When the children of Central America have homes — and hope — they will stay home

07/26/2014 7:00 PM

07/26/2014 11:09 PM

In story after story in newspapers and on television, we have seen the faces of desperate children crossing U.S. borders and being met by frustrated and hostile citizens. Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, especially, have seen thousands fleeing in an effort to claim a better life.

Those of us who have left our countries and our families behind know it is not a decision that comes easily. People only leave their home countries out of desperation, often after that final straw lands on their already overburdened backs. The consequences can be stark. Many of the poor whose relatives leave are not even sure that they are still alive. In 2013, 445 died on their perilous journey.

For this reason, it is vitally important that we offer economic opportunities for the poor in these immigrants’ home countries so the families do not feel compelled to risk lives getting their children into the United States.

Food For The Poor, a nongovernmental relief and development organization based in South Florida, has been working in these countries for decades to create those opportunities. Our work is privately funded, and we partner with other nonprofit organizations in 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. We have had many successes in providing safe housing, clean water, education and self-sustaining projects.

In fact, when we polled our partners in the affected countries last week, they reported that the people who have been given a new chance there through safe shelter, education and job training are not part of this exodus.

In housing aid alone, more than 27,300 homes have been built since Food For The Poor began working in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. These countries have some of the worst poverty in the hemisphere, with rates as high as 70 percent. In these conditions, when wages are $1 or $2 a day, unrest and violence dominate. But when a mother can go in her house at night with her children and lock the door, life begins to change for that family. With the security of a home, parents can go out and get a job.

Education is another facet of hope. Our donors have helped build more than 160 schools. The feeding programs in schools in these countries are as important as the reading and math lessons. Our studies show that school attendance rises 15 percent when a meal is included. This means thousands of children will have a chance to experience a better life.

Skills training for adults is equally important. Our partner in Honduras, CEPUDO, has been a pioneer in Central America in this regard. Programs are offered for bakeries, floral designing and tailoring.

In September, our charity will open its first fishing villages in Latin America. Two coastal communities less than 10 miles apart along the Caribbean side of Honduras were selected after learning about the overwhelming need there, and the cooperative reputation of their fishermen.

Instead of catching tiny fish from the reef, fishermen will be trained in deep-sea fishing techniques. Their larger catches can be sold to markets, hotels and restaurants in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city. The teams will be required to donate a portion of their catch to organizations within their own communities that help orphans, the elderly and the sick.

When someone has pride in a trade, there is no thought of leaving. From housing to schools to micro-enterprise projects, Americans have been extremely generous. They have made a huge difference in the lives of people in these countries. They have saved the lives of those who have been recipients of their generosity, but also of those who no longer find it necessary to make that risky journey. If policy-makers follow the lead of generous Americans in working toward solutions to the root causes of this crisis, the problem of life-threatening migration will be greatly alleviated.

When people have been given new life right where they are, they do not need to seek their hopes and dreams beyond their border. In fact, when we checked with our country partners, they report that the people who have been given a new chance there are staying.

Here is our prayer: that their dreams of success will be local dreams, and they will see no need to travel abroad in search of them.

Angel Aloma is executive director of Food for the Poor.

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