Ever since he turned 18, Ramon* has lived on his own and worked a full-time job at an industrial facility. He drives a car purchased with his own, hard-earned money. He also has a generous smile. Even over the phone, Ramon can boost your spirits with his laugh and his willingness to chitchat. When he reaches out to his Florence Project social worker, it’s usually for a question related to his emerging independence: How do I apply for a driver’s license and register my car? Which company should I use to prepare my taxes?

Did I really win asylum?

In December, Ramon learned that he won’t be deported back to his home country of Guatemala. When Florence Project attorney Ana Islas called to share the news, Ramon had spent so much time fearing the worst, he couldn’t believe the case was truly over and that the United States had indeed granted him relief.

“In this moment, my mind went blank and I asked, ‘What did you say?’” Ramon recalls. “She said, ‘You won! They approved asylum.’ But I stayed that way until the following day, wondering if it was for real. My thought was maybe I’d been fantasizing. For three days, I had doubts, and on the fourth day I called and said I want to know for sure if I won. They said yes. It’s for sure. When I got rid of those doubts, I was really excited. It made me happy that I wouldn’t have to worry anymore—I could move forward.”

For most of his life, Ramon has been forced to adapt to heartbreaking and often cruel circumstances. His father disappeared when he was an infant and his mother died when he was a child, leaving him in the care of an exploitative grandfather who forced him to do farm work while other kids in the family played and studied for school.

“When he was drunk,” Ramon says, “[my grandfather] said mean things like, ‘This is not your home. Go live wherever,’ or ‘go find your dad.’ But I had nowhere to go.” Ramon was forced to climb trees and cut branches with a machete, leaving him with sores on his hands and, once, a fractured arm when he fell from a tree. He had to carry heavy loads of firewood, corn, and coffee, and often collapsed from the weight. He hoed fields and suffered back pain, blisters on his palms, and frequent nose bleeds from the heat.

“Since I was young, I always had to work, but more so after my mother died,” Ramon says. “I couldn’t keep the money I earned. I would always give it to my grandfather.”

At mealtime, Ramon received less food than the rest of the family. He typically only ate once or twice a day. If he questioned this unfairness, or said he couldn’t handle the backbreaking labor, he was scolded and hit.

An opportunity to leave the exploitative household arrived after Ramon’s 16th birthday, when a neighbor offered to “fund” his migration to the U.S. The catch was that Ramon would remain indebted and face consequences if he didn’t send money to his grandfather.

Ready to escape the forced labor and abuse that robbed him of a childhood, Ramon headed north. He presented for asylum at the border and was sent to a children’s shelter. There, he met the Florence Project, which informed him that, among other things, he could not acquire a work permit right away. He would get to, and indeed had to, attend school and study. This was something Ramon had not been able to do much in Guatemala. It excited him to learn and grow.

Soon, however, Ramon began receiving threatening messages and phone calls from his grandfather demanding money. There were many sleepless nights. But, otherwise, Ramon’s life dramatically improved. Whereas before he felt sad and hopeless, now he was happy and excited for his future. A distant relative in the U.S. agreed to serve as his sponsor. They welcomed him into their home and treated him with love and respect.

Eventually, Ramon stopped answering his grandfather’s calls. Having escaped domestic violence and labor trafficking, he would move on and never look back. Ramon shared the menacing voicemails he received with his Florence Project legal team, who used the threats as further proof that Ramon faced immense danger if deported back to Guatemala.

Ramon’s Florence Project social worker, Victoria Perez, pursued benefits to help him get on his feet in the challenging new environment. The Office of Trafficking in Persons (OTiP) provides food stamps, access to healthcare, housing assistance, and other benefits to children who survive human trafficking.

For two years, Florence Project attorneys and legal assistants worked with Ramon to prepare his legal case. Victoria noticed that Ramon is an efficient learner. He is quick to retain information and always speaks up when he has questions.

As he approached adulthood, Ramon also grew increasingly independent and resourceful. He decided he didn’t need the OTiP benefits once he began working full time. He inquired with Victoria about how to open a bank account, and he moved out on his own.

Ramon has thrived in the United States. Yet, until December, the fear that his sense of safety and freedom could be snatched away by immigration authorities always weighed heavy on Ramon’s mind. “I was very worried that they might deport me,” he says. “But I also didn’t want to go back because I didn’t have any family to return to.” Now, he no longer has that fear.

In just a few years in the U.S., Ramon has developed a community of friends. They like to go to the mountains or grill carne asada together. He once told his Florence Project legal team that he wants to become a lawyer so he can help young people the way they helped him. “They were always communicating with me. They helped with everything,” Ramon says regarding Victoria Perez, Laura Barrera, and Ana Hernandez, his primary advocates. “I always believed they really cared about me. The Florence Project does great work, and I hope it continues helping young people the way it did me.”

*Pseudonym used to protect privacy.