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Happy to Do Homework After a Long Journey From Guatemala

A tumbledown home with a tin roof high in the mountains of Guatemala had no electricity or beds, only tattered clothing and rationed food. At breakfast, Alex Chan and his three siblings shared a single egg, split into quarters. At night, they went to bed hungry as they waited in fear of their father.

Beatings began without warning. Once, his 7-year-old sister was burned with boiling water their father tossed on her. More often, as the children tried to fall asleep on empty stomachs, they could hear their father pummeling their mother after coming home from a dinner of chicken and beer in town, in San José Poaquil.

Their father reserved the harshest beatings for Alex, he said, and they are his earliest memories. Alternating between a rope, a stick and a machete, his father would beat him for attending school instead of working in the fields.

He had to get away.

First, he ran to Guatemala City, around 45 miles from home, where he said he was threatened by gang members trying to recruit him. He fled back home, then tried to leave again, this time with a longer trip planned: to a cousin in Houston. Before heading out, he considered telling the police about his father’s abuse. But the police rarely answered calls to his town, with the nearest police station more than two hours away.

“I knew other kids whose parents hit them,” Alex, 17, said in a written affidavit in Brooklyn Family Court last year, “and no one ever did anything to help them.”

Alex hopped on a double-decker bus to Mexico. Another bus brought him near the United States border. During the roughly two-week journey, he said he was often robbed and rarely had food. He held out hope that he would soon unite with his cousin. But in June 2014, while trying to cross the border into Texas, he was caught by immigration officials and sent to a detention center.

From fall 2013 to summer 2014, more than 50,000 children from Central America entered the United States illegally, many riding atop train cars or floating on inner tubes to cross the border. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., on a visit to Guatemala in 2014, called the surge of refugees a “humanitarian crisis.”

Alex said that for several days he was kept in a holding cell, which he referred to as an ice box because of the temperature inside. He said he was verbally assaulted and was rarely given enough blankets to keep warm at night.

“I waited three days, there on the floor,” he said. “It was really dirty. They called me then and said, ‘O.K., you can go with your cousin, who’s in Houston,’ but no one answered the phone there. Then, after that, they didn’t call me.”

Without a place to go, the authorities kept him at the detention center, transferring him from one cell to another.

Six days later, the Department of Homeland Security designated Alex an unaccompanied minor, and he was transferred by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to the Lincoln Hall Boys’ Haven in Lincolndale, N.Y., which at the time housed underage and undocumented immigrants without guardians.

The office tried to get Alex to his cousin in Houston, without success. Alex’s mother then put him in touch with her friend’s son, who was living and working in Brooklyn. The man agreed to sponsor Alex in his petition to stay in the country through the federal Special Immigrant Juveniles program, which helps secure green cards for foreign children who were neglected.

The sponsorship was overseen by the Unaccompanied Minors Program at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. An immigration judge approved Alex’s petition last March, and he settled into his sponsor’s apartment in the East Midwood section of Brooklyn.

They go shopping together and attend a church youth group. Alex enrolled at the International High School in Brooklyn, where he is a junior and has a 3.8 G.P.A., he said.

He enjoys math and science, happy to work on his homework at a lamp-lit desk and sleep on a bed in his own room. After school, he works four to five hours a week as a cook at a Japanese restaurant and makes $12.50 an hour. The job sometimes interferes with homework, but it allows him to contribute $200 a month for living expenses. He used to send $500 a month home to his mother and siblings in Guatemala, but has cut back on his work hours to focus on school, and now sends about $300.

In October, to help with his studies, Catholic Charities used $330 raised by the Neediest Cases Fund to provide Alex with a new laptop and a desk with storage cabinets.

Alex said he was “very happy because I can do what I need to do with respect to my homework,” a stark difference from his home in Guatemala.

On a warm day last month, Alex met with his lawyer, who told him in Spanish that he had received a green card and had been granted full-residency status that day. Alex could now live, work and study permanently in the United States.

Alex had many questions, including whether he had heard his lawyer correctly. After he absorbed the life-changing news, he smiled.

He could go anywhere.

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