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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

The story of an unaccompanied minor, 7 years later

courtesy Erick Moya

This spring, a wave of children showed up at the southern border of the United States, with no adult to care for them. The children were labeled “unaccompanied minors.”

The number of unaccompanied minors at the border was much higher this year than in previous years. But children with nowhere else to turn have long sought refuge in the United States. Many of them end up staying to make a life here.

Today, we have the story of one young man who arrived here years ago, when he was 17 years old.

His story begins like this:

Bueno, mi nombre es Erick Moya

"My name is Erick Moya, I came from Honduras," continues his translator, Wilson Soliz, who works at Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids, the organization that helped Moya when he reached the United States. 

"The reason I left Honduras was because my father killed my mother," Soliz continues. "And then we were left alone."

Moya says after his dad murdered his mom, he went to live with other family members in Honduras.  

"I was working," Soliz translates. "I was living with these family members, however, they didn’t provide any shoes or anything for me to wear. So I used to go to work barefooted. And all the money I used to make was for these family members. Nothing was for me."

This work, barefoot in the fields, started when Moya was 7 years old. When he was 10, he ran away to his grandmother’s house. There, he continued working, but he was allowed to keep half his wages.

"A refugee always enters someone's country without permission," says Dona Abbott, of Bethany Christian Services. "That's the nature of being a refugee. You're fleeing for your life. You don't stop and knock on the door. You just run."

This lasted until he was 16. Moya’s grandmother was getting older. Gangs tried to recruit Moya. But he heard about others who were heading north. So he saved up his money, and boarded a bus.

Three months later, he says he walked all night through the desert to cross the border into the United States. He was 17 years old.  

"He was kind of the forerunner who came this summer," says Dona Abbott, who oversees the refugee program at Bethany Christian Services. "He’s one of those vulnerable kids."

"A refugee always enters someone’s country without permission," Abbott says. "Almost 99% of the time, that’s the nature of being a refugee. You’re fleeing for your life. You don’t stop and knock on the door. You just run." 

Abbott has been doing this work long enough to remember other waves of unaccompanied minors. The Lost Boys of Sudan. The children who fled the nation of Myanmar, also known as Burma, during years of unrest there.

Abbott says what was different this summer is that the refugee children were at America’s border, not in Thailand or Ethiopia. And they weren’t fleeing a war. They were fleeing street violence at the hands of organized criminal groups. The violence in Central America has gotten even more brutal since Moya left Honduras several years ago.

But because of our complicated, and heated politics around immigration, these refugees were not received in quite the same way as refugees from previous events.

I ask Moya if he feels welcome in the United States. 

"Sincerely, yes," he says, in the words of Soliz' translation."The United States is a country that welcomes anybody who is in need. However, yeah, like in every other country, you have people who are racist, you have people who are against it. But for me, right now, I feel very welcome in the United States."

Moya is 25 years old now. He was granted asylum just days before his 18th birthday. He came to Grand Rapids to live with a foster family, where he stayed until he was 20.

Now, he’s married. He has a job, a wife, a child and mortgage. He says he registered for the military draft.

"This is the country that really helped me," he says. "And anybody that received help from the United States will agree with me, that you will do whatever you can for this country."

One day, he says, he hopes to write a book about what it’s like to be a refugee. He says he wants more people to understand. He wants to tell his story.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.