Kentucky voices

Ky. voices: Kerby Neill says every immigrant child has a story that should be heard

July 15, 2014 

For many years, U. S. policies helped crush reform and populist movements in Central America while civil wars left those countries economically depressed, corrupt and crime ridden.

A June, 2013 article in the New Republic, titled "The Most Dangerous Job in the World," documented the murder of 900 bus drivers in Guatemala as organized crime viciously squeezed bus companies for protection money.

Competing drug cartels count powerful police units on their payrolls and the U.S. drug market fuels these brutal enterprises. Trade policies negotiated to benefit U.S. and Central American business elites often operate at the expense of the poor. Visitors on Central American tourist tracks may skirt encounters with poverty, while puzzling that Pepsi trucks sport guards brandishing shotguns.

In 1998 and 1999 my wife, Mary Ellen, and I lived in Mesquital a huge barrio south of Guatemala City.

Mesquital began as a community of squatters, many war-displaced. We volunteered with UPAVIM, a woman's cooperative where many widowed or abandoned mothers made crafts for export. Sales provided an income and enabled the cooperative to offer medical and remedial education services for their children. At UPAVIM, Mary Ellen worked as a nurse and I directed a supplementary education program with the help of international volunteers.

Public resources in Mesquital were virtually non-existent. When a drunken father of seven sliced the arm from his 16-year-old daughter with a machete, authorities placed the girl in a shelter but left the father and the other children in the home rather than assume any burden for the children's care. For Mesquital's 125,000 souls there was no public high school or middle school. Children sat in the few cramped primary schools four hours a day, either morning or afternoon — without textbooks. Teachers were high school grads unable to find work in safer areas. What a student copied into a notebook was assumed to be learned.

Kids often gathered in our small house and their families were grateful for our concern. We acquired several godchildren, some formally. One family asked us to serve as padrinos for both their youngest children. They are among youth we see in periodic visits to Guatemala. Two years after we left, their father was murdered. Five years ago, at a bus stop, their oldest brother was cut down in a drive-by shooting. In 2013, their mother succumbed to an undetermined illness in the public hospital leaving our godchildren, a girl, 16, and boy, 14, alone in a hovel and dependent on neighbors. Immigration attorneys made it clear that we didn't have a snowball's chance of getting them U. S. visas. We hoped to help them educationally, teach them some English and send them back with skills valuable beyond the barrio.

In January of this year, I visited Guatemala to assess the kids' situation. In Mesquital, where the airport cabbies refuse to go, I found that friends with small stores had left in response to threats when they failed to pay protection to rampant gangs. The barrio was bigger and bustling but everyone shared tales of violence. Soldiers and national police sported assault rifles at major intersections, but disappeared at nightfall. I walked beyond the pavement to the edge of a ravine where I found our godchildren in their scrap metal shack with pirated electricity and no water.

Through the Catholic parish I left funds for the children to get basic provisions every two weeks.

We enrolled them in a better school, but the kids were behind and in circumstances scorned even in Mesquital. They were teased and dropped out days after my departure. Parish neighbors reported that the children lived by collecting extortion payments for the gangs. They might come to the parish occasionally for funds, but feared being seen as "disloyal' to the gangs if they depended on the parish for support. Two weeks ago two youth were gunned down within yards of the kids' shanty. Thankfully, they were not hurt, but we greet all news from Guatemala with trepidation.

Each child in the immigrant flood has a story. Some flee violence, some seek family already here, some travel on dreams polished by unscrupulous coyotes. But after dangerous, thousand-mile journeys, we need to hear their stories and know the possible consequences of our responses.

A July 13 Herald-Leader opinion piece asked how we could address the needs of these youth while we so badly fail to address the needs and violence in our own poor communities? As a nation are we incapable of both?

T. Kerby Neill of Lexington is a retired psychologist and co-chair of the Peace Action Committee of the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice.

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