As I return to Baltimore after a week-long trip to El Salvador, I can’t stop thinking about the places I visited and the people I met — people not despairing but filled with hope and working to improve their lives and their communities.
It was a week of walking through fields of cacao trees interspersed with banana and cinnamon plants in an agro-forestry farm owned by a young, recently married couple. A week when a 20-year-old man demonstrated how to graft the stem of one cacao tree onto another, a technique that requires a lot of skill and patience and also knowledge of the plant biology that will help fuse the two together. A week when a young woman proudly displayed her family’s small business making lotions and soaps. A week when a group of youth explained the map they had created of their community to identify the risks they face and how they can address them because they all want to grow old there.
Sadly, it was also a week when the front page of newspapers, both in El Salvador and the United States, were dominated by a photo of a young Salvadoran man and his 2-year-old daughter, washed up on the banks of the Rio Grande, their arms wrapped around each other.
As I looked at another photo of that same young man, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, when he was alive and celebrating his daughter’s first birthday, the faces of all the young people we had met over the week swept past me.
In their faces I saw so much hope for a life that would sustain them and their families. The same hope Oscar had as he attempted to cross the border with his young wife and daughter, seeking asylum. All the young people I met in El Salvador were clear that they want to remain in their homes and avoid the treacherous journey north. But a history of gang violence, weak government presence, corruption and limited job opportunities make that desire to stay in their country all the more challenging.
No matter what you believe about the border crisis, we can all agree that Salvadorans should have a real chance to thrive in their home country. And that the youth of El Salvador, with their hope and desire to grow old at home, are worth investing in.
This is not an easy task and not one that can be done alone. Over several years, U.S nongovernmental organizations like the one I work for, Lutheran World Relief, have partnered with the U.S. government, the Salvadoran government, international and local organizations, foundations, U.S. churches and Salvadorans themselves to invest in this future. Through these partnerships, as well as many more like them across El Salvador, we have seen the social fabric of communities strengthened and thousands more Salvadorans earning enough income to support their families.
U.S. government funding in El Salvador has played a critical role in developing this economic opportunity and reducing violence. Yet recent cuts in foreign aid to the region will likely set back years of progress.
Yes, people continue to migrate. And yes, there is still a long way to go until El Salvador and its neighboring countries in the Northern Triangle, Honduras and Guatemala, are stable enough to ensure their own people’s future. But abandoning the Northern Triangle will only exacerbate the drivers of migration. Real change takes time and commitment. Bi-partisan bills have been introduced in Congress to reverse the aforementioned cuts and reaffirm previous years’ policy consensus on support to Central America over the long-run.
As I land back at home in Baltimore, I can't help but think about the faces of all the young Salvadorans I met, as well as the innocent face of the 2-year-old who drowned in her father’s arms. He wanted for his little daughter the same thing we all want for our children: a future.
For her sake, and for so many more, we need to invest in making their hope for a future at home a real possibility.
Carolyn Barker-Villena is the senior regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean for Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.