It feels like just a few days ago that I was furiously typing out my master’s thesis at NUI Galway, in-between runs along Galway’s promenade and late night hang-outs at the pub with Mitchells and Irish friends. That was back in 2009-10. Those were the post global financial meltdown days, and many of the Mitchell Scholars were unsure of what was in store for us on the other side of the Atlantic upon returning home. Would we find work? Should we keep studying? Where would we live? There was so much uncertainty, and we had a full year to reflect on it while living in Ireland.
Latin America had been a love of mine for years, and I knew I wanted to find a way back after I completed my master’s program in international human rights law. A volunteer experience with Roddy Doyle’s Fighting Words in Dublin inspired me to find work with the Organization for Youth Empowerment (OYE) in Honduras shortly after leaving Ireland. That experience involved promoting educational access, leadership training, and skills development for at-risk youth living in the shadow of the most violent city in the world, San Pedro Sula. These are young people who, in addition to severe economic challenges, face the threats of drug trafficking, gang activity, and organized crime that have corroded the country’s security situation. That grassroots experience prepared me for my current position with Trócaire, one of Ireland’s leading development and humanitarian aid agencies.
Over the past two and a half years, I was based in Nicaragua working as a Regional Institutional Funding Officer — a job that ideally connected my loves for Ireland, Latin America, human rights, and development. My position involved working with seven offices in the region on designing new projects in human rights, gender, sustainable livelihoods, and disaster risk reduction, in addition to securing funding to bring these projects to life.
One of the most meaningful aspects about working with Trócaire is the direct access it has provided to some of the harshest realities of the different country contexts. Some of the things I have seen here are still difficult to fathom, even in retrospect. Once I was in San Pedro Sula, Honduras during a flash flood. As I drove through the city streets, which had turned into rivers, I came upon a crowd of people who were standing at a safe distance from the bridge I was to cross. The river, which was normally dry, had become a force of fiercely raging rapids. I was shocked to see that a car was dangling off the bridge. I watched helplessly as people tried to escape the vehicle, but a powerful surge of water washed them and their car away. I later learned that two of the men died, and the other fell into a coma.
On a separate occasion, I visited a rural community in Nicaragua – one of the poorest I have seen – where women and men were participating in a project to reduce levels of gender-based violence, which is rife throughout the region. A 15-year-old girl who looked like she was nearing the end of her pregnancy arrived to one of the meetings, sporting a giant black eye. She was quiet and reserved throughout the meeting, but her presence signified something. She had left her home made of sticks and scrap metal to participate in a process that could help her bring an end to the daily violence she was living.
In Haiti, I visited a few of the hundreds of seismic-resistant houses we helped construct for people who had lost their homes in the 2010 earthquake. Nearly four years after the disaster, I saw a vast field of families living in tents in Port-au-Prince, who still hadn’t been able to move into new homes. They were victims who fell through the cracks of the reconstruction phase, unable to find hope in the post-earthquake capital.
In Guatemala, I watched the coverage of legal proceedings that Trócaire helped fund to hold a former dictator accountable for the killing of 1,771 indigenous Mayans, the displacement of 29,000, and the rape and torture of others during 15 massacres. The historic verdict, which was later annulled, had convicted Efrain Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity, marking the first time a former head of state was convicted of genocide in a court in his home country.
These are just a few of the issues I grappled with as a member of the Trócaire team in Latin America. Part of our work involves using resources as effectively and efficiently as possible to enable local actors to respond to these challenges. In Honduras and Guatemala, we are financing the construction of mitigation projects to prevent the impact of future disasters and training courses for architects and construction workers on seismic-resistant design.
In Nicaragua, we have launched a new project to facilitate access to land for rural women in a context where women have been historically denied the same type of access to this precious resource that men enjoy. In El Salvador, we are helping guarantee people’s access to filtered drinking water in a context where 95% of water sources are contaminated. At regional level, we are developing numerous initiatives to help rural people adapt to the realities of climate change, which include more severe storms and a widespread drought that compromised the lives and livelihoods of thousands. In Guatemala, we have mobilized emergency funds from the European Commission to offer relief to families that have experienced the most significant food shortages as a result of the drought.
The challenges in the region are immense, and through Trócaire, I have a way to understand and respond to them. The generosity of the Irish people, who contribute so thoughtfully to these causes, is inspiring as they place their trust in Trócaire to fulfill its justice mandate. My Irish colleagues who give their hearts and souls to this work, are inspiring, as they make the struggle to establish a just world something that can and should be shared inside and outside of Ireland.
Come June, I will continue with Trócaire in a new capacity as Programme Manager in Sierra Leone. In this new context, one where poverty is widespread and the recent Ebola outbreak devastated the population, I feel lucky to respond to a challenge of such an extraordinary scale. I will build on the work already carried out by Trócaire during the darkest days of the virus.
Now, five years on from my Mitchell experience, my professional path has taken shape in a way unforeseen during those days of uncertainty. I have many people to thank for this, including those at the US-Ireland Alliance who saw potential in my Mitchell application and decided to grant the gift of educational empowerment to a young person from New Jersey who felt passionate about Latin America and human rights. This journey, as impossible as it was to predict when I was a Mitchell Scholar, was an entirely rewarding one, and I’m excited to see how it evolves in the coming years.
All thoughts Michael expresses in this blog are his alone.