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Aug 26, 2014

She should have been in school or laughing and playing with her friends in the village. Instead 13-year-old Cayla sat scared and alone in a detention center in Chicago.

Cayla grew up in a traditional Chinese home in a remote village in the Fujian province. When she was 12 years old, her parents welcomed a baby brother into the family. In her father's eyes, Cayla was immediately devalued. He told her she was worth less than a sack of potatoes. Then Cayla's mother became seriously ill and passed away. 

Soon after, Cayla's father came home drunk one day and told Cayla to pack her bags. He had sold her to the “snakeheads”—criminals who smuggled children into the United States to work in the sex industry, sending some of the money they earned back to the families of the children.

“I was 13 and had never left my small village, but I found myself on a train that I rode until it stopped,” Cayla says. When the train stopped she was taken to a house with a group of other girls and then flown to Mexico. The snakeheads sold the girls to another smuggler who put Cayla and three other girls in a van for delivery to clients in the U.S. East Coast sex trade. 

Border agents stopped the van, discovered the girls and sent them to a center for undocumented children in Chicago. Cayla called her father from the detention center, but he was very angry because she was not earning money for him. “I felt so bad and confused and just kept telling him I was sorry,” said Cayla.

“He told me to listen to the smugglers and do exactly what they asked. And he said if I came back home he would kill me. I didn’t know what to do. I felt responsible for my family’s safety, but I didn’t want to work in the sex industry for the smugglers. I was stuck in a shelter and didn’t know what to do.”

Thousands of refugee children in need of love and care

Cayla is just one of thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors from all over the world who find themselves alone and frightened in the United States. According to an article from CNN, authorities estimate that between 60,000 and 80,000 children under age 12 will seek safe haven from organized crime and conflict in Central America alone. Immigrant rights agencies believe that number could soar to 130,000 next year, since the number of children crossing the Mexico-U.S. border has doubled every year since 2010.

Many families send their children on this dangerous journey because conditions at home are even worse. In their own countries, they know boys are forced to join gangs or be killed. Girls as young as 10 are raped and killed. Families that work hard and can barely meet their child’s basic needs are forced to pay large sums in “protection money” to the very same individuals threatening their family.

You can imagine how desperate the situation of families must be for parents to make this terrible choice for their children. Sadly on the journey, many of these children become victims of violence and are vulnerable to human traffickers. Often, children arrive ill and undernourished, and certainly afraid.

Recently, the U.S. government and our service partners, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, have asked Bethany Christian Services to help provide assistance for these vulnerable children. Bethany is reaching out to churches and Christians to help demonstrate God's love to these unaccompanied minors who find themselves alone in the United States.

As Christians, we're called to live out the biblical mandate of loving our neighbors and welcoming the stranger in our midst. "You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10: 19 NIV). In Christ, God has welcomed us into His own family and we must befriend the strangers in our land, care for them, and offer them a sense of belonging they so desperately need.

Foster parents find “joy beyond measure”

Bethany’s Refugee and Immigrant Services foster care program provided John and Maryann with an ideal way to show God's love to vulnerable refugee children. Over the past four years, John and Maryann have opened their home to care for nine teenage girls who have come from all over the world.

“Reaping rewards can take a while,” says Maryann, since the teens often arrive broken, having lost hope and perhaps family members. Some have had to leave family behind, and some have arrived ill. "Our greatest reward is watching the girls change and grow,” she says, and “I have the best Mother’s Day in the world!”

Jim and Jan made the decision to become foster parents after their youngest daughter, and last of their three biological children, headed off to college.

“John Wesley had a rule,” Jan explains, “‘Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.’”

The Michigan couple's two foster sons had been living with their families in Myanmar when they were taken by the military government and forced into the army. Both escaped en route to the training camp and fled to Malaysia where they were registered with the United Nations and ultimately relocated to the U.S.

“It is God who prompted my husband and me to do this,” Jan says. “It is also God who rewards us by enriching our family and filling it with joy beyond measure. We have been blessed beyond what we could have imagined."                                                                                                                        

Teaching and learning as mentor to refugee children

Bethany’s Refugee and Immigrant Services foster care program also provides mentors to unaccompanied minors who have been placed in the foster care system. Mentors meet with their mentees for an hour each week, and together they engage in activities within the community or perhaps work on homework or English lessons.

Barbara volunteers in the program and has shared many fun and meaningful times with the girl she mentors. “Caty and I have gone horseback riding, bike riding, and fishing, we have gone to the beach and to the county fair, and we have enjoyed planting flowers and cooking,” Barbara says. “I have listened to her and encouraged her and prayed for her over the years, and there have been many answers to prayer."

School teacher Bridgette volunteers as a mentor to a young woman named Florance. “She has opened my eyes to a world of struggles that I have never had to face," says Bridgette. "Hearing her story and witnessing the various struggles she has had as an unaccompanied refugee, a foster child, and a single teenage mother has taught me a lot and has made me a better educator.”

There's a child in need near you

The influx of vulnerable child refugees into the United States has stretched the resources of government and private agencies at the border. Many of the children have been transferred to cities quite a distance away from the border until decisions can be made about where they will go next.

Churches and individuals across the country have an opportunity to respond to the child refugee crisis. With the counsel, support, and encouragement of Bethany Christian Services, you can welcome and care for vulnerable children like Cayla who find themselves alone in the United States.

After Cayla's caseworker in the detention center in Chicago referred her to Bethany, she was matched with a Christian family who opened their home to her. At first Cayla was wary of the generosity of her new family, having been betrayed by her own father. However, her new family was patient and with the support of Bethany counselors, Cayla began to accept that she was not to blame and that someone could love her again.

“They wanted to adopt me, but according to the law, my biological father would have to give up his parental rights, and he would never do that,” Cayla explained. “But I call them mom and dad. They’ve been there for me every day since the day I moved in with them. My ‘dad’ walked me down the aisle when I got married.”

Cayla is grateful for the caseworker in Chicago that referred her to Bethany, and for the family that accepted and welcomed her.

“If that wouldn’t have happened, I would have been transferred from the children’s center to jail when I turned eighteen. I wouldn't have had the opportunity to experience God's grace. I wouldn't have been given a loving family and a wonderful husband. I wouldn't have had hope.”

Bethany aims to find foster parents and mentors who will help provide love and care to children caught in the refugee crisis. If you or someone you know is interested in Bethany's Refugee Foster Care program, visit or contact us by calling 616.224.7540.

Listen to Bethany Christian Services’ Every Child podcast for more on issues relative to vulnerable children. From adoption and foster care to the introduction of sustainable social services in developing countries, Every Child features an informative discussion, led by Bethany’s president/CEO Bill Blacquiere, with leading voices from ministries and nonprofit organizations, as well as Christian authors and artists.

Bethany Christian Services is a leading global family preservation and child welfare agency.