When American poet Emma Lazarus entreated the world to give us their tired, their poor, their huddled masses yearning to breathe free, I doubt she meant for these same people to inhale the noxious fumes of tear gas. That bedrock sentiment, etched into a plaque near the feet of lady Liberty, was trampled this week by our own troops when they fired choking tear gas across our southern border at families with children, denying them legal entry into our nation at the San Ysidro border crossing near San Diego.
We know these children. Nearly half of all migrants who sought entrance into the United States with their relatives over this past year were from Guatemala. Child Aid, the Portland-based literacy nonprofit I founded nearly two decades ago, works on the ground there, with kids just like those now gathering at our border.
I have seen close-up the realities that families in Guatemala face: extreme poverty, food insecurity and violence. Making their home country a safer, more prosperous nation where families can thrive is a key to staunching some of the flow of desperate people to our nation.
Now is the time to spend our money, time and know-how reaching people in great need with tried and true interventions—including educational resources for children in Guatemalan schools and homes. This approach is a smarter and more sustainable plan forward than spending billions of dollars building a wall or terrorizing immigrants. It’s also more humane.
When I first began working in Guatemala 23 years ago, I was told that our programs wouldn’t work because the teachers and school officials weren’t interested in making their classrooms vibrant places of learning. I was warned that parents didn’t value education for their children.
The opposite of all that is true. Principals open shuttered schools and teachers sacrifice vacation days to help us launch our Adventures in Reading program. Parents bring their children to school and ask us where they can find more books for their sons and daughters. Together with Child Aid, teachers, parents and community leaders have drastically improved the lives of more than 50,000 children to date.
Those of us working in the international NGO field know that a well-designed, expertly executed program—be it literacy, medical care or environmental protection—are effective at pulling people out of poverty. And while some families are fleeing the oppressive poverty and violence, there is a groundswell of people in Guatemala who are staying and fighting for a more equitable and safe nation.
We saw evidence of this passion earlier this year when thousands of citizens from all walks of life took to the streets in protest of government corruption. We see more evidence in the community buy-in many small NGOs receive from parents, healthcare workers and community leaders.
Child Aid is part of that contingent, holding fast to the idea that education gives people—in our case, elementary-age children—the boost needed to one day advocate for themselves and their broader world.
As we rush headlong into the holiday season, watching families with children in diapers running scared from U.S. troops aiming tear gas at them shatters me. I know it breaks your heart, too. These are our children, our families. There is a demand for a better life that must be met for all our sakes.
Nancy Press is co-founder and CEO of Child Aid. She was trained as an anthropologist and is professor emerita at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon.
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