My foster mom welcomed me and gave me hope
After escaping gang violence in El Salvador, a refugee teen found safety, hope, and a welcoming foster mom in the U.S.
Interview with José, Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program
Refugee foster parents are brave to welcome someone from another country into their homes. They open doors for people they don’t know and work so hard to help others, without knowing what that person’s life was like before.
My foster mom was brave to open her door to me when I was just 14 years old, new to this country, and needing a safe place to call home.
I was born in El Salvador to hardworking parents. I was a good kid, helping my dad grow crops at home and getting good grades at school. Because I was a good student, bigger and stronger kids at school began to bully me, and that grew worse as I got older. By the time I was 12, many of the kids I knew had already joined gangs, but I refused.
In Central America, refusing the gangs is dangerous. So dangerous that my family couldn’t protect me from people who wanted to hurt me.
I’ll never forget that March day in 2013. I was 14 years old, talking outside our church with my cousin and my younger brother. I remember seeing two guys approach us, but I didn’t think anything bad was going to happen. The next thing I knew, I heard gunshots everywhere—gang members were trying to kill all three of us. I didn’t know what to do; I dropped to the ground with my brother, shielding him with my body.
My cousin ran, and when the shooting stopped, I got up and ran after him. I wanted to call for help, but my cousin had my phone. I honestly didn’t realize what had happened until some people yelled at me: “You’re bleeding!” I’d been shot twice in the leg.
At the time of the shooting, my cousin’s dad was shot in the stomach. People were helping him get into someone’s car to take him to the hospital. My brother and I ran toward the car, and they took us to the hospital as well. By the time we arrived, I was in a lot of pain, and I couldn’t walk. Thankfully, none of the bullets touched my bones, and I was blessed to be able to walk again.
Over the next month, as I recovered, I knew I couldn’t stay at home any longer. I had to go somewhere safe. So with my parents’ blessing, I borrowed money from an uncle and paid a guide to bring me to the United States. I was apprehended at the border and sent to a shelter in Texas. It was too dangerous to send me back home, so the Office of Refugee Resettlement connected me with Bethany’s Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program* in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And about a month later, I went to live with my foster mom, Lois.
At 14, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. But Lois welcomed me as part of her family. It was hard being so far away from home, where nothing around me was familiar. Just learning to communicate with my foster mom was a big challenge. She didn’t speak Spanish, and I didn’t speak English. But I learned over time. I spent the next several years learning a new culture, going to school, making new friends, and missing my family every day. And that whole time, Lois took care of me. She gave me hope.
When I got shot and realized I could have been killed, I was mad at God. I’d done nothing to deserve that, and I couldn’t understand why He’d allowed that to happen. But He helped me see it differently. I’d only been shot in the leg. I survived. I came to the United States with goals and dreams, and He showed me there was something better waiting for me.
No one in my family ever had the opportunity to get an education. I was the first to attend high school, get a diploma, and begin college. Now at 21, I’m just a year away from earning a college degree. Although I’ve suffered many things to be here, I can see God had bigger plans for me. I trust in His promises, and I believe that everything He says He will do.
Three years ago, my brother joined me in the U.S. After so many years apart, it was incredible to hug him and see him face-to-face. I’d missed him so much. We’d grown up together. We’d gone to school together. We’d helped my dad together. We’d done everything together. I feel so lucky to have him here with me.
When I arrived in the U.S. alone, Lois became my family here. And now she’s family for my brother too, providing a safe foster home for him. She loves us both as a mom would, and she wants the best for us.
We have regular calls home to talk with our parents, and they are very happy to know we are together, safe, and looking out for each other.
Bethany has been more than a blessing to me. They care about people and help anyone who needs help. When I arrived in the U.S. alone, they helped me find a family. They helped me learn what I needed to know. I’m accomplishing things today that never would have been possible back home. I really appreciate this opportunity and feel blessed to be in this program.
*To enter the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program, an unaccompanied child must be determined to have no viable sponsors in the U.S. and obtain a form of legal status to remain in the U.S.