Twelve years ago, Elvis Garcia Callejas was an unaccompanied minor who traveled 1,200 miles to the United States to escape violent gangs and hunger in Honduras.
The frightened 15-year-old hitched rides and hopped atop freight trains on his journey to carve out a better life for himself and the family he left behind.
And what a journey it’s been.
Last week, Garcia Callejas was a guest of the president of the same country on whose shores he successfully landed as a determined teenager.
A child migration counselor for the Unaccompanied Minors Program of archdiocesan Catholic Charities Community Services, Garcia Callejas participated in events surrounding the U.N. General Assembly Summit on Refugees and Migrants.
Among the events was a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees and Migrants President Barack Obama hosted to discuss the world refugee crisis and how nations can increase their commitments to refugee protection worldwide.
“As a Catholic Charities employee, this is an honor for me to be invited to this event,” Garcia Callejas told CNY.
Garcia Callejas, who is now 27 and married, was front and center as an expert on the subject, and recounted his personal story as an unaccompanied minor throughout the gathering’s key events.
“By participating in these events, I am an advocate and a voice for thousands of children who are escaping their countries from all kinds of violence,” Garcia Callejas said. “Children who are risking their lives traveling alone with nothing—no food, no money to save their lives.”
“Nobody chooses to leave their homeland,” Garcia Callejas told CNY. “You are forced to flee your country. People are not coming to the U.S. to steal jobs, people are not coming here to commit crimes. They are coming here looking for a better life, looking for safety.
“This has been happening through history,” he continued. “People have been coming here from all parts of the world, looking for a place where they can live in peace and develop themselves.”
And, he said, “to contribute to this country.”
Garcia Callejas arrived in the United States in 2005, became a citizen of the United States in 2013 and began his job at Catholic Charities the next year.
“I am just very proud to be an American citizen. This is my country now, and I am happy to live here.”
On Sept. 19, Garcia Callejas spoke on the Global Refugee and Migrant Crisis panel hosted by Amnesty International, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants at the Ford Foundation, in Manhattan.
On Sept. 20, before the U.N. Summit, a shadow summit was held at the Center for Migration Studies of New York in Manhattan. Garcia Callejas delivered remarks at the shadow summit’s panel, “The U.S. Response to Central American Refugees.” The event examined the U.S. record, in particular, the policy response to unaccompanied children and families fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America.
He was among a group of migrants and refugees invited to a private luncheon with country singer Emmylou Harris to highlight refugees during the U.N. meetings. In the mid-afternoon, he was a guest of President Obama at the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees and Migrants.
Garcia Callejas said he appreciates learning about what is happening in other parts of the world “and what world leaders are committing to.”
“I wish there was more commitment to help immigrants and refugees around the world, and I wish that the president would have spoken a little more about the humanitarian crisis in Central America,” he said.
Given Callejas’ status as a former unaccompanied minor, “this is a very personal issue for me,” he said.
“I know there are...people who are fleeing Syria and other parts of the world, but we cannot ignore the fact that there is also a humanitarian crisis in Central America.”
Looking back on his journey to the United States, Garcia Callejas said, “It was scary, it was difficult, but those are the chances you are willing to take, looking for a better life in the U.S.”
His Catholic faith sustained him throughout the ordeal. He prayed to God for protection from danger, from getting caught and detained, “so I could make it to the U.S. alive and safe,” he said.
Garcia Callejas is grateful for the charitable people along the way who were put in his path by God to help him, he said.
Archdiocesan Catholic Charities helps immigrants reunite legally with their families, obtain proper work authorization, learn English and civics, and prepare to pass citizenship exams. Catholic Charities also assists immigrants in avoiding exploitation by unscrupulous practitioners by providing information and realistic counsel about immigration status.
“I am blessed that the Unaccompanied Minors Program at Catholic Charities gives me the opportunity to help kids that, like me, are looking for a better future in the United States,” Garcia Callejas said. “Catholic Charities gives me the vehicle by which to protect and reunite many of these children.”
“I really love this job,” he said. “It is through these services that I can also give hope to other kids. I’m doing this in a very humane and respectful way.”