks, but I shouldn’t have to do it.”

Zoe Ellis reflects on her 10-year-old daughter’s activism last year, “We faced the reality that talking to a 10-year-old at length about what’s happening led to a series of nightmares and sleepless nights and upset. I’ve heard from Jyothi as well that the emotional toll for both Kaia and Lily has been heavy. They are talking about it every single day.” Kaitlin McGaw, an activist partner, and mother, explained the futility of the alternative — trying to shield one’s children: “We feel that our kids absorb the energy of silence and indifference.”  

Workshop at Oakland Pride event

Kaitlin McGaw, one of The Alphabet Rockers, who wrote the movement’s theme song, reiterated the importance of coming alongside youth-led movements. To empower and to amplify, without taking over. Jyothi Marbin reiterated that, “Alphabet Rockers creates really thought-provoking music at the right time, but they are very respectful and empowering. They uplift the voice of youth.” Other organizations are supporting The Butterfly Effect movement, including Amnesty International, Destiny Arts Center, and The Center for Cultural Power.

They plan on bringing butterflies to the border and are hosting a youth-led rally on November 16, 2019, in Oakland. It will be from 3-4 at the Lake Merritt amphitheater. Supporters are invited to join this rally against child detention.  

Last year, Lily and Kaia spoke at rallies, in response to family separation at the border. Lily implored, “We may be small, but we have a big voice and we know how to use it. We MUST close the camps and reunite these families.”

Kaia, 11, stood before a crowd of 2500 and spoke with complete moral clarity:

I invite you to close your eyes. Imagine you're 5 years old and you’re leaving all your friends and all of your family behind to go to a new place with new people who don't speak the same language as you, and who you don't even know. How would you feel? Scared, lonely or maybe even confused?
Now imagine that when you got to that new strange place instead of being welcomed with open arms, you were taken away from your family, your parents, the only people you know in this new place. And you're put into a cage where you don't get enough to eat, you’re cold and sick and you can't even brush your teeth. You're always hungry, and surrounded by other kids who are cold and hungry and scared and lonely just like you.  Now open your eyes.
That doesn't sound like the American dream - that sounds like a nightmare. And that's what's happening to kids when they come to America seeking safety.
The statue of liberty says on it: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The Wretched refuse of your teeming Shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp before the golden door. That means that we as a country are supposed to be kind and welcoming. I know and I am sure the rest of you know that we are not doing a good job of that. The tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free are all people in need of help and so we must help them.  We must lift our lamps and welcome them. Instead of welcoming them, we are putting KIDS who need help in detention centers.
Kids should be in summer camp, not concentration camps.
America was built by people who came here seeking a better life.  
America, we are better than this.

Cover photo: Kaia (left) with Lily (right) at Zoo Labs Studio in Oakland. Photo credit: Zoe Ellis.

Jessica Slice is a disabled woman and an MSW candidate at Columbia University where she advocates for accessibility in higher education. She is married and the parent of a dinosaur-loving 2-year-old.