Undocumented teenagers at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md., participate in a trust-building exercise. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Their dreams — to become a lawyer, an interior decorator, a sailor in the Navy — are a lot like the dreams that other kids at their Maryland high school have.

It’s their nightmares — seeing relatives killed, paying off coyotes, being raped at the border, spending weeks in a detention center, being homeless in a new country — that make them so different.

“They’ve survived untold horrors,” said Alicia Wilson, the executive director at La Clinica Del Pueblo, which is working with Northwestern High School to help these teenagers.

The Hyattsville school has absorbed dozens of these students — part of a wave of more than 150,000 kids who have crossed the U.S. border over the past three years fleeing violence in Central America.

We usually hear about these young immigrants only when they’re accused of committing heinous crimes — such as the two undocumented students charged with raping a 14-year-old classmate in a bathroom at Rockville High School. Or when they become victims of heinous crimes — such as Damaris Reyes Rivas, 15, whose mother wanted to protect her from MS-13 in El Salvador but lost her to the gang in Maryland.

Undocumented teenagers draw pictures of scenes being described to them by another student. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)

Otherwise their struggles, hopes and fears are mostly invisible.

In country with a growing compassion deficit, plenty of people resent these kids, demonizing them along with other undocumented immigrants. But I wish those folks got to spend the time with them that I did. They’re funny, vulnerable, hard-working and stunningly resilient.

At Northwestern, I listened as about two dozen immigrant teenagers met in a trailer behind the high school to talk with mental health counselors dedicated to them. They aren’t all that eager to share what they’ve been through.

“I’d say 90 percent of them are victims of some kind of abuse,” said Angie Castro, the counselor who tries to pull the kids out of their shells during trust-building activities.

“I saw lots of family and friends killed,” a girl in bright red sneakers told me when we talked alone.

Some of the other teenagers are hiding from gangs. At least one escaped a family member who was raping her. Many know what dead bodies look like or what being held in a freezing cold room everyone calls the “icebox” at a border detention center feels like.

They spent weeks in detention centers while waiting for their sponsors — usually family members they haven’t seen in years — to claim them. Some of them didn’t mind.

“They had good food,” one teenager told me.

“I got to sleep,” another said.

“It’s interesting,” Castro said when the kids took a pizza break. “Most of them tell us that the time in the detention centers — which for a lot of them was the first time they got three meals a day, they could sleep through the night, they weren’t assaulted — was the first time in their lives they felt loved.”

Yes, they’ve survived untold horrors. Now, they have to survive high school. One of the conditions of their release from detention centers is that they enroll in school.

Some schools are well equipped to handle surges of immigrants. But not this one. Northwestern, which once had a primarily African American student body, became 58 percent Hispanic last year. Almost 200 undocumented, unaccompanied minors enrolled in 2015. More than half of them dropped out by the end of the school year, Wilson said. Even now, there are no Spanish speakers on Northwestern’s counseling staff.

Beyond the usual issues of language and assimilation that any immigrant faces, these kids are leaving the families they’ve grown up in and trying to find places in families they’ve been connected to only through their cellphones.

That’s when they’re especially vulnerable to gangs such as MS-13, which is experiencing a resurgence in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

Through a program fueled by private donations and county funds called Mi Refugio, La Clinia del Pueblo is working on forming close-knit groups within Northwestern as an alternative to gang life.

The organization understands the complexity of these kids’ lives, including the pressure to work and send money to the relatives they left behind.

Nearly all of the teenagers have after-school jobs.

That teenager with the red sneakers, a senior, tried to explain this to a school counselor who was pushing her to finish her scholarship essay before the deadline.

“It’s not my deadline, it’s yours. But you better get on it,” the counselor says.

“I know. But I’m so tired when I get home, I don’t have time to do it,” said the teenager, who works long hours at McDonald’s.

Of course she’s tired. After school and a full fast-food shift, she has only about five hours left for homework and sleep.

“I want to go to school, and I want to be a lawyer,” she told me. “Then I can help other kids like me. In Honduras, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school like this. My family didn’t have money for me to go to school.”

She came across the border with her mother two years ago, then spent two months at a detention center in Texas.

“The United States is different now, though,” she said. “It’s different than Obama United States.”

She is scared of being deported. Her mother is, too.

On a Thursday in March, the La Clinia del Pueblo counselors tried to help the kids face their fears with a team-building exercise. They blindfolded half the students, then paired them up with guides to help them navigate an obstacle course outside. Up and down stairs, over milk crates, jumping off a short ledge.

“I couldn’t believe how scary it was, and it was just outside here walking around,” one teenager said after the exercise. “But I had to trust [my partner] to help me.”

There are people who will help you, Castro and others tell them. You have to learn to trust. That’s the next part of their American journey.

Twitter: @petulad