Guatemala is building resilience in returnee children through Mayan ancestral narratives

Almost 60% of unaccompanied migrant children returning to Guatemala identify themselves as belonging to one of the 22 Mayan linguistic groups. Drawing on narratives from their own worldview is helping psychosocial care services strengthen the resilient response as a step prior to family reunification.

Teresa*, 16 years old, from the Mayan Kiche' linguistic group and originally from the department of Quiché, Guatemala, left her community of origin in an irregular manner to join her brother in the United States. During the journey through Mexico, she was apprehended and taken to a state shelter for migrant children, where she stayed for two weeks. "My brother was doing very well at work in the United States until the pandemic hit. He has stopped sending the remittance and I want to help my family; I also want a career, but in the community there is no school or university, plus we couldn't afford it," she said.

"All emotional response is a product of the experiences during the irregular migration experience; boys and girls resort to protective mechanisms that help them cope with adversity, which will depend a lot on their own personality and their social context," said Alejandra Mayorga, mental health and psychosocial support assistant of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

According to official data systematized by the IOM, almost 60% of children returning from Mexico and the United States identify their origin in one of the 22 Mayan peoples of the country. With respect for their worldview and in coordination with government authorities and civil society actors, IOM is providing culturally relevant mental health and psychosocial support services (MHPSS) to achieve an emotionally safe environment for family reunification.

Between January and June 2021, migration authorities in Guatemala registered 2,623 returns of unaccompanied migrant children and adolescents, 96.8% of whom returned from Mexico, 3% from the United States and the rest to other locations. Six out of every 10 children return by land to the city of Quetzaltenango, in the highlands, and the rest by air. Seventy-nine per cent are boys and 20.6 per cent girls.

Teresa, along with 56 other teenagers, landed in Guatemala City at approximately 9 am. She was transferred to Casa Nuestras Raíces, one of two shelters run by the Social Welfare Secretariat of the Presidency (SBS) where she received a change of new clothes, shoes, food, a personal hygiene kit and a disinfection kit. She also had access to sanitation and a general medical check-up. In addition, she was randomly selected for a COVID-19 test; all returning children participate in this protocol in order to protect their rights. Fortunately, her result is negative, but this is not the case for 4 other children who returned on the same flight.

The staff of the Procuraduría General de la Nación (PGN) located in the shelter has already contacted her family in Quiché so that they can come for her within 72 hours. In the meantime, a bed has been assigned to her for the night. During this period, the IOM, in coordination with the Association for Research, Development and Integral Education (IDEI) and Me Quito el Sombrero Producciones, implements a strategy where through games, laughter, theater, music, magic and mime, they encourage healthy coexistence and safe spaces for their psychosocial well-being during the time they are waiting for their families.

"These activities allow government authorities to create moments of reunification without the emotional pressure that can result from the irregular migration experience," added IOM's Alejandra Mayorga.

The Mayan nahual Q'anil as a metaphor for protecting the best interests of the child (ISN)

IDEI implements a holistic methodology based on the Mayan nahual Q'anil which symbolizes the four colours of corn in Mesoamerica: red, black, white and yellow. Also the four skin colours and the cardinal points of the universe. "To harvest the corn, we must first protect the seeds, just as we must protect the migrant children. If they are not given the opportunities for development, the countries will not be able to harvest all the good, the creativity and the contributions that these migrant boys and girls have," said Jorge López, Maya Achí, from the IDEI Association.

"During our interventions we also make reference to the rest of the nahuales, because each person is born under one of these guides that govern the personalities, qualities and aptitudes in each human being; these contents allow us to guide them towards the professions in which they could excel during their lives and what type of studies they should seek," added the interviewee.

For its part, Me Quito el Sombrero Producciones, develops theatre, mime, music and magic based on the narrative of the seed to accompany and explain to the children the process of growth, the enjoyment of childhood, the importance of love in the family and the contributions they could make to their respective communities.

"It is shocking to live with children of very young ages, 5 or 6 years old, who migrated unaccompanied; but their reactions are also a response of hope to continue building resilience and healing in migrant families," said Susana Recinos "Blanca Lluvia", humanitarian clown of Me quito el Sombrero Producciones.

"We try to bring positive energy to the children and adolescents who are awaiting the arrival of their family resource for reunification, to generate laughter for relaxation and as an element to face adversity; we also teach them to juggle and make music with those who already have the ukulele. We try to lower the energetic revolutions that they bring from that migratory experience," Blanca Lluvia informed.

"The biggest challenge is with the children who received a positive result for COVID-19 because they must be in specific areas of observation, with limited visits and contact with other people; however, we have already established mechanisms to enjoy some activities to support their mental and psychosocial health," concluded the interviewed.

7 recommendations to promote the inclusion of migrants in host communities through social and cultural activities.

Categoria: Pacto Mundial sobre Migración
Autor: Carlos Escobar

The promotion of social and cultural activities as a mechanism to encourage interaction between migrants and host communities with the aim of advancing in the construction of more just and peaceful societies, is currently a topic of special interest in studies, policies and programs on migrant inclusion and social cohesion.

Taking Intergroup Contact Theory (IGCT) as a reference, different researches argue that the interaction of people from different places and contexts, under the right circumstances, favors trust and the change of xenophobic or discriminatory perceptions. Thus, intergovernmental agreements such as the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration have integrated this perspective into their theoretical and conceptual body. In particular, Goal 16 "Empower migrants and societies to achieve full inclusion and social cohesion", calls for the creation of community centres or programs at the local level to facilitate the participation of migrants in the receiving society by engaging migrants, community members, diaspora organizations, migrant associations and local authorities in intercultural dialogue, exchange of experiences, mentoring programs and the creation of business linkages that enhance integration outcomes and foster mutual respect.

Based on the analysis and review of different research, the IOM, in its publication The Power of Contact: Designing, Facilitating and Evaluating Social Mixing Activities to Strengthen Migrant Integration and Social Cohesion Between Migrants and Local Communities – A Review of Lessons Learned, proposes a series of recommendations, based on empirical evidence, to encourage the participation of migrants and receiving communities in social and cultural activities.

1). Fun and goal-oriented

Designing and incorporating fun and exciting activities leads to a lighter and more welcoming environment for people to meet, interact and create social bonds. At the same time, setting common goals, which neither group can achieve without the participation of the other (cooperative interdependence), makes the activities more engaging and participatory.

2). Mutual appreciation

Participants should understand, recognize and appreciate culture, traditions and history as part of the process of bridging differences, maximizing each other's strengths and identifying commonalities. It is important that all individuals are able to identify how their contributions can have a positive impact on the achievement of common goals.

3). Shared ownership

Involving migrants and local communities in all phases of activities will increase their participation. This ownership empowers them, raises their self-esteem and opens up new opportunities for responsibility and commitment.

4). Guided Reflection

Dialogues and activities that allow for a certain degree of reflection help to create an atmosphere that is perceived as trusting, friendly and warm. Processing information and sharing personal and sensitive stories, which can evoke memories, are of utmost importance as long as they are carefully guided and accompanied by facilitators or project members.

5). Supervision and Trust Facilitation

Those responsible for group interactions, such as team leaders, facilitators, project staff or event planners, must play an active role in promoting equality within intergroup relations and creating an inclusive environment for all. This deliberate effort is crucial to overcome the natural tendency of participants to group themselves according to their most salient characteristics and status.

6). Sustained and regular intervention

It goes without saying that the more frequent, prolonged and intensive the participation, the better the attitude of each individual towards others. This means adopting an approach that rethinks the role of the people involved, who in turn will define the needs of their communities and ultimately take part in the design and organization of appropriate interventions.

7). Institutional support and partnership

The support of institutions such as local governments, media, government agencies and intermediary organizations is critical to promoting and facilitating constructive efforts to strengthen intergroup relations. The coordination of these institutions creates a system that can provide resources and incentives to promote and strengthen intergroup relations.

Social and cultural activities, understood as a programmatic intervention strategy to facilitate the inclusion of migrants in receiving communities, are important to the extent that they offer non-institutional spaces for interaction, where through spontaneous human contact, social ties are built based on experiences, stories, emotions and life trajectories of the participants. This facilitates the generation of trust between individuals, greater degrees of social cohesion and, of course, peaceful coexistence in communities, understood not only as the absence of conflict, but also as a positive, dynamic and participatory process in which dialogue is promoted and conflicts are resolved in a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation, through the acceptance of differences, the ability to listen, recognize, respect and appreciate others. (UN, 2021).