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HARI SREENIVASAN:

Since 2014, hundreds of thousands of teenagers have poured into the United States from Central America fleeing poverty and violence. NewsHour special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, about one program that is trying to give them a reason to stay.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

Over the past four years, more than a quarter of a million unaccompanied minors have made the dangerous journey north on foot, hitchhiking, even riding on freight train cars, trying to cross the U.S. Border. Remarkably, 40 percent of them come from one tiny country, El Salvador.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

El Salvador is a daunting place to grow up. There are few job opportunities for young people and the specter of gang violence is everywhere, in graffiti that dominates the walls and in the graphic headlines that dominate the front pages.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

El Salvador now has the one of the world’s highest homicide rates, as rival gangs fight for territory and clash with the police. There’s even a special section of this cemetery just outside San Salvador where young gang members are buried. Adorned with the hallmark graffiti, the headstones show that most of the dead are teenagers. Young people we spoke with confirmed that fear and violence dominate their neighborhoods.

SANDRA:

It’s difficult because there are a lot of temptations in my neighborhood. But with education you can keep your mind busy so you don’t end up on the street.

FERNANDO:

It’s the same for me. I see the soldiers and police going after the gangs. You cannot go hang out in the park. So I go home and stay at home in order to be safe.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

These teens are luckier than most. They’re part of a new public-private partnership that’s aimed at giving young people a way out of the violence and into a lifelong career. It’s called YouthBuild and it’s based on a U.S. Program that was started in Harlem 30 years ago. In El Salvador, the program, funded with a mix of U.S. Government aid and private philanthropy is managed by Catholic Relief Services. And provides vocational skills, leadership training and academic coaching for youth ages 15 to 25.

RICK JONES:

It’s critical to create a safe space for young people. Especially when they’re coming from environments in the street where they experience violence. My own family, my nephew, by the time he was in 9th grade, had seen 3 kids assassinated on his way to school.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

YouthBuild’s Rick Jones has lived in El Salvador for 27 years and has witnessed a transformation of this country. The brutal civil war of the 1980s destroyed the country’s economy and claimed about 75-thousand lives. Many young Salvadorans fled to Los Angeles where they formed gangs. Many were then deported, bringing back their U.S. gang affiliation and expanding locally

RICK JONES:

They came into El Salvador into a situation where most young men were unemployed and out of school. They organized like wildfire on the prairie.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

YouthBuild goes into some of the most troubled areas of El Salvador’s capital to recruit students.

RICK JONES:

In our programs, we ask young people “how many people know somebody who has been affected directly by the violence or has been killed?” Half the kids in the room will raise their hand. They know what violence looks like. They don’t know what the alternatives look like.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

YouthBuild tries to show them those alternatives through programs that teach marketable skills, such as baking and cooking, car mechanics, computer technology, cosmetology, or building a small business.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

There’s also a focus on empathy, on collaboration, conflict resolution and self-confidence. Each day begins at 8 A.M. with a prayer and a check-in about what’s going on in their lives and then it’s onto team building activities. Director Sara Mena Ramos says the goal is to give the young people new tools to deal with the dysfunction they see all around them.

SARA MENA RAMOS:

We work a lot on life and job skills. Areas such as self esteem. Dealing with the emotional psycho-social parts of their lives. And job skills to learn how to interact with employers.

RICK JONES:

Most kids come into the program because they can get a job at the end of it. But while they’re in the program, they also take leadership in building community assets, like refurbishing playgrounds, community centers. Taking responsibility for their own lives, the lives of their family, and their community.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

Jefferson Guevara graduated a year ago and is now employed full-time at a bakery. Amid pervasive violence, his employer didn’t want the attention a foreign TV camera could attract, so we can’t show him on the job. But he came back to his old classroom to show-off his skills to current students.

JEFFERSON GUEVARA:

I like the job. I’m still learning a lot. You have to be faster, dealing with all of the clients. But this program gave me the skills to handle the job.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

YouthBuild El Salvador began in 2009 with 110 students at two sites gradually adding 4 more locations. Two years ago the Salvadoran Government decided to adopt the program, funding an expansion to 30 sites serving nearly 4000 students this year. Carlos Gomez directs that effort.

CARLOS GOMEZ:

Businesses in our country are demanding youth with different attitudes, with principles and values that for some reason they didn’t develop at home. A young person who is responsible, who is a leader, who works well in teams, who communicates well, and has an attitude of persevering. We’ve seen that YouthBuild emcompasses those characteristics.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

Businessman Rodrigo Bolanos agrees that programs like this are desperately needed if El Salvador is to begin to attract investment and rebuild its economy.

RODRIGO BOLANOS:

A lot of young people have not much to offer because they’re not educated. You have communities where the gangs do not allow kids to go to school and there’s really no opportunities for them whatsoever. If we want to get our country back on its feet, we have to develop a way of teaching or of educating our labor force.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

And El Salvador must scale up such efforts, he says, given that 50% of the country’s six million people are below the age of 18. Even with the planned expansion YouthBuild meets just a tiny fraction of the need. And even when YouthBuild gets students to enroll, the dropout rate is significant, according to director Mena.

SARA MENA RAMOS:

They drop out because of drug use or because they don’t really know what they want or they come from completely dysfunctional families. This current class started with 34 students but 14 dropped out.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

For those who stay, there is the possibility of a better life. Jefferson Guevara is happy with his current job. But for him, as for El Salvador, there are limits to the dream a program like YouthBuild can provide.

JEFFERSON GUEVARA:

I’d really like to go to the U.S.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

Why is that?

JEFFERSON GUEVARA:

Because I know in the U.S. I could move freely. There may be some dangerous things, but not like here in El Salvador. I know in the U.S. you can feel free.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

El Salvador remains a difficult, violent place to live, so it’s not surprising that even for those on a path to a decent livelihood, the journey north continues to loom large in the imagination of many young Salvadorans.

In El Salvador, a path to escape gang violence


Since 2014, more than 250,000 unaccompanied minors have made a dangerous journey to the U.S. from Central America, with 40 percent coming from El Salvador, where jobs are scarce and gangs are rampant. One program, funded by U.S. government aid and private philanthropy, is supporting young people in San Salvador with leadership and job training. Special Correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports.