Post by Helen Coskeran
I can’t believe it’s been over two months since I arrived in the Land of Eternal Spring (as the Guatemalan Tourist Board often reiterates). Somehow the sights, sounds and stories that bowled me over at the beginning have become a part of every-day life and sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I don’t just live my days through in a daze.
My name is Helen Coskeran and ever since a brief visit to Guatemala in 2001 when I did some volunteering in a nursery in Guatemala City and some travelling around the country, I wanted to return. An opportunity came up this year to volunteer in a small NGO Fundamar run by a community of Marist brothers in the capital and to combine this with working with children in Casa Alianza, a home for street children or children from difficult domestic situations. Although tiring, the combination of jobs has been fascinating – the necessary administration work in Fundamar (we mainly run educational and community-based projects) coupled with the hands-on experience at Casa Alianza (I am generally in the library helping with homework, internet searches, computer skills or English but you do have to be flexible!).
I guess I realise now how naive I was after my visit in 2001. I was 18 and rather sheltered from the reality of Guatemala (although my experience at the nursery was definitely an eye-opener). Now older and living in Zona 1 of the capital (even some Guatemalans think I’m crazy to be living there), I feel like I’ve learnt so much more about the reality of every-day life here. Sure it’s great to escape to the tourist spots at the weekend, but I feel in the heart of it here, and that’s the way I like it. For example, working with the girls in Casa Alianza has shown me the difficult route some people’s lives take and yet they are so delighted to have us foreigners working there. They have incredible energy and creativity and I feel privileged to be able to work with them.
In Fundamar, I have come across villages and communities so far-flung that my Guatemalan friends haven’t even heard of them and have read their bloody histories in shock. When I visited the town of Chichicastenango in El QuichÃ© (one of the municipalities that suffered most in the atrocities of the early eighties), it really hit home how much our help was appreciated. We provide scholarships to around 170 kids in the area – including some boarders whose homes lie a 5-hour bus and 6-hour trek through the mountains away. The warm welcome my Australian colleague and I received made us feel like local celebrities and we were so inspired by the students and their fascination with us and our respective countries, that we are starting a pen-pal project between these schools in Chichicastenango and English and Australian schools. We feel that both groups will benefit from the interaction with a completely different culture, and will hopefully raise awareness of Guatemala and the issues here for the English and Australian students.
Other events such as the anniversary of MonseÃ±or Juan Gerardi (assassinated in 1998 after publishing the REMHI [Recovery of Historical Memory] report) and the 15th anniversary of the brutal murder of the Marist brother MoisÃ©s Cisneros have made me realise how far the effects of the armed conflict stretched and still stretch as seen in the daily reports of violence. However far Guatemala may have come, it is clear to me that there is a very long way to go.