I’m a high school student in Guatemala City — all around me, kids are joining gangs or fleeing to migrate north. This is how I got the chance to believe in myself, in my country, and in my future.
Here in Guatemala, I grew up filled with anger, rage, sadness and disappointment. Outside it was not much better. Gang members meet up near my house, and it’s too dangerous to ever be out on the streets after dark.
Yet despite these challenges, I managed to move forward, because I had people who supported me. I am here because of my mother, who was always there with motivating words, and because of my older brother, who would prepare my food in the mornings, take me to school, then pick me up afterward.
And thanks to my mother and brother, I was able to make it through from kindergarten to high school, always with good grades, and was named president of my high school class.
Still, there are not many opportunities for someone here once you finish high school. Work is scarce, which leads many young people to assume that going to another country is the only thing they can do to get by. It is hard to see a future for yourself here.
For me, that attitude began to change when I started participating in the Convivimos programme. Funded by USAID and operated by Mercy Corps, Convivimos works with young people here to help them escape violence and see positive futures for themselves. I also participated in two programmes, Colectivo Chapin, and PJO (Protagonismo Juvenil Organizado), which teach youth how to be leaders in your community, and how to contribute to improving our environment.
Participating in these programmes, it was like a new door opened in my life, a door of opportunities. I found characteristics in myself that I did not even know I had.
Young Guatemalans participate in student government at their school. Student governments bolster life skills and provide opportunities to resist drugs and violence and choose a different path. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps
Before I started these programmes, I was a very shy person. I did not like to talk to anybody, I did not like to be social. Then with the different activities of Convivimos—like working at a radio station and speaking on air—I became more social, I learned to have better social relationships, and be more proactive. I had the opportunity to meet many people and create new friendships.
I feel like I am part of a community now.
These Mercy Corps programmes created a sense of leadership in me. I want to be a leader in my community. Even on little things—like when I see people throwing garbage on the street I pick it up, or I talk to them about how we need to take care of our own community and our planet. I want to show other young people that they don’t have to join gangs, that there are other options.
Through these programmes, I have had the opportunity to meet several young people who may have been drawn to violence and gangs. I talk to them about my own past, about how I have become who I am. It feels so good to be able to give these words of support and encouragement which, from my own experience, I know are so important to young people.
I know that tomorrow I will see the reward for all the effort that I am putting in today. Of course, I will try by all means to achieve my dreams. I know that it is often difficult. It is difficult to reach those dreams, but I know I will achieve it.
I plan to continue studying and build a career so that, first of all, I will be able to help my mother to pay basic expenses. But ultimately I want to build a better future for myself and my family. I want my brothers to see an example in me, to see that they too can break those chains and start their own lives.
I heard that the President of the United States was no longer going to give funds for programmes like this in Guatemala. Removing programmes like Convivimos would be taking away the opportunity for many young people to change the vision and perspective of their lives. It would be taking away the opportunity for many young people to change, to be someone better in this life.
There is a well-known phrase that says that young people are the future of Guatemala. But I think another thing: that young people are the present of Guatemala. If we have the chance to have a good education, to see a future for ourselves, we can achieve many things.
Juan is a Mercy Corps Guatemala team member on the Convivimos programme. PHOTO: Corinna Robbins for Mercy Corps
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