I am so deeply upset watching videos of the thousands of people flowing north in a stream of swelling migration. Having lived in Central America for over thirty years, I can say it is not surprising, it is not new, but it is disheartening. You could see it coming. I have a small project educating and giving vocational training for children in Guatemala and rural Honduras. Statistics have gotten progressively worse in the time I have lived here. People are fleeing from violence, gang extortion, and the inability to find a job to support their families.
Almost half of the population of Guatemala is under the age of 15. Seventeen million people live here, nearly 60% in poverty and 79% in indigenous villages. Opportunities to attend school are scarce and have not improved appreciably in recent years. For kids in Guatemala, the statistics state that 8 out of 10 kids live in poverty and only 3 out of 10 receive a middle school education. If, against these odds, a young person does succeed in getting an education, they will find there are very few jobs. Last month 150,000 young people applied for 12,000 openings during a job fair in Guatemala City.
My project, “Fotokids,” is an example of what can be done with few resources. For 27 years now we have helped thousands of kids from some of the poorest areas of Guatemala and Honduras. In that time we have had just three migrate to the U.S. and none at all since the year 2000.Why is that?
I have asked myself that question more than a few times. I believe we have an integrated program that focuses on a long-term commitment. It is because we start them young (9-10 years of age), give them scholarships to get them educated, provide them an identity and a peer group, and show them what types of opportunities are out there. It is difficult to have a dream if you have no knowledge beyond what you see in your barrio. The children stay in our project from primary through high school. Fotokids is an arts media and technology vocational program. We teach photography, graphic design, web design, video, and writing, along with leadership skills and critical, creative thinking. There are jobs in these fields and our program, combined with a traditional education, gives them a distinct advantage when applying for employment. Simply put, we prepare them with the skills for getting a job. We educate them to be change makers.
All of our staff, themselves Fotokids graduates, have grown up mired in extreme poverty in Guatemala City’s garbage dump and isolated rural areas. Those that work in our program teach in order to give back. We have many kids who have gone on to the university studying business administration, law, graphic design, communications, systems engineering, education, social work, clinical psychology, etc. Our students find employment.
The gang violence and extortion of both small businesses and families in the barrios is pervasive, including those where Fotokids works. In 2016, there were three violent deaths of minors at the end of a gun every 24 hours.
It is a vicious circle. There is little foreign or domestic investment due to violence; coupled with poverty and lack of meaningful education, this is a time bomb.
No one wants to walk thousands of miles with a baby on their hip, leaving everything they have struggled so hard for behind. We have families who have literally built their houses block by block, paying for cement as funds become available, slowly creating a wall behind the front of their tin shacks.
There are no reasons grassroots programs like ours cannot be fostered by governments and business people. The caravans will continue. If the United States wants to stem the flow of migration from their neighbors, then let them act as neighbors, using funding wisely to encourage innovative programs – programs that are designed to address the needs of the 21st century and the creation of jobs.
N. McGirr, Founder CEO Fotokids