TIJUANA, Mexico — Playtime in Tijuana shelters is a chaotic and dangerous affair.

Toddlers play alongside boys three times their size. When one of the bigger kids wants a toy that the younger children have, they simply take it. If the toddlers refuse to give it up, they get beat up.

Parents at the shelter are constantly on the lookout for these beatings.

“It’s so stressful in the shelters,” said Graciela, a 60-year-old grandmother who fled from violence in her home in the Mexican state of Guerrero with her daughter and 18-month-old granddaughter Paulette.

Fortunately for Graciela, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit opened a free early childhood play space specifically for children whose families are seeking asylum in the United States right across the street from the shelter she lives in. Currently, the space is only for children who live in that shelter but they hope to expand in the future.

Every Thursday through Monday between 18 and 25 children from the shelter spend hours playing, painting, socializing in the peaceful new facility.

On a recent Monday, Graciela lay comfortably on the floor and laughed as little Paulette pointed to a tiny set of udders on a plastic cow and said, “leche,” which means milk in Spanish.

On the other side of the toy-filled room, a 29-year-old father from the Mexican state of Michoacan built a small bridge out of blocks while his 3-year-old son moved a truck underneath it. It was the first time in years that the father, Valente, had uninterrupted one-on-one play time with his son, Leonardo.

“It calms me down,” he said. “I’m not worried about other kids hitting him.”

Even though the space only opened Sept. 5, eager children already line up to get in before they open at 8:30 a.m., said Alise Shafer Ivey, Executive Director of the Pedagogical Institute of Los Angeles, or PILA for short.

The nonprofit has similar play spaces, which they call “Nests,” in Greece and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both of those places are similar to Tijuana in that they have a large refugee population but few, if any, early childhood services.

Studies show that the first five years of a child’s life are critical for brain development. And, considering that these children have already undergone traumatic experiences, Shafer Ivery believes something like the Nest is particularly important.

“This is a place where children who have been stuffed in the back of cars, who have been dragged across borders, who have had life happen to them in a real powerful and negative way can have autonomy,” she said. “They can make choices.”

Shafer Ivey has a background in education and believes that children benefit from open play.

At the Nest, children chose if they want to paint or play with clay. They can make creations out of blocks, experiment with scientific instruments, or run a restaurant in a pretend kitchen. Everything in the house is designed to stimulate their intellectual curiosity, she said.

For little Paulette, Graciela’s 18-month-old granddaughter, that means pointing and plastic toy cows and saying milk.

Graciela has noticed that Paulette socializes more with other children. She likes to play in the kitchen and has become more adventurous.

“I like it here because — I’m not sure how to say it — but it came at the right time for the kids,” the proud grandmother said. “They need a space, they need to be able to be children.”

The idea to open the Nest Tijuana started last year, when a caravan of Central American migrants arrived to the U.S.-Mexico border. PILA chairperson Lindsay Feldman Weissert, remembers reading about the caravan on the news and felt a moral obligation to do something about it.

“We said to ourselves, ‘we’re doing all of this work on other people’s border, it’s really important that we do the work on our border too,’” she said.

Over the last year, tens of thousands of asylum seekers have been sent to Tijuana to wait for their immigration court hearings under the Migrant Protection Protocols program — more commonly known as Remain in Mexico.

The program was launched to deter migrants from filing illegitimate asylum claims. However, those who say they have legitimate asylum claims have been exposed to theft and assaults. Migrants returned to Mexico also have limited access to legal aid, stable housing and almost no access to childcare and education services for minors.

Originally, PILA thought that it’d be able to convince a shelter to let them use a room inside and operate Nest Tijuana out of that space.

But it didn’t exactly work out like that.

Tijuana’s existing migrant shelters are underfunded and overcapacity. The need for space is so dire that a group of Central American migrants have actually begun building their own shelter in the outskirts of town.

“It sounded like a perfectly reasonable idea to us, until we go to the shelters and realized that if there’s even one square inch of space, they’ve already put a mattress there,” said Shafer Ivey. “If they have an extra room they sure aren’t saving it for children.”

Shafer Ivey and Feldman Weissert found a house across the street from one of the shelters with a large child population. They signed a two-year lease and opened Sept. 5.

The space also includes a small kitchen and a bedroom for volunteers.

The room’s first tenant will be an early childhood specialist who is also a grandmother from San Diego.

Feldman Wissert hopes more follow.

“This is one of the few opportunities where you can come down and actually work,” she said. “It’s a boots-on-the-ground way to come and work with the children.”

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©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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