Xela, our home for the past 4 weeks, is the second largest city in Guatemala. Its full name is Quetzaltenango, but everyone calls it Xela (Shell-a). Besides the extreme cold at night, Ben and I love this city! A majority of the population is Mayan. With their clothes, their crazy markets, etc, its a harmonious blend of modern and traditional life in Guatemala.
For the past 4 weeks we’ve been volunteering at a women’s shelter called Nuevos Horizontes (New Horizons). This is a really special place in Guatemala because it’s one of the first shelters established for survivors of domestic violence and the only shelter in Xela where women can live with their children. It’s now one of two domestic violence shelters in the entire country.
The women stay at the shelter anywhere from a couple months to a couple years and many of them, we were told, arrive with not much more than the clothes on their backs. There are about 25 women, teens and children at the shelter right now. When they arrive they enter a program consisting of social workers, psychologists, teachers and volunteers to help them get back on their feet.
No one is allowed to leave the facility, except a couple girls who have jobs in town. That’s where the volunteers come in. During their down-time from meeting with the social workers, etc, we create activities for them. Anything goes from arts and craft to teaching English. Luckily for Ben and I, the organization was given 3 new desktop computers right before we arrived. We have spent a majority of our time teaching computer classes.
The classes started off really basic, explaining what all the parts of the computer are called and how they are used. It was kind of a challenge for us to explain the hardware of a computer in Spanish and I’m not sure their patience was up for it. Most of them wanted to jump right in and started clicking everything and opening menus. Others seemed nervous to even touch the keyboard. Most of them had never used a computer before and it was interesting to see their different reactions. I realized in those first couple sessions how much I had taken for granted my knowledge of computers. There is so much to learn when you are starting completely fresh. Even the concept of how to move the mouse and that the mouse is attached to an arrow on the screen needed to be taught.
After a couple sessions, we introduced some games and educational programs. One program was world geography with a few matching games they could play. Watching them open up maps of different continents around the world, it was evident that some were seeing them for the first time. The map of Central America was also challenging. Although most of them are literate, they have a hard time finding Guatemala on a map. It made me wonder what their lives were like before coming to the shelter. Most of them are from lower-income families where education was not a priority or an option. And if they were in the shelter, they probably didn’t have a lot of support. Most of the women are a few years younger than I am and some have babies. Yet despite being in such an overwhelming situation, everyone is always so happy and loving. They seem incredibly strong given the challenges they’ve faced.
We’ve done a few other activities with them besides the computer classes. One day I took photos of some of the girls and we made picture frames out of cardboard and fabric. Photos are like gold to them. They rarely have an opportunity to be in a photo, let alone to actually have it printed for them.
One of the funny things about being with the girls is that they call me “Senor” (which means “Miss”) but call Ben “Profe” (short term for “Professor”). They also don’t listen to a word I say. When I ask them to finish using the computer and let someone else on, they almost always ignore me. But when “Profe” asks, they jump out of their seats immediately. This is a complete reflection of the “machismo” culture that is alive and well in Latin America.
Our last day at the organization is on Friday and we have no way of knowing where the girls are going when they leave. With the legal and emotional support from the organization, they will hopefully lead a life of independence.
Throughout my time in Latin America, I continually think about how lucky I am. I was born into a supportive family and had the chance to go to school, even though I am no more or less deserving of that opportunity than any of the girls in the shelter. I grew up always knowing that I could do whatever I wanted to do. I think that simple sentiment is kind of rare and precious. There are so many people we’ve met in the past year that I’m not sure have ever felt that.
On Saturday morning we are going to Flores to see the Mayan ruins of Tikal- huge stone pyramids in the middle of the jungle. We are really going to miss Xela and will think about our 4 weeks here a lot when we leave.
Nuevos Horizontes functions mainly on donations to fund their services. Their government funding was very recently cut and they are struggling to provide even their most basic services- such as food and hygiene products. If you are interested in donating, please let us know! Even $5 or $10 goes a long way here. (To give you an idea, $13 will provide fruit for all the children in the shelter for a full week).
To make a tax-deductable donation in the U.S. send a Check to:
attn: Helen Peterle
93 Rattling Valley Rd
Deep River, CT 06417
*Please make checks out to “Project Quetzal” with “Nuevos Horizontes” in the memo line.