Thinking outside the box, Guatemala

All of these images were taken at a school in Villa Nueva, just outside Guatemala City.

 In Villa Nueva, one of Guatemala’s largest and most dangerous slums, extreme poverty means children often fall under the influence of a violent street gang, the Maras.

It is just one of the communities where an arts collective, part funded through Irish Aid money (through Christian Aid), subtly intervenes to try to give young people alternatives.

Juan Solares (32) says the group changed his life. “Before I got involved, there was nothing to do but to go to the streets,” he says. “Kids turn to gangs because after school, there is nothing. It’s very dangerous.”

Now he works as a volunteer with Caja Lúdica (Playful Box), which runs workshops and goes into schools.

The group’s approach to recruitment is innovative: It arrives in a new area with a spectacle of juggling, drums and dancing, and asks people to join in.

It not only teaches circus-style tricks, but builds confidence, teamwork and interpersonal skills. Underscoring the danger of being involved with a gang is the story of Victor Leiva, a youth coach with Caja Lúdica who was shot dead in 2011, years after leaving the life behind.

Guatemala’s migrants, in pictures

Some more images from Guatemala, to go with this article: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/deported-guatemalans-cling-to-american-dream-1.2297733

Click to enter the photo gallery

There’s some hope for Guatemalan children deported from U.S., but not enough

Times

In May I travelled to Guatemala to investigate what’s happening to migrant children who return from the U.S., worse off then when they left in the first place.

Here’s the Irish Times article – full text below. See blog in coming days for more images and info from the trip, made possible by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

Jennifer Hough, in Guatemala

Alejandra Tizal was 16 when she made up her mind to go. “I told my family I wanted to go to the US,” says Tizal, from the western highlands city of Quetzaltenango, three hours south of Guatemala’s border with Mexico. She had been working as a maid since she was 12, which is typical for indigenous (mainly Mayan) children whose families can’t afford to send them to second-level education.

Tizal’s family remortgaged their home to pay about €7,000 (the price has since gone up to about €10,000) for an “express” service to get her through Mexico, across the border and directly to Washington, DC, where a relative was living.

“It took us only eight days to travel through Mexico, then we were hidden in a house near the border for 11 days,” says Tizal, now 19. “We crossed the Rio Grande in a boat and walked for three nights in the desert.”

The group of six was about to meet a driver who would take them to Washington, when they were intercepted by border guards. Tizal was put in a youth detention shelter for four months, after which she was deported to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second-largest city.

Migrants from the northern triangle of Central America –Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – have long been beating a path through Mexico in search of the American dream. But never have so many young people been making the journey alone.

More than 68,500 unaccompanied children from the three countries crossed over the border last year, stretching US immigration facilities to capacity.

US president Barack Obama has promised an unprecedented $1 billion (€920 million) in aid to address social and economic issues that drive youth migration.

It needs congressional approval, but in the meantime, Mexico is responding to pressure to toughen up on migrants making their way north. With the help of $86 million from the US State Department, it has set up checkpoints and roadblocks to prevent a rerun of last summer’s migration crisis.

The measures are working and record numbers are being deported from Mexico.

More than 26,600 unaccompanied minors were stopped at the US border between October 2014 and last month, roughly half the number detected in the same period the previous year. This is not because young people have stopped travelling, however.

Between January and June, 36,084 Guatemalans – 5,394 of them young people – were deported from Mexico by bus, more than double the previous year’s figure, according to the government of Guatemala.

Saddled with debt

What is often forgotten is what happens to the young people who are picked up and forced home, saddled with huge debt, no means to pay it and the stigma of not having ‘made it’.

Of the northern triangle countries, Guatemala is the only one that provides formal assistance to returning youth. Government-run shelters give deported children a meal and a place to stay until a family member collects them.

More valuable in the longer term, however, is the Guatemalan Child Return and Reintegration Project, which is funded by Kids in Need of Defense, an organisation founded by Angelina Jolie and Microsoft to provide legal assistance to unaccompanied children in the US. In 2010 it began a binational project to help young people to reintegrate after deportation.

Its partner on the ground, Colectivo Vida Digna (A Dignified Life), which is based in Quetzaltenango, seeks to reconnect young indigenous migrants with their culture, as well as to help them to find employment or education.

Carlos Escalante, Colectivo Vida Digna’s economy officer, says mass migration from the many Mayan villages nestled in the hills around the city is having a negative effect on communities. A whole generation of men is missing and the women have to take on new responsibilities as well as raise the children. Now, the young people are leaving too.

“Our youth are the fresh blood of our people, but we are losing them . . . hundreds of people leave every day, the majority are youth, it’s a valuable resource that’s being lost,” he says.

Many leave home for purely economic reasons but others are fleeing domestic or gang violence. Violent crime claimed 5,924 lives in Guatemala last year.Indigenous people make up about 50 per cent of the population in Guatemala, but they are hugely discriminated against in what is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Most are poorly educated and poorly provided for and there is a serious lack of employment and investment in rural areas.

Little interest

Anna Grewe, an education and social worker with Vida Digna, points out the many vested interests that benefit from the travails of the poorest. Migration is “a big business,” she says, for the extraordinarily well-organizsed “coyotes” (people who earn a living transporting migrants through Mexico and across the border), and for the church, which gets donations from people setting out on their journey, or from those who believe they “did not have enough faith,” to make it.

She says the government has little interest in preventing people from leaving, given that money sent from the US back to families in Guatemala make up about 10 per cent of gross domestic product.

Escalante says the only way to change the structural inequalities the indigenous people face is to educate the youth and help them to stay in Guatemala. It’s difficult though, when a huge debt lingers.

When youths are deported “the debt is on everyone’s mind,” he says. “It keeps increasing too . . . the whole family is working to pay it off. We’ve seen people lose their homes. It makes it very difficult for young people to stay.”

In Guatemala City, Juan Jose Hurtado, director of Pop No’j, an NGO that also works with indigenous Mayan youth, believes that as long the causes of migration are not tackled, it will continue unabated. “The historical reasons for poverty needed to be addressed. We need economic development in rural areas, jobs, training.”

But, Hurtado says, people should have the right to live and move where they want. “The borders were not created by the indigenous people and many Mayan people were split off from each other by borders. We don’t tell people not to migrate, that is their right, but it is also a right to stay in your own country, it’s up to the government to provide means and opportunity so people can make a good living here. Most people don’t want to leave.”

Just how much of the mooted US aid package trickles down to those who need it most remains to be seen. Government corruption has long been an issue in Guatemala, and has made international headlines in recent months, with revelations that government ministers defrauded the state of millions of dollars, cabinet resignations, jail time for some officials, and ongoingwidespread protests on the streets to oust the president himself. Some commentators fear an increased US aid package will further enrich the country’s ruling elite.

Deportation flights from the US land at the capital’s air force base once or twice a day carrying up to 100 people.Kevin Diaz, (23,) poses for a picture, clutching his papers from a Texan prison.Apart from the clothes on his back and a ring on his finger, it is all he has come home with.

His story is typical – after a month or so trekking through Mexico and crossing the Rio Grande river into the U.S., he was picked up by immigration officers and put into prison.

Outside the airport gate, coyotes are waiting with money and means. Many returnees will simply get on the road to Mexico once again.

For now, Tizal has resisted the lure of the border, even though three years after her failed attempt her family is still working to pay off her debt.

Through her connection with Vida Digna she is finishing school and hopes to go to university, a rarity for indigenous youth. Of her failed trip, she says with a shrug, “Mala suerte.” Bad luck.

Grewe prompts her. “Tell her.” Four months after Tizal’s return, her mother started complaining of a pain in her abdomen. “I made her go and get it checked out, they found a tumour in her ovaries,” she says.

An operation was successful and Tizal’s mother survived. Her family firmly believes she would be dead if it were not for Tizal’s persistence. “So, maybe it wasn’t such bad luck after all,” she smiles.

Sidebar: How Irish Aid helps

In Villa Nueva, one of Guatemala’s largest and most dangerous slums, extreme poverty means children often fall under the influence of a violent street gang, the Maras.

It is just one of the communities where an arts collective, part funded through Irish Aid money, subtly intervenes to try to give young people alternatives.

Juan Solares (32) says the group changed his life. “Before I got involved, there was nothing to do but to go the streets,” he says. “Kids turn to gangs because after school, there is nothing. It’s very dangerous.”

Now he works as a volunteer with Caja Lúdica (Playful Box), which runs workshops and goes into schools.

The group’s approach to recruitment is innovative: It arrives in a new area with a spectacle of juggling, drums and dancing, and asks people to join in.

It not only teaches circus-style tricks, but builds confidence, teamwork and interpersonal skills. Underscoring the danger of being involved with a gang is the story of Victor Leiva, a youth coach with Caja Lúdica who was shot dead in 2011, years after leaving the life behind.

Link to article: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/deported-guatemalans-cling-to-american-dream-1.2297733

Dear America, So much is good, but so much is so very, very bad #CharlestonShooting

statue-of-liberty

Dear America,

Your nation is built on such admiral ideals: Liberty, equality, freedom of speech.

You’ve given the world John Steinbeck, Hollywood, baseball, hotdogs, hell, country music.

I love your huge cosmopolitan cities from New York to Chicago, and your smaller quirky ones, from San Francisco to New Orleans. I love the unbridled optimism of your people, their work ethic and confidence.

But America, you’ve drifted so very, very far from your founding ideals, it’s hard to know who you are any more.

Just recently, we’ve seen the brutality of police in Baltimore, Cleveland, New York  with the deaths of Freddy Grey, Tamir Rice (12) and Eric Garner. Not to mention Ferguson.

And now, nine black people shot dead in a church massacre in South Carolina, including the church pastor, a state senator and mentor to many.

Gun crime has spiralled out of control, in the general population, and in law enforcement.

Apart from that, domestically, you are anti-immigration, keeping millions of people living in limbo with no hope of the so-called American Dream; you deny people health care because they have no insurance; you imprison people in criminally inhumane conditions for years on end, sometimes innocent people, sometimes for low level crimes linked to poverty and addiction. You execute your own people, you prosecute whistle blowers and aim to imprison them for speaking out, or exile them to other countries.

On the foreign front, you sanction indiscriminate drone strikes, often killing innocent people, you imprison people without trial in Guantanamo Bay and engage in an endless “war on terror” with no borders and no accountability.

America, you were once, a long, long time ago a beacon of light, a place of hope and opportunity for people. Today, you are a place for wealthy people, white people, business people, celebrities, right-wing conservatives…Donald Trump.

America, you need to go back to basics, reset, listen to the people on your streets calling for justice and peace. You need to wake up and sort out your own problems before rushing to meddle in others.

America, let’s see who you really are in this time of your crisis, of your own making.

Yours,

Weary and watching

Updated: Emigration of energetic, enlightened youth behind Roscommon no vote #marref

Since writing this I’ve been contacted by countless Rossies feeling the same way.

For example this guy: I was born (Roscommon town), raised (Elphin) and educated (Ballaghaderreen) in Roscommon. But I have been living in Dublin for 25 years, therefore my vote is in Dublin and I voted here. I am thus part of that ‘missing generation’ between 18 and 70. I should have voted at home..

Since Saturday I have read much of the vile, deeply unpleasant comments and crass generalisations about Roscommon people. I never thought it would bother me but it did, it does, and will continue to do so. Yesterday, after yet another nasty comment, I was compelled to retort with the following on Facebook:

In Co. Roscommon and south Co. Leitrim 18,644 people voted against the Marriage Referendum. In Dublin City and County 151,435 people voted against it. I’m curious, are these the same kind of “homophobic/bigoted/philistine/inbred” people as those in Roscommon/south Leitrim? As represented on social media? Different accent perhaps? Or are we, as Colm O’Gorman articulated on radio this morning, all “one constituency”? As Carl Sagan asserted, all “one planet”?

Very true!! So please, people, think before you slag…

Emigration of energetic, enlightened youth behind Roscommon no vote.

Pikangikum, where some of Canada’s most impoverished people live

In 2014, I travelled to Pikangikum, a remote fly-in community in northern Ontario, Canada. Few in the community have running water or sewage and most are not connected to the grid – though they do have power through a diesel generator.

The houses are seriously overcrowded, sometimes with three or four generations living in them.

The knock-on effect for youth is catastrophic, as outlined in a coroner’s report in 2011 on youth suicide.

There is hope: a community-led forestry initiative is set to provide many jobs in the future. Construction has begun on a federally funded $55 million school, and a police-led youth intervention programme is having great results.

Read more here: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/canadian-youth-pushed-to-despair-in-poverty-stricken-indigenous-community-1.2012342?page=1

From Cuba to Key West, a coffee queen, a politician and a dream

kw4

Emelia Fernandez (79), the owner of Key West’s original Cuban Coffee Queen Cafe was in her home town of Villa Chappara in Cuba when news broke on December 17th that five years of cold-war style politics were coming to an end.

kw5 2

“People went crazy. They were cooking in front of houses. There were parades, parties,” Fernandez says as her daughter Irene, half American, half Cuban, translates at times, as they stand in front of their traditional wooden Conch home in the old town of Key West.

KW1

Key West was often called the seventh province of Cuba. In the days before the Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys, when Miami was nothing more than a swamp, it was easier for Conchs (Key West natives) to take the ferry across to Havana than go to the US mainland to visit the doctor or dentist.

Cubans immigrated to Key West in droves from the 1860s, often to work in cigar factories: the tobacco was imported from Cuba, the cigars rolled in Key West.

kw6

He was just 10 years old when he left in 1959, but Tony Yaniz still has vivid memories of Cuba: the stunning architecture of old Havana, the iconic Malecón (seawall), a bustling city with parks and trees, and the lush greenness of Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s western tobacco- growing province.

kw2

“Cuba has always dictated its position and will continue to do so,” Fernandez adds. “We will work with the US to move forward for the mutual good of the Cuban and American people. Cuba doesn’t let the US put its foot on top of its head. We survived the embargo . . . the future is in our hands.”

Read full article here:

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/cuban-expats-see-either-heartbreak-or-hope-in-obama-s-diplomatic-gambit-1.2111853