Forced to Drop Out of School at Age 9, 17-Year-Old Returns with 3.8 GPA

Posted on December 29, 2016 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

A Catholic Charities/New York Times Neediest Cases Miracle

Alex Chan, now in Brooklyn, talks about his dangerous life in Guatemala 


For more than a century The New York Times has spotlighted “Neediest Cases,” folks facing extreme hardships, and welcomed help for them from readers. And for more than a decade as liaison between Catholic Charities NY and The New York Times I’ve had the honor to meet some of these brave folks and the dedicated case managers that help them. So this year, I’d like to share with you the stories behind The New York Times Neediest Cases stories, the courage of the people we are honored to serve and the caseworkers who plow through roadblocks to get them the services they need.

Just 15 years old, Alex Chan hung tight to train tops and trekked miles through Central American deserts to reach the Promised Land, the USA.  He had nothing to lose, he tells me, and nothing to live for.

It is now two years later and we’re now sitting in the sparse but safe bedroom he rents from his cousin.  A narrow bed is the room’s only furnishings.  Small piles of clothes are pushed into a corner.  His life here in Brooklyn strikes me as so distant from his childhood in Guatemala.  Yet the memories still find him here.

His father beat him daily with sticks, machetes, ropes and fists, he tells me, pointing out scars on his arms and legs.  His family was so impoverished that their home’s tin roof blew off in a stiff rain.  Hunger was constant. And despite Alex’ clear intelligence, his father forced him to drop out of school at age 9 to help support his parents and four siblings.  So Alex worked in the fields by day and begged for food at night.

Back then, Alex didn’t think he would survive.  So when a cousin in the U.S. told him he could live safely in the U.S. and support his family as well, Alex began his journey by foot, hitched rides and held tight to train tops.

A U.S. Immigration judge quickly granted Alex special immigrant juvenile status that allowed him to remain in the U.S. rather than return to his father’s beatings.  The case was so clear, his Catholic Charities Attorney Alexandra Grant says as she squeezes with me in the bedroom, that it was the fastest decision on which she has ever seen a judge rule. Thanks to Catholic Charities’ legal representation, Alex now has a social security card, can legally remain in the U.S. and is in the process of getting of getting his green card.

“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”, reports The New York Times in this powerful Neediest Cases story.  “Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., on a visit to Guatemala in 2014, called the surge of refugees a ‘humanitarian crisis.’”

Immigration judges hear and often deny hundreds of cases from unaccompanied minors. Alex is making the immigration judge’s bet is paying off.  Because Alex was pulled out of school in third grade and initially spoke no English, he initially also failed all his classes at the International High School in Brooklyn he now attends.   But now, just two years later, he has a 3.8 GPA. 

Catholic Charities helps Alex fit in to his new home.  Since he had no computer to do his schoolwork, no desk to put it on and no dresser to store his clothes, Catholic Charities drew on our New York Times Neediest Cases funds to buy him a Lenovo laptop computer and a desk with lots of drawers for storage.

To cover his expenses he works six days a week as a cook at a Japanese restaurant.  He’s a quick learner and hard worker, he says, which is how he learned to cook Japanese food.  The restaurant owner likes him so much that he calls Alex “my son.”

“The Japanese are very disciplined,” Alex tells us, “and so am I.”

Check out Alex Chan’s powerful New York Times Neediest Cases profile


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