That question has been on my mind every day for the past couple weeks as I have watched the news from our southern border. And I know I’m not alone.
A few days ago one of my Facebook friends wrote,
“I just keep giving because I don’t know what else to do beyond contact my legislators… It’s World Refugee Day today. It’s a day dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world. If you are at all in favor (or ambivalent) of this administration’s actions, I implore you to take a moment today to educate yourselves and find empathy for those seeking asylum from violent countries in Central America such as El Salvador and Honduras. The vast majority of these refugees are not looking to freeload off of the USA, they are seeking safety for themselves and their families.”
Nearly half a million people have joined my Facebook friend in making a donation to RAICES, an immigration legal services provider who is committed to reuniting immigrant parents with their children who were taken away from them at our border. (https://www.raicestexas.org). I thought about sending them some money, but I wondered what else I could do to help alleviate the terrible situation of children from Central America being separated from their parents at the border, with no credible assurance that they will ever be reunited.
I feel particularly connected to the people of Honduras because Mim and I are currently providing support for two girls in Honduras, Dulce and Leydi, through a small organization called Casita Copan. (CasitaCopan.org)
Leydi, Emily (founder and executive director of Casita Copan), and Dulce. (Photo by Liz Dougherty)
Also, we make donations, at least once a year, to various projects of Buenos Vecinos (BuenosVecinos.org), a small aid organization in western Honduras and Guatemala organized by Ellen Lippman Finn, a retired social worker and jazz musician from the United States.
Ellen wrote a book about her experiences in Honduras, EMOTIONAL WITNESS: My seven-year journey as an aid worker into the heart of Honduras. (The book is available in both print and digital form on amazon.com.) I’d like to share a few excerpts from her book to provide a more personal glimpse into the extreme violence today’s Central American refugees are fleeing. Ellen writes:
My house was robbed again a couple days ago, in front of many witnesses who were afraid to come forward because the robber is a gang member… This was the thirteenth or fourteenth time I’ve been robbed…
I can’t count how many times I’ve been extorted. A couple of them really scared me. One I actually paid off because they threatened to harm a dear friend if I didn’t pay. And as far as murders – I can’t even count how many friends, workers, neighbors have been murdered by police, by an angered person, by narcotraficantes [drug traffickers], by gang members. I barely cry any more.
My neighbor had her head cut off with a machete in broad daylight on a main street. The police didn’t find her attacker. Police never “find” anyone.
One of the worst scenarios that keeps haunting me is the murder of Odilio. He was the kind and respected leader of a mountain village where he built a small school. He had just finished building the school when, in the middle of the night, two crazy men high on drugs forced their way into his house and shot him pointblank while his kids hid under the bed. The children are still traumatized, as well as all of the members of his community. They have now all dispersed, leaving the village empty. This kind of violence can and does happen anywhere and at any time. My friend’s son was murdered in a restaurant. We all live in fear…
One night, I heard gunshots and called the police. They never showed up. In the morning, at about 5:00 a.m., I found a dead body at my gate, full of bullet holes, dried blood everywhere. He was a young fellow I knew. No motive found. No murderer found. What’s worse is this wasn’t the only time I had found a dead body, and I live in a supposedly quiet tourist town. San Pedro Sula, our largest city, a few hours from here, is now considered the most dangerous city in the world due to gang violence.
Later in the book, Ellen described how she put together enough terrifying clues to realize that she was actually on a hit list. She discussed this with Marel, a Honduran friend and co-worker on many of her aid projects. He investigated and confirmed her suspicions.
… after my conversation with Marel, I periodically saw men walking by my house in pairs, especially in the evening. This frightened me terribly at first. They appeared to be reading. This made no sense. Why would folks be reading? When I asked Marel, he told me that he hadn’t wanted to worry me, so he hadn’t mentioned anything. These men were from his church, many of whom I had helped over the years in one way or another, with food baskets, emergency medical help, house repairs, and school supplies. And yes, they were in fact reading. Bibles. They were walking around my house in two-hour shifts. When Marel told me this, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I was so touched. These men were protecting me in shifts, two at a time, two bibles at a time, praying, monitoring, their cell phones at the ready….
There was a continual yet futile search for more information. As I came to understand it, the narcotraficantes didn’t like that we were working in “their communities.” The more we empowered the communities with schools, or a clinic, or a bakery to make them self-sufficient, the less power and control the narcos would have to extort from the villagers. I still didn’t get it completely, but I was in no position to try and figure it out. I had to leave if I wanted to stay alive…”
Ellen shopping for school supplies with some of her young friends.
That’s everyday life in Honduras, as seen through the eyes of a 70-year-old former social worker who who lived there for seven years, trying to help families survive their cruel circumstances. She had to flee for her life, and was back in the United States for a while. It’s still not safe for her to return to Honduras (except for a few carefully planned trips to visit her old friends), so she has moved to neighboring Guatemala. Through Buenos Vecinos (which translates to Good Neighbors) Ellen is doing basically the same kind of aid projects in Guatemala that she had done in Honduras – providing school supplies and school lunches, building schools, helping to address medical needs, and so on.
After reading this book, it’s easy to understand why individuals and families in Honduras are trying to immigrate to the United States. They are literally fleeing for their lives.
Back to my original question, what can I do to help? When I lived in Chicago and was working in business, I learned that to solve problems, it is important to figure out how to remedy the immediate problem, but it is just as important to look for the root cause of the problem in order to find a permanent solution. For us in the United States today, the immediate challenge is to reunite children who have been separated from their parents at the border. That’s the problem that brings tears to my eyes every day when I watch the news. That’s the problem (or at least one of the problems) that RAICES is trying to address, and they are getting help from nearly half a million people who are donating funds to support their efforts. Mim and I might join in with a small donation. We want to be a part of this solution.
But we also want to be a part of the long-term solution. Thanks to our connections with Ellen Lippman Finn and Buenos Vecinos, we know that a permanent solution involves making it possible for the incredibly poor families in Central America to survive and even to thrive in their own communities. We can do this by making donations to organizations like Buenos Vecinos so that they can provide resources to these families to help them meet their basic needs – food, clothing, housing, health care, education, and ultimately some means of livelihood.
And, on an even more personal level, Mim and I will continue to support our two girls at Casita Copan so that they can be assured their basic needs will always be met. Both girls will have birthdays this summer. We’ll send them birthday cards, and will provide an extra donation to the organization for birthday presents. They need to know that someone in North America really cares about them and has hope for their future.
Earlier this year Mim and I sent special presents with some friends of ours who went to Honduras to visit face-to-face with the children they support through another organization, Children International (children.org).
(Photo by Liz Dougherty)
We sent Dulce (age 9) a backpack filled with coloring books and crayons, art papers and pens, and other craft supplies, and Leydi (age 16) a tablet computer along with an amazon.com gift card that she can use to download apps or kindle books. (She has Internet access at Casita Copan.)
I’m sure tears will still come to my eyes when I listen to the news again this evening, but at least I know that Mim and I are doing what we can to help solve the huge problems facing our neighbors to the south. If you, like us, want to know what you can do to help solve our world’s current immigration-related problems, we encourage you to check out the websites of the organizations that are working to solve these problems with both short-term and long-term solutions, and consider making donations to support their efforts.
Also, please feel free to respond to this blog post to share other ideas you may have to address these problems.
Ellen with some young friends.
And one last comment. Some of the story of Ellen Lippman Finn and Buenos Vecinos may sound familiar to you. I wrote a blog post last February entitled “Memoir of a 70-year-old Super Hero.” If you want to learn even more about Ellen’s story and get a really close up look at the life of a loving and eccentric aid worker in Central America, pick up a copy of EMOTIONAL WITNESS: My Seven-Year Journey as an Aid Worker into the Heart of Honduras. I laughed hard, and I cried hard as I read this book. I highly recommend it. Here’s the link to it on amazon.com.