This is very strange – a pre-humanitarian crisis perhaps. There has always been migration in Honduras, but never at these levels. Schools and hospitals don’t work well, and even the Honduran government says that Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. More than 40 people were murdered while I was here, and really, it is totally unacceptable that in a country which is not at war a child dies violently every single day.
Organized crime, smuggling and trafficking are rampant; when we were at the border, there was a line of up of about 20 transport trucks. We were told they were just waiting for 6 PM and the border guards to go home before they roll into Guatemala and points north.
So maybe it seems futile to try and help the children and families caught in this place, but of course, once you meet them, there really is no other choice. So UNICEF is helping the government with el Centro Belen – Bethlehem Centre; the first stop back in Honduras for children, adolescents and families who have been deported from Mexico or the USA.
The Centre is really quite nice – we remodeled it a few years ago and it has some great places for kids to play, and a place for people to have food. We are also covering the cost of social workers – really committed and empathetic women – who help the returnees reintegrate into society. But there are just 8 of them, and this place gets 120 people a week, so if that doesn’t feel like a drop in the bucket, what does? But the government is talking about opening more centres – Centro Belen is the only one in the country – and maybe they will copy our social worker pilot project, too.
A group of eight teenagers sit in a comfy room. Their relatives haven’t come to pick them up yet, and they tell me their stories.
“I was into drugs, and the gang wanted to kill me. So I had to go.”
“I can’t get a job here. I’ll have a better chance in Mexico.”
“I live with my grandma,” says one of the girls, and then suddenly I notice what she tells me. “I’m pregnant. Seven months. My dad is in the USA and he says life will be better for my child there.”
“What are you hoping for?” I ask, and she smiles shyly. “A girl.” She is 14 years old.
Kaylen is a returnee who had come to Centro Belen to meet me; her neighbourhood was too dangerous for me to go there.
“I left because of my son. He is a good boy and the gangs wanted him to join. But he has gone to school, he is smart, he didn’t want to join so they said they would kill him. We had to go. But we were picked up in Mexico and sent back here. I was so frustrated and mad. Maria-” She gestures at the social worker beside her, “Has helped me a lot and I’ve learned about programs I never knew about before. She helped me get my daughter back into school and she has linked me with a women’s group. So I am getting better.”
I asked the obvious question. “And your son?”
“I sent him across the border again last month. I’m not sure where he is. Tengo que salvar a mi zipote. I have to save my boy.”
I got a sense of the area the social workers cover when we went to find Hipolito and his mother, Doña Miriam. They live beyond the edge of San Pedro, up a steep dirt track where they rent a shack in a squatter community. Maria helped them find this place, and made contacts with local trade schools for Hipolito.
Doña Miriam has made friends and makes a tiny bit of money by cooking for roadside stands.
Hipolito has a lively face – at turns serious, and then with an infectious simile. “I am really glad to be home again. My dad abandoned us, my little sister and me, and I wanted to go away so I could earn enough money to buy a house for my mom.”
“I was so scared,” said Doña Miriam. “I didn’t know where he was.”
Then I asked a really stupid question, particularly stupid when you are sitting in front of a little shack in a ramshackle slum where everyone knows everything and the walls have ears.
“You went to find work, but what about the violence I hear about. What about the gangs?”
Their faces go very still, frozen, their eyes go wide and their animated voices go quiet and flat. “We cannot talk about that,” says Doña Miriam firmly, and our relaxed chat is over.
These people are the ones being demonized as they look for safety. These poor and desperate people are provoking panic in the wealthy parts of the world as they look for the chance to have a decent job. These resilient and creative people, these children who are looking for hope in their lives and cannot find it here, these are the people that we can – that we must – find ways to help.