Roots of Change: Why People Migrate From Central America (And What ChildFund Is Doing About It)

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Posted on 06/26/2019
Teenage girl in Santa Barbara Department, Honduras, leaning out of window with arms crossed looking at camera, smiling.

Girl in Santa Barbara Department, Honduras. Photo by Kyle LaFerriere.

“Sometimes I get mad ideas of wanting to have an opportunity to migrate,” says Ana, 17.

She lives in rural Honduras, where migration to other areas – whether to other parts of Honduras or to other countries, including the United States – is common among youth.

“I’ve thought maybe it could help my family so they can move forward,” Ana admits. “But then I think about what could happen if everything gets complicated along the way. In migrating, you never know what can happen.”

What is Happening in the Northern Triangle – and On the Road to the U.S.?

Ana is right. Every month, poverty and violent conflict in Central America – especially in the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – drive thousands of people to the U.S. in search of asylum and better economic opportunities. But the 2,500-mile journey is a perilous one, especially for children.

Young people are more vulnerable to threats like hunger, dehydration and exhaustion, and they’re easy prey for traffickers and other criminals. Even when children make it to the U.S., they often endure additional trauma as they are apprehended, detained and often deported. Meanwhile, without the energy and dreams of young people to move them forward, the communities left behind continue to cope with the same social, political and economic problems year after year.

But you can help them avoid these dangers when you support our work to address the root causes of migration. We strengthen communities throughout Central America and Mexico to transform children’s lives right where they are.

Want to know how? Read on.

Enhancing Education in Guatemala

Young girl sits at a desk at school in Guatemala, holding papers, smiling.

Adelaida, 8, reads a book in her first-grade class in Guatemala. The teachers at her school have been trained with ChildFund’s Aprendo curriculum. Photo by Jake Lyell.

Nineteen percent of Guatemalans over the age of 15 can’t read or write – and the literacy rate only brushes the surface of the barriers they face to education. Unfortunately, children growing up in the rural highlands today are facing many of the same barriers to education that their parents and grandparents did, plus some new ones. Chief among them is forced migration, which has escalated in recent years due to drought and flooding caused by climate change.

“There is no work here,” says Maria Garcia, a first-grade teacher in Guatemala’s highlands. “The land here is not fertile, and crops don’t yield enough for families to sell. So, families migrate toward the south coast because there are coffee plantations where they find work.”

The Guatemalan school year runs from January until October, but many children leave with their families in August and don’t return until March, so they miss several months of school. And why not? Under-resourced schools tend to be the norm rather than the exception in this part of Guatemala, and when schools don’t provide quality education, parents don’t have much incentive to keep their kids enrolled.

We couldn’t change the climate conditions driving families to migrate, but there was one thing we could do: improve the quality of education. So ChildFund designed a fresh, engaging curriculum for primary school students and a comprehensive new teacher training program. Launched in 2013, our Aprendo project – or, in English, “I Learn” – aims to spark children’s critical thinking, reading and math skills through a vibrant, participatory approach to learning. Our local partner organizations implement the curriculum in primary schools across the region. And it’s working.

Before, says one school’s principal, Mario Gomez Velasco, “the children did not participate, they did not have opinions, they could not share any of their experiences – only the teachers spoke. But now, they are more motivated to learn because they can participate more.”

A teacher in a blue traditional Guatemalan dress stands in room full of elementary students at school, smiling.

A first-grade teacher leads her students in an interactive lesson in Totonicapán Department, Guatemala. Photo by Jake Lyell.

Garcia says the children are more excited about school since ChildFund introduced the new approach — and that their families are also leaving later in the year.

Her wish for her students? “That they come back to school at the start of the new school cycle and stay until the end — that is my biggest wish.”

Preventing Violent Conflict in Central America

Two boys standing outside in Guatemala playing, waving red and yellow streamers in the air.

Byron, 11, and Anderson, 9, play with streamers in the highlands of Guatemala. Photo by Jake Lyell.

In 10-year-old Xochitl’s small community in Santa Barbara Department, Honduras, everything is reminiscent of another time. The crumbling remains of an old village still punctuate the landscape near the river. Families tend the same corn, bean and coffee crops they have for hundreds of years. And people’s ways of interacting with one another are just as traditional, especially when it comes to the treatment of children. Many families believe that violent punishment is the only way to teach children how to behave.

Xochitl has new ideas about that.

“Physically punishing a child leads to them becoming rude, rebellious and violent,” she says.

Xochitl has been participating in ChildFund’s Me Quiero Me Cuido (“I Want to Take Care of Myself”) program, which incorporates a methodology called Miles de Manos (“Thousands of Hands”) to help address what is happening in the Northern Triangle. It’s based on the premise that violence can’t be eradicated unless the whole community gets involved. That’s why, instead of focusing on just children, the program also educates parents and teachers about violence – how it damages relationships (and brain development), how to prevent it and how to interact with children in healthier ways.

Because the first violence a child experiences is usually in the home – and later at school – it follows that stronger, more supportive communities begin with the adults who shape children’s environment.

“The adults in our community were raised with violence. The punishments they received as children were immoral,” says José Antonio Guzmán López. He’s the principal at Xochitl’s school, and he says that Miles de Manos has transformed the way adults and children relate to each other. “These days, relationships between parents, children and teachers are improving. Boys and girls are being educated when they do something wrong instead of violently punished. That, for us, is an achievement.

Male teacher at school in Guatemala stands in the middle of a classroom full of parents, talking and gesturing with his hands.

An educator conducts an awareness session with teachers and parents in Santa Barbara Department, Honduras, as part of the Miles de Manos methodology. Photo by Kyle LaFerriere.

“We’re headed in a different direction now: more human, more loving and tight-knit. We believe that violence can be eliminated.”

In fact, in some of Honduras’ most dangerous urban areas, ChildFund’s Parents and Teachers Joining Forces for Children in Social Spaces (PUENTES) project – which also applied the Miles de Manos methodology – actually resulted in a 56 percent reduction of violent incidents at school. Parents, teachers and children alike reported feeling safer and more aware of how to prevent and respond to violence, whether physical, emotional or sexual.

“My mother participated in this process, and she taught us to speak out when another person wants to touch our private parts,” says Erikson, 12, another participant in the program. “If that happens, we know what to do and who to ask for help. We can call the police or a trusted relative – someone who believes us and can help us.”

His words break tradition with the shame and secrecy usually associated with sexual violence in the community, and that’s the point. Half the solution to violent conflict in Central America and beyond is just being willing to talk about it. In the words of Xochitl’s mother, Reina, communication is key.

“We have more communication with our partners and children,” she says. “When children grow up in a family that communicates and does not argue, that helps them grow better.”

‘Feeding the Desire to Improve’

Schoolgirl in Guatemala sits outside in a empty street wearing backpack and holding books, smiling.

Silvia goes to school in Guatemala’s central highlands.

As ChildFund continues to develop programs that support children to thrive in their own communities, youth are an important part of the puzzle. Let’s check in with Ana, the 17-year-old who so deeply understands why people migrate – and still sometimes gets those “mad ideas” herself.

Ana is currently in her first year of technical school, where she’s working toward an accounting degree. She splits her time between studying, playing sports and participating in activities with ChildFund – like workshops on advocacy, leadership and, of course, the risks of migration.

“I have had the opportunity to train in many things that improved my self-esteem,” she says. “I think that is what has allowed me to excel.”

“ChildFund has been a great help and support for many of us,” she says. “They offer us knowledge and feed our desire to improve ourselves and achieve our dreams. So I am always positive that I want to stay in Honduras, to build my future positively and seek out opportunities to achieve what I want.”

Want to help young people like Ana, Erikson and Xochitl find those opportunities? Sponsor a child in Honduras or Guatemala today. You can also donate to our emergency action fund to support children in our programs in Central America and Mexico.