Guatemala is a country of diverse, stunning landscape and strong indigenous culture; however, its natural beauty stands in stark contrast to its bloody past and troubled present. When the Guatemalan army and the guerrillas signed the 1996 peace accords—the army, the victor in the war, was easily able to impose its terms on the acquiescent Guatemalans. That meant total amnesty for all human rights crimes committed during the war. For Guatemala to have peace, they decided, it also had to have silence and no justice. Decades of terror-inspired fear have led the Guatemalans to adopt a survival strategy of silence. During my time in Guatemala I met many brave children, who in spite of their tumultuous surroundings, prove that while war and poverty may be able to destroy one’s land, it does not have to destroy one’s spirit.
Upon my arrival in Guatemala, Teresa, the Director of Open Windows, advised that there are students in urgent need of scholarships to continue their studies in public school. During our short meetings Luis and Kevin, on the edge of emotional precipice, struggled to discuss their personal tragedies. When asked about their education plans, it was obvious that the boys were uncertain of their future and had difficulties expressing their hopes and dreams.
I met with Luis Fernando Jerez Mishia in the dirt yard of his family’s home. Luis is a shy 13-year old who has recently been orphaned. His father committed suicide approximately ten years ago which caused not only an emotional hardship on the family, but financial hardship as well. Luis’ mother supported her family until she became ill with cervical cancer which ultimately led to her death on October 25, 2009. Luis is currently under the care of his three older siblings who lack the necessary resources to pay for Luis’ education. The combined family income for his family of nine is approximately $180 per month. Although his tragic family situation has caused Luis to grow up disadvantaged, he is still motivated to succeed. Luis is in the sixth grade dreams of being an artist.
During my visits with Kevin, I met his siblings and mother, Concepcion. Concepcion has a ferocious will to live but has come to terms with her ineluctable fate – that cervical cancer will slowly consume her life. Cervical cancer is the second leading cause of death among Guatemalan women. Inadequate healthcare for women stems from gender based discrimination, economic inequality and entrenched racism experienced by impoverished women who are undereducated and of indigenous status.
Both Kevin and Luis appeared inconsolable. Their somber eyes and heart wrenching stories were ingrained in my mind. I wanted to do something that would distract them from their pain, even if for only a minute. I decided that I would help Luis get a jumpstart on his dreams of being an artist. I went to a local store and used the contribution of a colleague’s son (Before my trip, Luis C., the nine-year old son of a co-worker, visited my office and emptied out his piggy bank to help the children in Guatemala) to purchase art supplies for Luis. I took the items to Luis on my last day in Guatemala and informed him of Luis C’s kind donation. Luis accepted his gift with a smile and gracious humility. I also purchased soccer balls for Luis, his brother, Wilson, and Kevin since they previously informed me that they are huge soccer fans.
Approximately 70% of children do not continue education past primary school because they must work to support their families. I was introduced to a group of children who do not attend school and work alongside their families in the coffee fields; deemed as culturally appropriate in that community. Still, most parents view education as the only way to free their children from the poverty that has gripped families for generations.
The effectiveness of the education system in Guatemala is limited by a shortage of trained teachers. The teachers at a public school diagnosed Stefani as learning disabled, consequently, she was placed in a Special Education class and not given the appropriate attention. A few months ago Stefani began attending Open Windows where a teacher at the learning center discovered that Stefani is extremely bright, however, she is hearing impaired which may be the cause of her speech impediment. Stefani’s mother could not afford medical treatment for her. Fortunately, the staff at the learning center was able to secure a donor to pay for the cost of her medical care. We are hopeful that Stefani will soon be able to perceive sound and eventually learn to speak.
Guatemala’s need for humanitarian assistance cannot be denied. Today, numerous citizens of Guatemala, local and international humanitarian organizations are breaking the silence and working tirelessly to protect and improve human rights. It was emotionally difficult witnessing the myriad of issues the children endure daily but I am hopeful, like most Guatemalans, that the future will bring about much needed change and progress. And so, I will continue to advocate for literacy, treasuring each journey as a small precious piece of a larger puzzle…
** January 2010 update: Great news! Luis and Kevin will be continuing their education in 2010! A heartfelt thanks to my dear, compassionate friends who were moved into action by Luis and Kevin’s compelling story. **