Can you provide background about ECAP and how the partnership with KIND came about?
ECAP began in 1997 after the signing of the peace agreements that ended decades of civil conflict in Guatemala, to help those whose families had been victims of massacres and human rights violations during the armed conflict. ECAP’s focus has always been the psychosocial assistance of families and strengthening the capacity of local leaders to contribute to reducing trauma and violence by providing training and certification in community mental health and human rights.
In 2016, we began to work with KIND, helping girls and boys from the area of Nebaj, in the western highlands of Guatemala, and eventually our work expanded to other departments. We currently work in the department of Quiche and in Nenton, Huehuetenango.
Can you share details about your reintegration work and children’s needs when they return from the United States?
KIND receives referrals from the Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters and other governmental, community, and nonprofit organizations in the United States and Mexico of children who are returning to Guatemala. KIND sends us case information and any additional information that would be helpful to know about the child. We contact the family and let them know that we’d like to help them, and their child reintegrate into their home and community.
These children have many different needs. We conduct an initial diagnosis with each boy and girl and tailor our work to the needs of each individual child, but generally their needs tend to be related to health, education, and reintroducing children to their families. The return to their communities is a big shock after being in the United States. It’s like a whole new world. With teens we’ve seen that after leaving their communities, they begin to realize issues of structural violence and inequality. They begin to ask, “Why don’t we have asphalt on our roads, why is there no drinking water, electricity?” They begin to question why there’s so much inequality.
They also return with a lot of health needs – the majority return sick with stomach illness because the nutrition is different than what they’ve been used to in the United States. They return with psychosocial needs. Many of the youngest kids stay one year at a shelter in the United States and when they return, they’ve forgotten their native language; and speak a mix of Spanish and English, while the family only speaks Ixil, so there’s a language barrier.
Can you share examples of how children have been helped by your work and partnership with KIND?
I remember a boy KIND referred to us who was returned to Guatemala and had been a victim of sexual violence in his home here. We did everything possible, alongside KIND and other organizations that KIND supports, so that the boy did not have to return to the home where he was being abused. He was taken in by Refugio de la Niñez, Children’s Refuge Association, an NGO that cares for girls and boys and protects them. With the help of KIND, we were able to prevent him from returning to a place where he may suffer from abuse again.
Another case we worked on was with a teenage girl who was detained at the U.S.-Mexico border and sent back home. After she was returned, she didn’t want to do anything. Her life goal had been to be in the United States and had been planning for a long time that she would arrive there, work, buy things, and be able to help her family. When young people are returned home, they feel that they’ve failed themselves and their families, that they didn’t reach their objective. We helped her to adjust and make new goals. A psychologist helped her create a new “life project” to rebuild her goals. She signed up for school to continue her studies. She was very disciplined with her homework –the school’s director also helped and monitored her progress. When she finished her basic studies, she decided to continue studying and joined a group of female community investigators in Nebaj. They begin to investigate issues around violence against women in Nebaj. Currently, she’s in college and has a part-time job. She is one example of how supporting and motivating kids can help them readjust and rebuild their lives.
There was another case of a boy we helped who was diagnosed with leukemia while in a shelter in the United States. When he came back to Guatemala, KIND helped ensure he could receive assistance in a hospital specializing in cancer treatments, and we helped the boy, provided support for his travel. He lived in Quiche, so he had to leave very early in the mornings to make it to his appointments.
For two years, we helped him get to his medical appointments and get the medicine he needed. He survived and is now healthy. We still call him to see how he is feeling.
We also help young people find employment alternatives. There’s a boy who works on a loom in the cutting of the threads – we’ve been supporting him in buying thread so that he can do design (cortes). Others have chickens. Just yesterday young people sent us a picture of their chickens who are laying 8-10 eggs per day, so they are now eating and selling them. Other young people have requested sheep to have at home, or goats, for milk.
Why do you work in reintegration and gender-based violence prevention with children? What about this work is important? How is this work impactful?
For us it’s been interesting to see returned youth say, “I won’t necessarily follow tradition, I may get married later, but not now.” There’s a lot of social pressure to get married at a young age, especially for girls. If you reach 20 and you’re not married, you start hearing that you’ve been “left behind.” For the girls who return, many of whom are victims of sexual violence during their journey, when they return to their communities, they suffer stigma.
There are lots of repercussions to these forms of gender-based violence, which is why it is so important to discuss these subjects with the youth, and they share this information with others. Now we’re seeing them use social media to discuss these issues as well. Some do theatre, activities in the town park or during fairs and share information from their perspective about what other youth needed to know about gender-based violence.
It’s great to count on the support from organizations like KIND that help us support families in need.