MANY were outraged last week over the news that up to 400 unaccompanied children are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally every day, most from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Many people have focused on immigration policy, border control and what to do with these kids. But I can’t stop thinking about why my young compatriots in Guatemala are making this difficult and dangerous journey in the first place.
I can remember how difficult my life was growing up in Guatemala. Alcohol abuse and domestic violence in my family made me unhappy and afraid. I had to work, even when I was only 6 years old.
I was sad, hurt, confused, and one day I remember sitting alone at the bus station for hours. Finally, when it was getting dark, I began walking. I still remember those steps as the longest in my life. I ended up at a police station, and the next day a judge sent me to Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH), which is Spanish for “our little brothers and sisters.”
The United Nations issued a report in May describing the situation. Many of these children face serious danger and hardship at home. Forty-eight percent shared experiences of increased violence by organized groups such as gangs. Earlier U.N. reports showed that 45 percent of children and youth in Latin America and the Caribbean, 81 million kids, live in poverty. Each year, 6 million children in the region suffer severe abuse, including abandonment. The 90,000 children expected to enter the U.S. this year, as reported by The Associated Press, are only the tip of the iceberg.
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NPH became a new family for me, and for more than 18,000 other children in Latin America who have been orphaned or abandoned. All of us have experienced similar stories of hunger, violence, poverty, substance abuse and trauma that separated us from our families, and could have propelled us to seek a better life elsewhere. Instead, I was able to stay safe and healthy, go to school and pursue my dreams in my own country.
I believe that we need more investment in Guatemala in education and quality of life for our citizens. Lack of employment and violence influence many people to leave and seek new opportunities. I believe that with education anything is possible and I will keep working hard to achieve my goals.
I am now living in Seattle, studying English and leadership as part of the NPH International Leadership Institute. Along with four other students from NPH in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico and Haiti, I am taking classes at Seattle Central College, living with a host family, attending leadership seminars, working with a mentor and doing community service.
It is true that meaningful immigration reform is needed and that the children who have already arrived here need support. But we should also invest in existing and new, local development strategies in Latin America that would break the cycle of poverty and violence that drives children and their parents to such desperate measures.
I will be returning to Guatemala soon. While I definitely did not choose this life, I can try to be better every day and to participate in and create local solutions. People in the Northwest are lucky to have many local organizations, companies, faith communities and individuals who sponsor and support such efforts in Latin America. I hope you will join me in finding a way to get involved and help. Eighty-one million children are counting on us.