Mercy Corps' program offers young people a chance to learn and practice new agricultural practices designed to increase quality and yield of their crops. Mercy Corps is helping young people in Guatemala's western highlands learn to farm better, grow their livelihoods, learn to save and invest, and create more opportunity in their home communities so they don't have to migrate to Guatemala City or out of the country. All photos: Corinna Robbins for Mercy Corps.
As the morning sun slowly warms the hillsides, 16-year-old Olga gently gathers stakes and old vine supports from a dusty plot in the Guatemalan highlands. The harvest is over, and rows of dry, papery stalks are all that remain of the lush snap pea plants that once grew here.
She talks and giggles with the small group of other youth cleaning the land beside her. Once the field has been cleared, it will be ready for them to plant again when the first rains come in spring.
This demonstration plot, a hillside rectangle of soil encircled by tall, brown grass and avocado trees, is where Mercy Corps is teaching Olga and other young people from the nearby town of Panimatzalám how to grow healthier, more bountiful crops.
At mid-morning the group breaks to rest and refuel with a mug of hot corn atole, a thick cornmeal drink. Despite the hard work, the mood is still light — these youth having been working this land together for almost a year.
Still, the idyllic setting conceals a difficult reality: poverty here is virtually inescapable.
So the youth are leaving.
With limited options, youth flee for a futureAlmost every family in this area makes their living working in agriculture, but for most of them it’s not nearly enough. Families struggle to meet their basic needs, let alone send their children to school. And income opportunities outside of agriculture are almost nonexistent, especially for young people who can’t afford an education.
“One of the hardest things in this community is the economic part,” Olga says. “Job opportunities here are few, so many young people migrate. It is very difficult to find a good job here.”
In fact, Panimatzalám has one of the highest rates of migration in Guatemala. People who don’t see any other option to earn money flee to Guatemala City or the United States, desperate for a better way to provide for their families.
And the evidence is everywhere. Every other home in Panimatzalám is a large, pristine adobe manor, an immediate giveaway — in a village of otherwise modest homes — that at least one family member is in the U.S. sending money back.
“The truth here in my community is that many families are impacted …,” Olga says. “Each time [someone leaves] our community is deteriorating.”
Olga, too, has felt the pressure to migrate.
Small and stoic, with a round face and a focused gaze, she is seated on a simple bed, one of the only pieces of furniture in the humble residence she shares with her parents and younger brother. The dim hut’s only window casts a small pool of light across the dirt floor in front of her.
“Before … I was thinking about migrating to the capital,” she explains. “I thought that I would have to work to help my parents and my little brother.”
Olga didn’t make it past primary school before dropping out to help support her family. She was sad to leave her education, but she didn’t have a choice. There simply wasn’t enough money.
So, she traded her studies for a life of labor: helping her parents raise chickens and tend the local fields, working as a tailor in a neighboring village and weaving traditional huipiles in her spare time for extra income.
The thought always lingered that she might have to leave to provide for her family.
“I didn’t care if I had to make a sacrifice to see my brother go to school,” she says plainly.
Until getting involved in Mercy Corps’ youth program, she had resigned herself to a life of subsistence agriculture or informal labor in the city. Like so many young people in her community, Olga didn’t have the confidence, or the prospects, to envision anything else.
Mercy Corps provides youth like Olga with agricultural training, financial knowledge and life skills, so they have the resources they need to thrive without having to leave their home. And it’s working.
“When this program started it taught me a lot of things, and now I am more than willing to stay here in my community,” Olga says. “Now I have the hope that I can do what I want, and I can have a different future if I make an effort.”
New resources, new visionOlga participates in all the Mercy Corps program activities, which provide the youth with resources and education they’ve never had access to before: the demonstration plot, where they’re taught better farming practices; the savings and loan group, in which they learn how to save and invest; the workshops that boost their life skills and teach them about different possible vocations.
The different activities all ladder up to one lesson for the youth: It’s possible to build a stable life in Panimatzalám with agriculture, but it’s possible to pursue other things, too.
“This program is implementing new ideas for young people, and [now] when young people think of migrating they think twice about it,” Olga explains.
For youth like her, simply having an opportunity to dream is new. Being able to make it a reality is transformative.
“I now value myself more. I am not fearful about public speaking, and I feel more confident talking with others,” she says.
There are no traces left of the shy, hopeless girl she says she once was. With a resolute tone and an unstoppable grin, she now speaks assuredly about her future.
She is a girl with plans.
Olga has already shared what she’s learned about agriculture with her parents, so they can increase their productivity and income. With her knowledge in saving, she’s putting money away to eventually go back to school.
And with her new sense of empowerment, she’s determined to stay in her community, finish her studies and become a fashion designer.
A future without migrationThirty minutes away in the nearby tourist town of Panajachel, Olga takes a seat at her tailoring station in a light-filled warehouse lined by large, dusty windows. Her shift is about to start.
Surrounded by fabric scraps and spools of bright thread, Olga places a piece of blue fabric in the machine and methodically presses the foot pedal.
She knows it will be difficult to go back to school, support herself and continue to contribute to her family, but it’s a challenge she’s ready to take on.
“Since the program began my life has changed,” Olga says. “I did not trust myself very much before. I would say to myself, ‘Oh, well, I cannot do that.’
“But in this program they taught us different topics, so I started to become stronger. … And now I believe more in myself, and I know that if I want something for myself, I can achieve it.”
How you can helpInformed, empowered youth have the ability to profoundly change their lives and families for the better — and with the right support, they can change the world, too. You can encourage even more young people to transform their communities.
All photos: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
The Haiti contextHaiti remains one of the western hemisphere’s poorest countries. Ranked amongst the most affected by natural disasters, Haiti regularly deals with devastating floods, droughts and hurricanes. In addition, Haiti’s political situation is fragile and uncertain, causing currency devaluation and inflation.
In the face of these daily challenges, Hurricane Matthew struck the country on October 4, 2016 with 145-mile-per-hour winds and heavy rain. The storm destroyed roads, infrastructure, properties and crops, leaving over 15,000 people displaced and over 750,000 people in need of urgent humanitarian aid. Haiti’s farmers were particularly hard-hit – many were still recovering from the devastating earthquake in 2010 and had not yet built in safeguards to protect them from the next disaster.
Supporters like you gave through GlobalGiving immediately and stepped up to make a difference. Thanks to their generosity, people in Haiti are rebuilding and recovering from the storm that took lives, homes, and belongings.
A quick pivot to emergency responseMercy Corps’ global mission is to empower people to survive through crisis, build better lives and transform their communities for good. In response to the January 2010 earthquake, Mercy Corps opened operations in Haiti to help meet urgent needs, and today we still have 32 team members living and working on the ground to help vulnerable Haitians increase incomes through vocational training and entrepreneurship, access savings and loans, promote conservation farming techniques to increase profits and build food security, and promote clean energy technologies and land conservation to rehabilitate degraded land, maintain fertile soil and reduce damage from recurring natural disasters.
As soon as the hurricane passed, our staff began assessing damaged areas and the impact on local communities. These assessments showed that the Carrefour-Feuilles and Canaan areas in the greater Port-au-Prince area, where Mercy Corps has established programming, were not significantly impacted and did not require any emergency response. Mercy Corps resumed its regular programming in these areas, with heavy emphasis in the Arcahaie-Montrouis corridor where agriculture production was severely impacted, with an average of three-quarters of farmers losing 80% or more of their harvest. We are continuing work there as part of our ongoing programs.
In addition to continuing operations in our regular program areas, Mercy Corps proposed providing emergency assistance to the department of Nippes, where there was a significant gap in assistance. In coordination with other organizations, the government, and local actors, Mercy Corps conducted rapid assessments in six communes (equivalent to municipalities) assigned by the local office of the Department of Civil Protection.
The needs assessments indicated that the most urgent needs were clean water, shelter, and food. Once these most basic human needs were met, the focus moved to restoring crops and livelihoods, particularly as the lean season approached and families were left without a harvest or means to purchase seeds. In coordination with the local government, Mercy Corps made the decision to focus on access to water, shelter and income.
Access to WaterSince October, Mercy Corps has reached more than 30,000 people with clean drinking water, hygiene kits and cholera prevention measures. Highlights include:
ShelterImmediately after the storm, Mercy Corps distributed emergency shelter kits and today we are providing materials and training to help families rebuild their homes and generate income. Highlights include:
Restoring Livelihoods and Food SecurityMercy Corps has been working in the mountains above Arcahaie, about one-hour north of Port-au-Prince, since 2011. Approximately 60% of the farmers there lost between 60-80% of their crops, and there was near complete loss of livestock (mostly goats and chickens). Mercy Corps and our local partners spent a great deal of time and thought on how to respond to these extraordinary circumstances without undermining six years of development work and self-reliance with the nearly 3,000 farmer members. Our thoughtful and collaborative approach included:
Thank youYour support is helping Mercy Corps reach families and communities in Haiti with emergency food, shelter, and clean water, and helping people rebuild with cash transfers, working markets, and stable and resilient communities. Thank you for your incredible support in the wake of Hurricane Matthew’s destructive path – through GlobalGiving, Haitians are rebuilding homes, recovering land, and finding a way forward.
How you can help
Twenty-one year old Yasmin accompanies children to the Makani Center, a Mercy Corps youth safe space in her refugee camp in Jordan. The youth program helps Syrian refugee adolescents develop communication, self-esteem, goal setting, team work and leadership skills, in addition to computer classes, physical activities and informal education. Yasmin says the children in refugee camps endure so much stress that the center is needed to give them a place to play and feel valuable. "We rebuild the routine they had in Syria here in Jordan, and treat the kids as though they are at home". All photos: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps.
About 90 minutes outside Amman, Jordan, as the sparse desert leads to the Syrian border, the wire-strewn gates of Zaatari refugee camp emerge from the emptiness. Zaatari has the architecture of a temporary city, with caravans and tents lined up in grids, but it has the permanence of a place forced to remain by uncontrollable circumstances.
Markets line the main roads, selling everything from dresses to produce. Satellite dishes sprout from the roofs of nearly every caravan. About 80,000 people live here, many of whom have been here since the beginning of the Syrian war.
To be a youth in camps like Zaatari and Azraq—another major camp an hour away—is to have your entire life put on hold. It means being out of school, away from friends, and often separated from family.
Youth in these camps have two choices: to let the stress of a life in crisis put them at risk of making harmful and dangerous choices, or to focus on building a future of peace and stability.
In Zaatari, Azraq, and several host communities, Mercy Corps operates what are called Makani Centers—meaning “my space” in Arabic. These centers are part informal school, part gym, and part social center.
Designed to serve boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon, the centers draw on the enthusiasm and expertise of adult Syrian refugees to provide academic support, teach skills like English and computers, and coach youth in life skills like communication, goal setting, and teamwork. The centers also offer popular physical education and exercise programs, including soccer, weightlifting, wrestling, gymnastics and aerobics.
Omar Al-Tal is a Senior Field Coordinator for Mercy Corps’ child protection project in Jordan. These centers, he says, are not just important for young people’s physical and mental health—they give them a sense that they still have a future.
“When adolescents and youth have a vision they will dedicate their life to achieving it,” he says. “So our role basically is to help them build that vision, to help them to know themselves more, and to help them know the value that they have.
“The main point of our work is to stand in this point and to try to support them—to take all of this pressure and all of the trauma that they have and turn it to positive attitudes, to positive behaviors.”
The moment to reach these youth is now, Al-Tal says, when young men and women stand at a crossroads. If the right interventions reach them at the right time, then something amazing can happen: These years of conflict and disruption will forge a future generation that stands for peace.
“If we went back and looked at people who were leaders in peace and justice and in improving others’ lives—like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King—all of those people experienced hardship in their lives. Those hardships and experiences made them unique and made their voices heard when they talked about peace, when they talked about justice.
“My personal belief is that at some point a leader will show up for this world talking about peace, talking about children, talking about justice, and talking about security and safety, and maybe he is one of our beneficiaries now. Maybe he (she) is around us now. He (She) is someone who is living in silence, he (she) is someone who is perceiving things, he (she) is someone who is learning, and he (she) will give back all of these things to the world again. It’s going to happen.”