Casandra shouts to her sister as she races to her bedroom.
It’s a relief. Sometimes, the calls to Honduras drop or don’t go through.
Her school bus arrives in less than an hour. And the 10-year-old still isn’t sure what to wear. She props the phone up on her bed, beside a stuffed Minnie Mouse toy, and holds up a pair of black leggings for the camera.
On the other end of the call, some 2,000 miles away, her mom squints to get a better view.
“And what shirt are you wearing?” she asks.
Casandra unfolds it quickly and holds it up for the camera. She gets a skeptical look in response.
“What else do you have?” the mom asks.
Casandra says she isn’t sure. She walks into a nearby closet, past the rows of her favorite sneakers and her sister’s Selena t-shirt, pulling a wooden chair behind her. She’s much taller now than she was the last time she hugged her mom – but still not tall enough to reach the top shelf on her own.
It’s early June. The last time Casandra and her mom were together was May 23, 2018 – more than three years ago. At detention facilities all along the US-Mexico border, families like theirs were being split up.
US authorities separated Casandra and her three older sisters from their mom, Juana, that day. Casandra sobbed and said she didn’t want to leave without her. She was 7 years old.
Two weeks later, the girls went to live with their biological father in the US. Authorities eventually sent Juana back to her native Honduras.
Since then, moments like this became one of the few ways mother and daughters could stay in touch.
Casandra props the phone up again, this time against a stack of T-shirts. Together she and her mother pick out a sweater to complete her look.
Normally, they’d talk for another 30 minutes and maybe even doodle together while Casandra waits for her bus. But this morning, someone’s about to pick up Juana for an appointment and she can’t stay on the phone.
“I love you so much,” she tells her daughter. “Now hang up.”
“No, you hang up,” Casandra replies. “I don’t like to.”
This is what they say when they speak almost every day.
No one ever wants to end the call.
Their life before the US wasn’t easy, either
Juana was a mother of four by the time she was 28.
In Honduras, she and her daughters would wake up early every morning. The oldest, Montserrat, would make her sisters baleadas, a traditional Honduran dish made of homemade tortillas, beans and cheese, while Juana would brush Casandra’s hair and get her and the other girls ready for school.
They were together, but life wasn’t easy. Juana rarely had enough money for the girls’ lunch at school, and the baleadas were often the last the things they ate until the evening.
Then, in September 2016, Juana was assaulted. She reported her attacker to the police, which led to threats of violence from the man’s family. She moved residences several times, but her tormenters found her and the threats continued.
Fearing for their safety, Juana took her four daughters in 2018 and fled north.
On May 22 of that year they arrived at a border crossing in El Paso, Texas, where they turned themselves in to authorities, according to Al Otro Lado, an organization which has been working to reunite Juana’s and other families who were separated at the border.
They next day, authorities separated them. An immigration official told the girls to give their mother one last hug.
That moment is seared into Juana’s memory.
“That is the biggest wound. And when I remember it, I feel as if it was happening again,” she says. “It’s something that I don’t think I’ll forget.”
Before they were separated, Juana had never spent a day apart from her daughters.
After that, she saw them only through a phone, her cherished family rituals reduced to images and voices on a tiny, glowing screen.
How separations at the border affect families
The devastating aftermath of the Trump administration’s family separations at the border has been well documented. The world has heard accounts of traumatized children, parents desperate for answers and search teams combing Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala for missing mothers and fathers.
We’ve also started to see happier scenes of joyful airport reunions.
But it’s rare to see what these separations mean, day after day, for people who’ve been living through them.
To get a better sense of what thousands of families are facing, CNN began speaking this spring with Juana and her four daughters: Casandra, now 11; Julieta, 16; Abril, 18; and Montserrat, 20.
The mother and her children agreed to share their stories but asked for their faces not to be shown and for their location in the US not to be revealed. The daughters, who are represented by Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), also asked to be identified only by pseudonyms to protect their safety because their asylum cases are still pending.
Two days before our first in-person interview, they learned they’d be among the first families rejoined in a push by a Biden administration task force to reunite families who were separated under the Trump administration.
In interviews the girls and their mother described how their years apart shaped them and the fears they still have for the future.
Some of their most powerful stories came from personal details of their daily lives – the little ways they tried to stay close even when there were thousands of miles between them.
Her mom wore these earrings the day they were separated
Montserrat guards the sparkly silver studs like a treasure.
She’s the oldest of the four siblings. On the day their family was separated, she tried to be strong for her sisters. She didn’t hug her mom goodbye. Instead, she took the earrings her mom was wearing and promised to keep them safe.
She was 16 years old then. In some ways, the last three years have been much like that moment when they said goodbye at the border.
Montserrat cried as she told us how every day, she tries not to make mistakes in front of her sisters or let them see how much she struggles. As the oldest sister, she’s taken on many of the roles her mom had when they lived together in Honduras. And she knows she needs to set a good example – especially for Casandra.
“There are things I can’t say because she’s my little sister, and I don’t want her to carry my problems,” she says. “This is what any mother or father would do, right? You feel bad, but you don’t show it in front of others.”
The oldest and youngest sister share a bedroom. On the wall, a poster says, “She is the perfect combination of princess and warrior.” Beside her bed, Montserrat keeps dangly earrings atop a stack of books.
She loves to wear earrings. But never the ones her mom handed over that day at the border. Those she’s determined to protect and keep safe, just as she watches over her sisters.
Her phone became a lifeline – and a constant reminder of all she’d lost
Juana lies in bed, her pink Samsung Galaxy in hand. The corners of the casing are wearing away in the areas where she holds it.
“Bless you my love. How are you?” she asks as each daughter’s face pops up on the screen.
Casandra unrolls a new poster she’s just gotten of pop star Billie Eilish.
“Who’s that?” her mom asks. “And what happened to you? You have a bruise on your arm.”
Casandra is the baby of the family, but she’s no longer the little girl her mom hugged at the border more than three years ago.
Of all the things Juana has missed, she regrets most not being there for her youngest daughter’s birthdays and milestones. The cakes they didn’t eat together. The songs they didn’t sing. The little moments she never got to share.
“Her whole childhood, I missed it,” Juana says.
Over the last three years in Honduras, Juana has lived in hiding from her attacker and his family. Her only connections with the outside world are what she sees from her apartment window and what she sees on her phone.
Calls and messages from her daughters both sustain her and remind her of what she’s lost. She hears about their homework. She watches them skateboarding down the street.
Sometimes, the distance between them has been too much to bear.
One morning, on Mother’s Day, she felt overwhelmed with loneliness and turned off her phone. She felt sorry for herself and wanted to punish the girls because she felt they no longer loved her. No matter how many messages they sent back and forth, it would never be the same as when they lived together under the same roof.
That evening, Juana realized she’d been letting her depression cloud her judgment. She turned her phone back on, and the messages of love and concern from her daughters came pouring in.
The girls fought over this photo when they found it
Before arriving in the United States, they never knew the photo existed. But when they found it in their dad’s apartment, it quickly became a prized possession.
It was the only printed picture they had of their mom and they liked its novelty.
She was just 24 years old then, wearing a pink T-shirt and a ruffled white skirt, standing tall, looking at the camera with a serious expression.
At first, Abril and Julieta kept the photo in their room. Then Montserrat and Casandra took it into theirs – until Abril and Julieta swiped it again.
Eventually, their dad had to take it back so the sisters would stop fighting.
But Montserrat still finds herself turning to the photo for strength.
“Even though she’s far away, looking at it, I feel like she’s here. Even though she’s not present, her spirit is. Her positive energy. Her scolding. Her advice.”
Awards on the girls’ wall were a bittersweet reminder
Montserrat had been living in the United States for just a year when she heard the news. She’d be receiving a prestigious prize at school.
Now it hangs on her family’s living room wall – a point of pride.
But Montserrat sees something else when she looks at it.
She still remembers the day when she stood in front of her school and accepted the prize with only a cousin there to congratulate her. Her dad had to work that day. Her mom was a continent away.
“I am in a new country, learning new things, a new language, and something like this is beautiful,” she says, “but unfortunately they weren’t there to go with me.”
Music shaped their time together – and their time apart
When they lived together in Honduras, music always filled the house. There were romantic ballads of Mexican folk singers and peppy pop tunes to get them going in the morning.
Now it’s much quieter. On some days, the only sounds are the click-click-clicking of the ceiling fan, the chirping of birds outside and the regular roars and rumbles of engines from the street.
But music still finds a way to make it across the miles that separate them. Juana calls the girls and sings to them on their birthday. And on Mother’s Day, they sing her “El Himno a la Madre,” a hymn they learned in school in Honduras.
Sometimes, they send each other songs that remind them of each other.
Recently, Montserrat sent a Spanish pop song by the Cuban singer Lenier – “Como Te Pago,” or “How Can I Pay You?”
Before I called you Mommy, now I call you Mamá
Thank you for teaching me to talk and to walk
Precious mother of my life, never leave me
Because I will cry and cry if you leave me
Juana wept as she heard the words.
For years they prayed for a reunion
Juana sits in a pew at her church, clasps her hands together and asks God for help.
For my oldest daughter, take care of her for me
Protect her for me
Enlighten every step she takes
This is the only place in her Honduran city where Juana feels safe going every week. It’s where she turns for solace on her darkest days.
But as she watches families filter into the church on a Sunday morning, she is also filled with sadness. Before, she’d go to church with her family, too. Now she prays alone.
She’s just learned that soon she’ll be allowed to travel to the United States, but it seems too good to be true. She’s terrified something will go wrong in her interview at the embassy this week. And she prays for God to light the path ahead.
In their apartment a continent away, her daughters are holding out hope.
A large, wooden cross sits on the ledge between the kitchen and the living room. “Pray big,” it says in cursive. “Worry small.”
For years, Montserrat has prayed – at church and at home – for God to return her mother to them.
She’s always heard that faith can move mountains. And finally, it seems like it has.
Then came the news they’d been waiting for
In early June, Juana received a call from her attorney with Al Otro Lado. Her application for humanitarian parole, allowing her to re-enter the United States for 36 months, had been approved. She could be traveling to the US very soon.
After three long years apart, the days suddenly went by in a rush.
Juana’s final weeks in Honduras were filled with goodbyes to family members and a trip to the embassy. In the US, her daughters knew their mom would be arriving soon, but they didn’t know when.
Then Montserrat got a text from their mother – she was arriving the next day. “There wasn’t time to plan anything,” the oldest daughter says. “Everything was so fast.”
On June 19, the day their mother arrived, the girls went to a store and bought a bouquet of the most beautiful flowers they could find and a bunch of balloons. In their excitement they lost some of the balloons as they rushed out.
Juana got off the plane and headed for baggage claim. She felt like she was dreaming when she caught sight of her daughters. The three oldest were now taller than her – bittersweet proof of their agonizing time apart.
“It was a moment of happiness. Of so much joy,” Juana says. “And at the same time, pain.”
The three oldest daughters moved in first to embrace their mother, encircling her in a collective hug. Casandra hesitated. There was no room for her. She ducked underneath the tangle of arms and squeezed in next to her mom.
A mix of emotions poured out.
“It felt like … the beginning of a new life. A new stage,” says Montserrat, ever mindful of the years that were lost. “It’s time that we’ll never get back, but now we’re here and the only thing to do is to move forward.”
Their new lives are full of joy
Juana now lives with her daughters and their father in a 3-bedroom, ground-floor unit of a suburban apartment complex.
She shares a bed with Montserrat and wakes every morning to her oldest daughter’s sleeping face. Casandra sleeps in the same room, just a few feet away. Julieta and Abril share another bedroom.
Juana gazes at her daughters’ faces every morning and her heart fills with joy.
They all have a new bedtime ritual, too.
“At night, before I go to bed, they come to my bed and kiss and hug me and wish me ‘good night.’ I feel happy,” she says. “There’s not a day since I’ve arrived that they haven’t come to kiss me goodnight before I go to sleep.”
The first day she was here, she made the girls her famous baleadas. Montserrat says she watched her sister Julieta eat about 20 of them.
Juana worked as a cook in Honduras, and she and her daughters have talked about starting their own business, selling food.
Having their mom back has made Montserrat’s life a lot easier. Juana now handles many of the responsibilities Montserrat took on while they were apart – cooking, cleaning, and taking Casandra to their local park.
And that’s how Juana wants it to be. She feels guilty her eldest daughter had to take on so much at such a young age.
“I want to reward her for taking my job, my responsibility as a mother,” she says. “She needs to take a break, because she deserves it.”
But invisible wounds remain
For now, life feels good. But it doesn’t make up for the time they lost – and the memory of that excruciating moment when they were torn apart.
“For none of us … will it be forgotten. That they separated us. That we cried. Who’s going to give us back the tears? Who’s going to give us back the sadness we felt? Montserrat says. “Nothing will be able to heal the wounds, because they’re like scars.”
Through the federal task force, Juana has been granted three years of parole and a work visa. Her advocates hope the Biden administration will come up with a solution that will keep their family together – including legal permanent status in the US.
That would bring a great relief to Juana and her girls. Juana says it breaks her heart to hear her daughters talk about the emotional trauma of being apart from their mother. She bears the scars of their separation as well.
“No parent wants to abandon their child,” she says. “It’s a great sorrow. It’s an agony that one feels.”
But for Montserrat, there is a small silver lining. She says she has a deeper appreciation now for a mother she sometimes took for granted before.
“Through a telephone, you can’t share a hug. Through a telephone you can’t share moments like we are now,” she says. “This has been … you could say, an ugly experience, but at the same time, a very beautiful experience for me because I began to appreciate my mom more. Maybe before I didn’t value her enough like I do now. Now I don’t want her to ever go away.”
The family is still adapting to their new life after so much time apart. After what they’ve been through, they’re also anxious about what the future might bring.
But they take comfort in knowing that whatever comes, they will face it together.
CNN’s Orlando Ruiz, Jeremy Moorhead and Brandon Griggs contributed to this story.