Guatemala diary – Young Ambassadors 2011

Girls in school uniform talking together in a classroom
In 2011 our Young Ambassadors, Navdeep Bual, 15, and Yasir Yeahia,14, visited Guatemala to investigate the barriers to education for their peers in a country where 78,000 children are out of school.

Navdeep and Yasir, both from Seven Kings High School in Ilford, won the 2011 Steve Sinnott Award to be the Young Ambassadors for the Global Campaign for Education. On their fact-finding mission to Guatemala with the charity Toybox and the Global Campaign for Education, they found out what life was like for the 5,000 street children in Guatemala City, met young education campaigners and talked to school children and politicians.

Browse the photogallery and read their diary to find out more about their trip.

Arriving in Guatemala

Navdeep: “It is now beginning to sink in that we are finally in Guatemala and are managing to take our passion and interest in worldwide education further. It’s amazing to have been given this opportunity and I absolutely cannot wait to get started and begin learning about the barriers to education. I am really looking forward to tomorrow because we get to meet people our own age who share our interest in education and we get to learn facts specific to Guatemala.”

Young Ambassadors with Guatemalan schoolchildren in Send My Sister to School t shirts

photo: Karen Garvin

Yasir: “It’s such a great feeling to be part of something really big that can possibly not only change you as a person, but change many other lives as well. Overall, it will be an overwhelming experience for us, but it should also shine some light on how lucky people in the UK are to have an education. Looking forward to the days to come! Can’t wait…”

Monday 14th February

Meeting the Guatemalan young education campaigners

We started our fact-finding mission this morning when we met three Guatemalan education campaigners who are roughly the same age as us: Kevin, Heidi and Maria. Maria, 13, told us about dangers and violence that girls sometimes face on their way to and from school. Heidi mentioned how she was mugged by a gang walking to school, who took away her books. It was shocking to hear how dangerous a walk to school can be.

Group of young people, Young Ambassadors wearing Send My Sister to School tshirts

Navdeep and Yasir meet young campaigners Heidi, Maria and Kevin. photo: Jeremy Davison

Maria also told us how a friend of hers had been expelled because she was pregnant. Girls seem to struggle far more than boys to get an education in Guatemala, 70% of the children missing out on school are girls.

Lack of resources and lack of teachers was clearly a problem; they told us that although education was free until the age of 14, the cost of the uniform and books were quite expensive for them and that their parents could not afford these costs. Kevin told us how only 1 in 100 people in the country had internet access and that he often had 58 people in  his class!

It was inspiring to see how passionate they were, especially when we found out that the leader of the Guatemalan Global Campaign for Education and her 19 year-old son had been assassinated. Maria and Kevin told us they weren’t scared because they really wanted to improve the opportunity to learn. Maria also told us that the education provided in schools was unsuitable for her as it wasn’t taught in her indigenous language. However, very few teachers can speak any other language than Spanish. Maria said that the indigenous peoples of Guatemala have suffered discrimination for 500 years.

Time to play with some street children

After lunch we visited San Luis, a shanty town on the outskirts of Guatemala City. This is where many of the street children commute from, to go and work in the city. El Castillo, Toybox’s local partner, has been working with families here to encourage them to keep their children in school rather than making them work. The children earn equivalent of £2 a day, selling sweets in the city centre.

Young Ambassadors skipping down the street with young children

Time for some fun with the children at the El Castillo project. photo: Jeremy Davison

One of the boys we met, called Victor, was losing his hair, which we were told is a sign of chronic malnutrition. We were told that this is a big problem in Guatemala; 42% of children suffer from chronic malnutrition. It was an amazing and humbling experience to meet these street children.

During our several long journeys we saw some incredible and horrendous sights. We were told that 80 per cent of people live in poverty in Guatemala and two thirds in extreme poverty. There were shanty towns, literally hanging off hills and we saw a wall built by a gang who wanted to keep their territory.

Tuesday 15th February

A chance to chat with the British Ambassador

We started our morning with the British Ambassador, Julie Chappell. It was a perfect opportunity for us to ask questions about Guatemala’s political structure. Specifically we asked about the education spend in relation to the overall size of the economy which is known as Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

In Guatemala, the tax collected by the government amounts to only 13% of the nation’s GDP compared to almost 40% in the UK. We also discussed how much is spent on education – just 2% of GDP. Julie explained about the other problems the government had, and how they prioritised security. We were shocked to find out that Guatemala City was one of the most violent cities in the world outside of a war zone.

We were interested to find out how unsustainable some of the educational schemes were, because every four years the government changed who then also changed the schemes.

We asked how the UK has been helping Guatemala in terms of education and she honestly told us that the UK government has spent more on environmental programmes than

We asked Julie why more money isn’t spent on education and she highlighted that the government had problems collecting all the tax; a quarter of the population work informally and extortion ruins small businesses. The government spend on security is high as this is something that affects people every day. Slowly we began to see the different layers that Guatemala has which causes poverty and problems. It is a country which has the 4th highest rate of malnutrition and at the same time has the highest number of helicopters per capita in the world. As we travelled from one place to the next the extreme disparities in wealth could very clearly be seen.

Experiencing life for street children

Children in the fruit market

Yasir at the fruit market with Jose and Rosalita

After that ‘El Castillo’ took us to the centre of the city where many of the streetchildren live and work. Here they reach out to the street children to teach them about their rights, the importance of education and provide them with shelter and food. We spent the rest of the day in the bus station and market place, where we split up and spent a few hours with Jose and Rosalita, a brother and sister who work for hours trying to sell fruit.

Yasir spent time with Jose who works from 11 to 5 and has to sell roughly 20 bags of fruit each day: “He had to go to the bus station which was filled with drug addicts, pollution and big vehicles driving past. “He worked tirelessly and went from bus to bus trying to sell. We then went to visit their home and the journey to get there was truly horrific: the flies, the smell and the black bags filled with rubbish, the chaos. There were seven people living in just one small room, some family members and other lodgers. It was made of corrugated iron. You had to go through narrow alleyways to even get to their home. It was unbelievably shocking.”

Young girl with bag of fruit, standing in front of a bus

Rosalita spends most of her day selling fruit in the busy bus terminal photo: Karen Garvin

Nav went to shadow Jose’s sister Rosalita, who is 11 years old. Rosalita gets up at 6am, and attends a special project for children like her who can’t attend school, to learn to read and write, and then by 10am begins work: “Watching her jumping on and off the buses was horrible because physically she looked 7 or 8. I found it quite intimidating with all the huge men around and yet she seemed oblivious to it, showing the harsh reality that she has to deal with day in, day out. She spent hours jumping on the buses in the middle of the market which was constantly busy and it seemed like no one would even notice if she got hurt.

“There were drug addicts and gangs around and it was not at all a place for an 11 year old girl to be. She told us she liked learning better than work and wanted to spend more time doing that. However when I asked her what she wanted to do when she was older, she told me she wanted to work on the street and sell fruit, like her mum. It was heartbreaking to hear her because she had no real ambition, purely because she didn’t know there was a world outside the one her family was trapped in.”

Wednesday 16th February

Visiting a primary school in a high risk area

We started our day at a primary school in the north of the city and met the headmistress, Flora Suarez.

Girls in school uniform talking together in a classroom

A typical class at this primary school is 50 pupils. photo: Jeremy Davison

The school was in a dangerous zone and as soon as we entered we saw how tall the walls were and noticed all the barbed wire that has been put up to stop gangs and thieves entering. We had a long conversation with the headmistress who was a true inspiration.

She told us how the children often came to school without having had breakfast and so couldn’t concentrate. Many of the children are chronically malnourished. She said the government gave the school 10p a month per child to buy food; enough to buy a single egg for each child. The school receives £2.50 a year per child to fund books, security, water, electricity (everything except the teacher’s salaries).

Children would regularly come to school having taken drugs, or beaten-up and this is a primary school! Some parents thought of school as a form of safe childcare as there weren’t as many dangers inside. She told us “Things are getting worse and worse, I work very hard but there is little I can do; they are only with us 5 hours a day, the rest of the day they are outside of our protection and may experience abuse.”

A typical class size here is 50 and we saw one with 72 pupils. The head teacher was very passionate about her students and told us that 3 or 4 students go on to further education and it was those few that kept her going. The headmistress told Navdeep that she knows many girls her age that have already had a baby. It all showed us the harsh reality for those who grow up in a hostile environment and don’t know there is a world outside the one they are trapped in.

It was also striking to see how old the children were even though it was a primary school. I spoke to Sofia who was 14 and in grade 6 when you would expect somebody in that class to be 11 years old. I asked what she thought of the large class sizes and she said “I don’t think it’s wrong because everyone deserves an education, but it means we get less attention.”

Comments like that made us both feel more grateful towards the opportunities we are given in the UK.

A chance to quiz the Vice Minister of Education

After leaving the school we went to see the Vice Minister of Education, Miguel Angel Franco. We discussed security in schools as this was an issue which we felt was central, particularly for girls. He told us about the Safer Schools Program, which was to put police around schools to protect them from gangs. However, due to limited resources, only a handful of schools were chosen to benefit. We saw no evidence of police protection at the school we visited. In fact, the head had said the gangs are better armed and stronger than the police.

Young Ambassadors in an office, listening to two older men

Meeting the Minister photo: Jeremy Davison

A key obstacle to improving education here is language – there are 23 languages spoken in Guatemala but lessons are only taught in Spanish. 90% of teachers can only speak Spanish. The Minister highlighted that many children drop out of school as they simply do not understand the lessons – 12% drop-out in the first year alone – this must be a really hard situation to try and learn in.

The Minister’s plan was to introduce bilingual schools in first, second and third grades. He said they should know Spanish as it is the language for commercial use and social relations. He talked a lot about the issue but he didn’t tell us much about how he intends to tackle the problems.

An amazing story

Lastly we went along to see a boy named Fernando, who had an incredibly emotional journey. He was 16, working from Monday until Saturday lunchtime at a sewing shop, and
only goes to school on a Saturday afternoon. He enjoys school very much as he loves to learn but is very behind. He is now learning Grades 2 and 3 which he should have completed when he was 8 years old. In the past Fernando has suffered a lot; his Dad left him with his grandmother at the age of 4 and he worked with her selling ice creams on the streets. By the age of 8 she had sold him to another woman for £10. He suffered abuse and finally escaped and made his way back to Guatemala City. He then began to work on the streets until he was found by El Castillo, the charity that we have been visiting.

Over time, they were able to locate the village where his mother lived and he has now been re-united with her. We asked him how he had felt living alone on the streets and he replied “I felt ashamed.” Since then, he has begun to get himself back on track, finding a job, and also El Castillo helped to get him to a place where he can educate himself. He has one set of clothes, and a small tin hut to live in, with a mud floor. He proudly showed us the work he has done at school. The way he treasured his books and his bag was very moving.

Another very moving and humbling day! These hardships are a 24/7 reality for these children and the only glimmer of hope is the opportunity that school can give them. The work that El Castillo does every day is truly inspirational.

Thursday 17th February

Facts and figures

Children sorting through rubbish

Children sorting through rubbish in Guatemala City. 1.5 million Guatemalan children work for at least part of the day. photo: Jeremy Davison

Today we went to the Viva headquarters to listen to a report about why children ended up on the streets. Viva are another partner charity to Toybox, specifically helping children who have been on the streets for less than 6 months to try and help re-integrate them back into their families.

Viva found that many of the children living on the streets were drug-dependant but those who only worked on the streets weren’t. Most of the children living on the streets come from broken families and there are around 5,000 children living on the streets of Guatemala City. 1.5 million children across the country also spend at least part of their day working and not in school.

We also learnt that more girls are moving onto the streets because of violence and abuse they face at home. It was interesting to hear the reasons behind children moving onto the streets because we have spent so much time with them over the last week and we realised all the different layers there are, which is why turning Guatemala into a safe, developed country is a long, difficult process.

What we have learned

Our mission was to find out what the main barriers to education were in Guatemala. It’s difficult to say the biggest barrier as they are all interlinked and make it difficult for this country to develop. Guatemala has the 4th highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world and at the same time has the highest ownership of helicopters per capita. The level of economic disparity is outrageous and this is clear as you travel through Guatemala. Tax reform needs to be addressed so that the government can have a bigger budget and more money available for education.

If the young generation were educated, it would reduce the numbers in poverty. If there was a bigger education budget more money could be spent in training teachers who could teach in some of the 23 indigenous languages. If young people were taught how to earn their own money, crime would not be such an issue and if they learnt about morals and principles the danger from gangs could be reduced. Although the government is spending a lot on security it needs to prioritise the safety of school children.

It has been an incredible journey, seeing things we had never imagined could exist. The sheer poverty was a shock to our system and definitely opened our eyes to the problems other children face purely because of where they were born. In the short term, education can’t completely solve the problems that street children face but we firmly believe that
Education equals Opportunity. What it can do is afford girls like Rosalita an opportunity to see a life free of danger, poverty and injustice. Without education, countries like Guatemala cannot develop and move forward.