In Honduras, Finding Safety from Gang Violence
The way Joaquín’s eyes light up when he talks about his cooking classes, you get the feeling this is his safe place. “I like to cook French dishes, Japanese dishes,” he says. “I can also make cocktails.” When he talks this way, his dream of becoming a chef transports him to a place where there are no gangs, no threat that his life will end abruptly and brutally.
His dream is an island of light in an ocean of darkness and danger, one that Casa Alianza Honduras is helping him to protect and cultivate. “Thanks to Casa Alianza, I’ve been able to move forward. This place is a refuge,” Joaquín tells a group of visitors to the Covenant House site in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. It’s a place where people both believe him and believe in him.
Joaquín is just 17. He knows he cannot return home because gang members in his neighborhood have targeted him for death. He struggles to find the words to describe the horror of wearing the bull’s eye they’ve placed on his back, but he comes up empty. Even as he clings to his dream to be a chef and pursues it, he worries what violence awaits him on the streets beyond Casa Alianza’s doors, and how, after three frustrated attempts, he will ever reach his sister in the U.S. He chokes back tears.
It’s an impossible situation to be in as an adolescent. Adults across the Americas may argue endlessly over immigration policy, but to a child facing imminent death, their constant bickering is only so much noise.
In 2010, Casa Alianza Honduras began a program to respond to the needs of children and youth who were being returned alone to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, after frustrated attempts to reach safety in the U.S. or Mexico. San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba, and Tegucigalpa, are considered the most brutal cities in the country for gang violence.
At first, members of the Casa Alianza family reintegration team drove more than six hours back and forth to meet the busloads of migrants who were left by the Mexican government on the Honduras-Guatemala border. The team identified the unaccompanied minors and quickly assessed whether they might be reunited with family, sheltered locally, or brought to the capital and the safety of the Casa Alianza residence.
“Today we have an office and a technical team of four staff persons permanently in San Pedro Sula,” says Nely García, who heads the family reintegration team. The San Pedro Sula site is the newest site of the Covenant House movement. Covenant House serves young people between the ages of 12 and 23 in 31 cities across North and Central America.
“The situation on the U.S. border is very bad. There is a lot of separation, a lot of returnees,” Nely shares. “Our goal is to help kids stay in Honduras when it’s safe to do so. They are fleeing neighborhoods that are gang-infested, and we can’t return them to those neighborhoods.”
Nely says that so far, in 2019 alone, Casa Alianza has reunited 58 children with their families through this program. “We have a high retention rate,” she says. “About 90% of the young people we work with do not head back out on the migrant trail. We manage to settle the children in a safe place with their nuclear or extended family.”
But, she adds, it can be a long process to ensure a child is returned to a home and a community that are safe and where the child can flourish. The family reintegration team in San Pedro Sula works with the family, the child, and the community to build that kind of environment in the home and neighborhood.
Those who don’t have that possibility are welcomed at the Casa Alianza Honduras residence in the capital, where they find safety, opportunity, and encouragement to follow their dreams. Young people like Joaquín; Oscar, 14; Mateo, 17; and Diego, 16, who met with the recent visitors at the residence.
All four said they were thankful for the safe and nurturing place Casa Alianza is for them and for the opportunity to pursue passions—like Joaquín’s for cooking—that had been violently interrupted. Their fear of violent gang reprisals remains palpable, though, and the migrant trail haunting.
Recalling his frustrated attempt to flee, Oscar says, “It’s scary. On the migrant trail, a lot of times you have no food, no money. You rely on the families you meet along the way for these things.”
“But,” adds Mateo, who has always wanted to be a professional barber, “how could I be afraid of that when here in Honduras my only option was death?”