A Far Rockaway teen's daily two-hour commute to high school is part of a United Nations photo exhibit depicting stories of children around the world taking their daily treks to school, whether by donkey, ferry, canoe or snowmobile.
The children in the "Journey to School" exhibit hail from Alaska, a West African refugee camp, a Brazilian slum, a gang-ridden Los Angeles neighborhood and a gypsy encampment outside Paris.
In New York, Santiago Munoz, 14, of Far Rockaway makes his daily two-hour trip on two buses and two trains from the public housing apartment that he shares with his father, mother, sister, brother, cousin and grandmother.
"I believe I can achieve anything if I work hard, and if I am well educated, I will receive a scholarship to college," said Munoz, who wakes up at 5:10 a.m. to catch the 5:50 a.m. Q22 bus.
After 20 minutes, he transfers to another bus for a 30-minute ride to the Rockaway A train station because storm damage from Sandy washed out a portion of the A line subway tracks. Then his 40-minute commute into lower Manhattan begins. At Fulton Street he transfers to the 4 train and rides to the last stop at Bedford Park Boulevard in the Bronx.
"I didn't think my transportation is that difficult compared to students who live in war zones, or have to walk through deserts to get to school," said Munoz.
"Santiago is a very modest, humble guy," said photographer Bryan Derballa of SIPA, an international photo agency that helped sponsor the project. "When Santiago leaves in the morning he hugs and kisses everyone in his family and does the sign of the cross before he walks out the door," said Derballa, who marvels at Santiago's commitment to education.
"This is a socio-economic journey through New York City," he said. "Santiago lives in a rough neighborhood and the family goes out only when it's necessary.
"What really gets me is that Santiago in his commute passes dozens and dozens of private schools that he can't afford. It speaks to the problem that social class dictates a quality education."
Munoz views his commute differently. "America has people of all cultures. We are all riding on the buses and trains together -- all going to work. I don't see people fighting -- just being together going to their jobs and school.""This experience teaches me that people who are dedicated and are hard working will achieve the most in our society,'' he said.
The project is funded by global transportation company Veolia Transdev, owners of Nassau InterCounty Express and UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.