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Guatemalan group encourages youth to stay in country

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

The journey from Central America to the United States has been made by many people in Guatemala, but that doesn't mean they want to do it. SERES is an organization working to give people the reasons and knowledge to stay in their home communities.

Living off your surroundings and caring for them, so they continue to care for you, has become a way of life for Antonio Sanchez.

"Going to the U.S. isn't going to solve anything. Maybe economically, but it's not going to change the situation that we live in,” Sanchez said in Spanish.

He should know. As he sat in the small complex he maintains near Antigua, he said that seven of his nine siblings now live in the United States. But he's not going.

"No one else is going to change the reality for us, no one else is going to change our lives, our countries, our communities if we don't do it for ourselves,” said Sanchez, who is a co-founder of SERES.

"They're not growing up, getting the skills they need to deal with crushing problems involved with rebuilding a country after civil war-- social, environmental problems,” said Corrina Grace, who is the other co-founder.

Her accent gave away her Australian background. But Grace said that her life calling is in Guatemala. She emphasized how an increasing number of youth are finding reasons to stay there. She co-founded SERES with Sanchez after they worked together in 2010. SERES stands for social entrepreneurship, resilience, and environmental sustainability, which they practice at the complex among the students who visit and stay in the dormitory. They also meet with groups of students at a time in other countries like El Salvador.

"The work we do is, number one, getting young people to have a vision for being here. So, instead of having a vision that says, 'when I grow up I want to go to the U.S. because that's how I can make money,' what's the vision to live in your community and have your community be the kind that's safe, and sane, sustainable place you want?" Grace said.

An increasing number of return flights from the united states shows changing that idea will be difficult.

At the end of his fully-scheduled day in an interview set up weeks in advance, Erick Cardenas, the Procurador de Ninez Ordencia, or Guatemala's advocate for its youth, sat down to say that when children are sent back from the United States, both the child and the parent claiming them must have matching stories to ensure that those juveniles are being placed with the right people. Children whose parents cannot be found must be housed and schooled by the government.

"If we see something like gang violence or an economic situation, it tips the scales and we see this large scale migration to the U.S. because that's the situation. That's easy and most readily available,” Grace said.

But she and Sanchez said that interest in SERES is growing. Thirteen-hundred students have come through the program. One has been elected mayor of his community.

Sanchez said that the first step for each student is to realize that they can find the solutions to make the land where they were born to truly become their home.

"If they feel empowered, they're not going to have the need to immigrate, to put themselves at risk with such a dangerous journey, a journey they know isn't going to change life in their community,” he said.

Grace said that SERES aims to expand and house 50 students at a time, and said that an investor has purchased land for it to do so about 30 minutes from the current site.

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