Many of the 200 children who pointed in awe at the giant fiberglass blue whale or peered at a microscopic image of a tiny baby snail at the American Museum of Natural History on Saturday had never been to a museum.
Almost all had fled violence, abuse or poverty in their Central American homelands, crossing the border without their parents.
On Saturday, though, they were laughing, smiling and excitedly running from exhibit to exhibit in the museum in Manhattan as they learned more about the world around them.
“We wanted them to experience just the joy of being a child, something they may not have experienced for years,” said José Calderón, president of the Manhattan-based Hispanic Federation, which organized the excursion.
About half the children in the federation group live on Long Island, among the nearly 4,000 young people who arrived in the country as unaccompanied minors in recent years and then settled in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Nelsy Argueta Rodríguez was one of them. Nelsy, 15, came with her sister Kimberly, 12, from Honduras about six months ago and now lives in Hempstead.
Nelsy said her visit made her even more interested in pursuing a science-related career.
“I love studying animals and biology and knowing more about nature,” Nelsy said in Spanish.
Nelsy’s and Kimberly’s faces were fixed in almost permanent smiles all afternoon.
“I have never seen them so excited,” said her social worker, Martin Carrera of the Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association.
This was the girls’ first visit to New York City. Carrera said it’s important for their development to get to know more of their new home country.
“This shows they can go out and explore and educate themselves and get a sense that they’re a part of a community,” he said.
The sisters left Honduras, which has the world’s highest murder rate, to join their mother, Yaneth Rodríguez, in Hempstead. They hadn’t seen her since she left their small town of Marcala 10 years ago.
Rodríguez said the girls set off without her knowledge. She hadn’t sent for them because she was torn between her desire to see them escape their violence-torn country and her fear of them getting hurt or killed on the dangerous path to the United States.
Nelsy, Kimberly and most of the other kids in Saturday’s group are still in immigration proceedings, which will determine whether they can stay in the United States or will be ordered to leave.
Saturday was a respite from that uncertainty, Calderón said.
“After everything these kids have experienced at home, the journey up north, the shame of being detained sometimes for months on end, the isolation they feel being here — like any immigrant feels — and not knowing if they’ll be able to stay or will be sent back home to despair or violence, after all that, they deserve to be welcomed and embraced by Americans,” he said.