Once a week in Pico-Union, a group of former child migrants gathers in the community room of a housing complex. They talk about their week: Their lives, their jobs, their relationships — and the emotional scars that dog them as young people who left home on their own at an early age, seeking a better life in the United States.
One 20-year-old, Ulyses, who arrived at 13 says he's haunted by feelings of abandonment from when his mother left him in the care of a friend, when he was still a baby.
Another, a 21-year-old named Oscar, can’t shake the memory of the two exhausted companions he had to leave behind in the Arizona desert back in 2009, when he was 16. He’s convinced they died. Oscar says he's suffered from depression since not long after arriving. While he can work and otherwise function, he's often felt a crushing sense of isolation.
"There came a moment where I shut myself off in my own world," Oscar said, "and I lost my direction, my dreams."
Their conversation provides a window into the rough emotional territory that the latest wave of child migrants is now navigating as they adjust to life in the U.S. More than 60,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border since last October. Most are from Central America, where gang violence has driven kids and families out.
At least 2,000 recently-arrived kids have been reunited with relatives in Los Angeles County, staying in the country - at least for now - as their cases wind their way through immigration court.
The L.A. Unified School District estimates that roughly 1,000 have enrolled in its schools; at least 400 have come through a district welcome center for new students from abroad and received services there, whether it's help with enrollment or a referral to counseling. Aware of the trauma many of these kids have been through, administrators have sent the message to staff to be on the lookout for students who might need help.
“I’ve experienced myself, personally enrolling students that have been coming in, disclosing some unspeakable acts of violence," said Dr. Debra Duardo, who oversees health and human services for the district. "It is probably the worst that I have heard in my many years working for the school district.”
Violence like the kind witnessed by William, an 11th-grader at an LAUSD school near downtown L.A. He arrived in December of 2012 from El Salvador, when he was 16.
“Sometimes I’d be out in the street, and people would arrive and pass themselves off as strangers," William said, speaking in Spanish. "Then they’d kill people who were there. It would all happen so fast. I’d only hear the shots, and see people run, and then five minutes later there were two or three dead people in front of me. Whoa, no. And I didn’t know how or why.”
William remembers running for shelter in the chaos. Until two summers ago, his own family remained safe – but everything changed when his stepfather was shot to death outside their home. Fearing for her own life, his mother left for Honduras. His four sisters moved in with their grandmother. William headed north.
Three months later, he made it to L.A. He was taken in by his three uncles, who enrolled him in school. He began making friends, learned a little bit of English, even met a girl. For the most part, he likes his new life. But the past is hard to escape.
“Sometimes I remember things that happened to me along the way," he said. "There are some things I’d rather not remember, and this depresses me. Sometimes I’m very stressed. Sometimes with my girlfriend, she’ll just say a few words and I’ll get annoyed. I’ll get worked up and I’ll end up yelling at her. Sometimes, I don’t know, I’m really depressed, and that’s why I behave that way – very badly.”
Some of what happened along the way is difficult for him to to talk about. Like one time that he fell asleep with a group of other migrants, exhausted while en route in Mexico.
"At around 3 a.m., I opened my eyes and discovered that someone was behind me, and he was taking off my pants," he said. "At that moment I jumped and went to turn on the light, and that person went running to a nearby home...I was waiting until he came out, I thought I wanted to kill him. What happened to me was really ugly."
Last year in school, William raised his hand during a class presentation by Amanecer Community Counseling Services, a mental health clinic that contracts with the county. The clinic does outreach in local schools.
He joined a free teen therapy group, composed of fellow newcomers from Central America. Therapist John Durall directs two groups for unaccompanied minors at the clinic. When they first arrive, he assesses them for post-traumatic stress with a series of written questions.
“One of them includes ‘Have you see dead bodies in your city?’ Not funerals, but dead bodies," Durall said. "And almost all of them have checked that one."
In some ways, Durall said, their experience mirrors that of an earlier generation of Central American migrants: The war refugees of the 1980s and early 1990s. Another question on the PTSD index asks if the kids have been in a war zone.
“A lot of them will initially check no," Durall said. "Then if we ask them about the gang violence and all that, they will say yes."
Traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety are among the lingering effects, Durall said. Some of these kids are haunted by intrusive memories that can come up when they are at school, at work, even home watching TV; he tries to diffuse the power of these traumatic memories through what he calls narrative, talking them out over several sessions.
Young trauma victims who don't get help can face different dangers, Durall said.
"It can affect relationships in the future, it can affect work, it can affect if you go into higher education or not," Durall said. "In some ways, kids can turn to drugs or other violence. Sometimes there are suicidal thoughts, or there could be attempts."
Durall and other mental health professionals say early intervention is key to helping traumatized kids avoid these behaviors.
“This is prevention and early intervention that is going to cost less in the long run, to serve their mental health needs now," said Tim Ryder, who directs the Amanecer center, "rather than to have some of these kids wind up in the legal system, jails, or psychiatric hospitalization or potentially in the foster care system.”
But challenges abound. School officials can’t identify all the kids who are in need of help, and even for those who get it, assistance through schools is finite and most families don’t have the resources for long-term care. And the county funds that help clinics like Amanecer provide free services to kids like William are are stretched very thin.
Then there’s outreach: For every kid like William, who sought out help, there are others who remain silent, products of a culture in which people are encouraged to buck up and carry on — and in which mental health treatment carries a stigma.
"We come from a culture in Latin America where there is not a support system for this kind of illness," said Salvador Sanabria, director of El Rescate, a community aid group that's been assisting Central American immigrants since the war years. "Usually — where there are institutions where you were sent there — they throw away the key and you were locked down for life.”
In this sense, the support group for adult former child migrants in Pico Union is a rarity. It helps that the group doesn’t technically involve mental health: It was put together four years ago through a local church, and meets informally in a setting that's neither religious nor clinical.
"One of them said clearly to me one day, he said, 'Brother William, in Guatemala, we didn't know anything about support, or about talking to someone,'" said William Perez, a church catechist and the group's leader. "There, we listened to our grandparents. But not to other people, or to some professional."
The members are well aware of the kids who have followed. Oscar, the 21-year-old, says he gets their plight.
"As a young person, sometimes, you don't have direction," he said. "You don't have a good orientation. Not having that is like being in the desert without a compass — you can get lost."
At Amanecer, therapist Durall has christened his teen migrant groups “Los Resilientes y Valientes,” the resilient and brave ones. Traits that William, who’s now 18, is trying to embrace.
“Being a resilient person is a lifelong process," William said one recent night after a therapy session, sitting near a whiteboard on which the word "resiliencia" was scrawled in blue marker. "You have to work at it day by day.”