Unaccompanied Teenage Boys: Dreams for a better future

Kendra Kunst and Andres Rodriguez share how they support young unaccompanied refugee minors in residential care in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

June 29, 2020

Q & A with Kendra Kunst and Andres Rodriguez

Imagine navigating the COVID-19 pandemic as a minor in a foreign country—complete with new language, culture, and traditions. This is the reality for many unaccompanied minors Bethany serves through our residential homes.

Join us as we hear from Kendra Kunst and Andres Rodriguez about how they support young men in residential care in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Kendra, what does your work with Bethany look like?

Kendra: I work as an education specialist for the Transitional Living Center, a group home for unaccompanied refugee boys between the ages of 16–18. These are young men who qualify for refugee status; most right now are from Eritrea, but we also have a few from Pakistan, one from Ethiopia, and one from Burma.

Normally, I advocate between the boys and their schools, making sure they receive the resources they need to succeed in their education. Because of COVID-19, I’ve become more like a high school teacher myself!

And what does your role look like, Andres?

Andres: I work as a life skills coordinator for another of Bethany’s residential homes, called Casa del Sol. We welcome unaccompanied boys mainly from Latin America, but we also have a few from Ghana now.


For people waiting in refugee camps around the world, what sort of situations cause them to make the dangerous journey to the U.S. border?

Andres: In my two years with Bethany, I’ve heard dozens of stories from these young men about the traumatic experiences they faced in their home countries or while in refugee camps. Some have been shot or stabbed; others had family members killed in front of them. They’re escaping very real danger. When desperation kicks in like this, many of the boys have no option but to risk their life for something safer.

Why are residential homes, like those you both work in, a good option for these teenage boys?

Andres: These homes provide a vast array of services for the boys, from legal counsel through the immigration system, to education, to therapy and relationships with their peers. Many of the boys I work with lack trust for adults at first, due to their backgrounds, so having others their age—some of whom speak their same language—makes a great difference in helping them settle into their new communities.

While Bethany strongly believes in families for kids, we just have so much to offer the boys in one place.

How do you navigate the various languages of the boys, and how has this changed due to the coronavirus?

Kendra: Right now, we have four primary languages represented in our home. We typically have translators on hand, but the boys do a remarkable job finding ways to communicate with each other—from soccer to emotions and hand gestures. And the young men who know more English are always willing to help others.

With COVID-19, it has become harder to have our translators on hand as often. Occasionally, we call one of the translators and pass the phone around between young men who speak the same language.

How has the pandemic affected the boys’ day-to-day lives and special activities?

Kendra: Previously, the boys were busy all day long as they went to school, met with their therapist, and participated in group activities and field trips. Now, we’ve switched to telecommunication for almost everything, which adds an extra element of difficulty as they’re unable to receive direct instruction from their teachers.

Our youth specialist staff—who are kind of like house parents—have stepped in to lead English and cultural orientation classes. Overall, I’m really proud of how the young men have adapted and overcome these challenges.

Andres: I’m bilingual, with Spanish as my first language, so I do think I am able to connect with some of the boys more easily. I have an advantage in building a rapport, as they often see me as one of them. It’s fascinating how much the boys absorb English and dedicate themselves to learning the language. Today, in fact, I saw one of my kids slowly reading about 100 of the most influential people in the world, so we had a conversation about that together.

How do you address the misconception that many of these young men are coming to the U.S. with bad intentions?

Kendra: As I get to know these guys, I quickly learn how much they love their families, their culture, and their home countries. Because of circumstances beyond their control—including gang violence, poverty, sex trafficking, and more—they were forced to flee to seek safety.

I also want readers and listeners to understand how hardworking these young men are. Last summer, we had a boy who was placed in 10th grade. But he worked so hard that he actually graduated this spring and is going to start classes at the community college soon! He’s considering becoming a psychiatrist or something that allows him to relate to others’ pain because of his unique perspective.

Andres: I think that anyone who has the chance to foster or speak to these boys directly would quickly learn how humble and hopeful they are. Working with these young men has changed my perspective and forced me to reexamine my life of comfort. For example, I took one of the boys to an initial doctor’s appointment, and he told me he didn’t have anything like this in Ghana. In his words, “You either deal with it or you die.”

As we wrap up, are there any particular relationships you’ve made or conversations you’ve had that you can share with us about your work with these boys?

Andres: There was one young man from Mexico who was very reserved when he arrived. It took a lot of patience to help him open up. On the last day he was with us, he told me that he realized he wasn’t the easiest person to work with but that he was grateful for everything I did for him.

I broke down, realizing how much trauma he had been battling. I was so grateful to have made some small impact on his life. I love being able to give kids a second chance at life.

Kendra: I don’t have one specific example, but through my work with the boys during the pandemic, I’ve been so impressed by their camaraderie. Like I said, they help each other with their English and other homework and support and love each other regardless of the different cultures, religions, and languages they come from.