Stories of families detained at the United States-Mexico border have captured the American public’s attention over the last year. UNICEF firmly believes that a child is a child, no matter her country of origin or where along his journey he may be — and children deserve to be protected.
While the situation at our border often generates headline news, the countries from which these children and families are migrating do not garner the same coverage. A primary aspect of UNICEF’s response to any mass migration is to work with local partners and governments to address the root causes. This is why I recently traveled to Honduras to meet with children, mothers, teachers, businesses, community organizers and government officials. I am humbled to share a few of their stories.
Early in our trip, I met a sixteen-year-old named Darwin. Darwin shared that he had been assaulted on three separate occasions while commuting to school – his bike and money stolen. The first half of Darwin’s story is indicative of one of the primary reasons that people flee Honduras. Violence, particularly gang violence, is pervasive.
But Darwin is determined to persevere. He continues to walk to school each day where he serves as a student leader, trained to notice when his peers are in distress and offer assistance.
UNICEF supports similar programs throughout Honduras, ensuring that children have an outlet to express their fears and share their hopes, as well as programs that aim to reduce gang violence through improved communication and cooperation.
Darwin plans to become an industrial engineer. He is confident that if he continues to work hard, he will be able to contribute to a brighter future for a country he loves.
A brighter future for Hondurans also depends upon improved economic opportunity. Violence is one reason people choose to flee, lack of jobs that allow them to provide for their families is another.
In meeting with members of a Chamber of Commerce in San Pedro de Sula, I was so inspired by these men and women’s commitment to supporting the growth of local business. On the day of our meeting, the Chamber was hosting a market where some 300 community members were selling food, soap, jewelry, and other crafts. They offer small business tools ranging from guidance in starting a business, to accounting, to growing public engagement through social media.
The Chamber of Commerce also plays a key role in advocating for anti-corruption and business-friendly government policy. In increasing transparency and spurring small business, they firmly believe the country’s economy will support a higher standard of living for its citizens. UNICEF joins local advocates in working with the government to pursue policies that put children first.
The final story that I’d like to share is one that began more than 25 years ago. During my visit, UNICEF colleagues arranged for me to meet a woman named Rosa. Rosa had been diagnosed HIV-positive as an adolescent. HIV rates were dangerously high in Honduras during the 1990’s, and, as such, the country was a priority for NGO investment in HIV and AIDS prevention.
Prior to joining UNICEF USA as a staff member, I served as a Founding Board Member of the Elton John AIDS Foundation – a role I still hold today. The first grant that we made to UNICEF supported HIV/AIDS programs in Honduras. I was overcome with emotion as Rosa explained that she was a beneficiary of that program.
“I would not be alive today without UNICEF and the Elton John AIDS Foundation,” she told me.
To me, Rosa’s story drives home two important messages. The first: Hondurans are amazingly resilient. Through epidemics, violence and poor economies, they do everything that they can to work toward a safer, more prosperous future for their country. It is so important to know that the young people in Honduras do not want to have to leave. We owe it to them to ensure that they do not have to.
The second message is that UNICEF truly supports vulnerable children and families before, during and after emergencies. UNICEF was there to combat the HIV scourge in the 1990’s and they remain to protect those in need today. The staff members in Honduras are warm, hopeful and dedicated. I am so proud of the work they are doing.
The men, women, and children I met with in Honduras generously shared more stories than I could hope to include in one article. They all carried the same theme – courage.
For over 70 years, UNICEF has been putting children first, working to protect their rights and provide the assistance and services they need to survive and thrive. With a presence in 190 countries and territories, UNICEF has helped save more children's lives than any other humanitarian organization in the world.
Banner photo: Barron at a community meeting in La Ceiba, where they discussed what drives young people from Honduras and how UNICEF can help. The young woman pictured, Andrea, supports her family by selling raffle tickets for clothing that she finds or has donated to her. ©UNICEF/2019/Portillo