Vincentian Chair Lecture Spotlights Plight of Trafficked Children in Central America

February 26, 2020

Perhaps the most heinous element of the worldwide scourge of human trafficking is the trafficking of children, one of our most vulnerable populations. For decades, Covenant House International has fought this problem both nationally and internationally, rescuing as many as possible and reintroducing these traumatized individuals into a society they are often terrified to reenter.

On Thursday, February 13, Kevin M. Ryan, President and Chief Executive Officer of Covenant House International, and holder of the 2019–20 Vincentian Chair of Social Justice, returned to St. John’s University with several of his colleagues for his third of four lectures, “The Humanitarian Crisis Confronting Children in Central America.” This lecture was cosponsored by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

“As a University with a worldwide student body, the Covenant House presentation on this crisis provided a needed and sobering reflection,” noted Rev. Patrick J. Griffin, C.M., Executive Director, Vincentian Center for Church and Society. “Their ministry for the young coincides with the Catholic and Vincentian values that define St. John’s. We need to have our eyes and ears opened to the struggle of children in so many parts of the modern world. We cannot remain indifferent to them, and the process of action begins with information.”

Covenant House, founded in 1972, provides housing and support services to youth facing homelessness and operates in 31 cities throughout the United States, as well as six countries, working with an average of 80,000 young people each year.

Held in The Little Theatre, Mr. Ryan was joined for his discussion by coworkers Margaret A. Healy, Senior Vice President, International Programs, Covenant House International; José Guadalupe Ruelas García, National Director, Casa Alianza Honduras; and Carolina Escobar Sarti, National Director, La Alianza Guatemala. Both organizations provide shelter, protection, and rehabilitation for children and teenagers in Latin America who are abused, abandoned, trafficked, addicted, or homeless.

“It is my joy to bring to campus three of my colleagues who are among the most distinguished human rights voices for young people in the Americas,” Mr. Ryan told the audience. Mr. García and Ms. Escobar Sarti find themselves on the front lines of this battle on a daily basis. At great personal risk, they make it their mission to help as many children as possible off the streets, away from cartels and gangs, and onto the right path.

“Because you stand up, you cast light that others flourish in,” Mr. Ryan said of his colleagues.

Both they and their families have been threatened, and Mr. García was severely beaten, a crime for which no one has ever been prosecuted. Both have received several prestigious awards for their human rights work, but each believe the only value of such recognition is in how well it shines a light on their cause.

“If you could melt all of those awards into gold, they would sell them tomorrow to fund their programs and get medication or other necessities for young people,” Mr. Ryan said.

Ms. Escobar Sarti, who is one of Guatemala’s most recognized poets, authors, and national newspaper columnists, stressed that everything La Alianza does falls under the umbrella of human rights. “Think of it like legs on a table: one leg is protection, the other one is prevention, the third is justice, and the fourth is advocacy—and all of them support each other.”

She noted that La Alianza takes a holistic approach to their mission. They serve girls who are victims of trafficking, sexual violence, and other types of trauma. They work with boys as well, but minister to them off-site.

“We not only offer them protection,” Ms. Escobar Sarti noted. There is a school inside La Alianza where cultural, recreation, sports, and spiritual programs are provided. La Alianza also works with government and state institutions on policies and programs designed to prevent trafficking.

The mission of Casa Alianza is much the same as La Alianza, and Mr. García explained its two pillars are protection and the development of the trafficked child. “We make a covenant with these young people,” he said. “We offer them protection and sanctuary, and they agree to enter into a process where they develop their own talents and abilities. I like to say that the job of our staff is to keep our young people motivated as they go through this process, and my job is to keep our staff motivated as they do this important work.”

Ms. Escobar Sarti and Mr. García noted that children in both countries find themselves in untenable situations: either being forced into gangs and prostitution, or displaced by violence. They flee their home countries for the United States, and many find themselves deported back.

“Children in Honduras do not have anywhere to go; they have no one they can go to for protection and security,” Mr. García said. “Young people continue to pour out of Honduras for a variety of reasons: poverty, violence, lack of opportunity, and corruption.”

“We have not come very far at all” in improving these situations, he added.

Before the lecture, a group of students were invited to a luncheon with Mr. Ryan and his colleagues to discuss these issues and ask questions. Environmental Science and Government and Politics major Irene Gorosave noted that for her the topic was very personal. Originally from a border town in California, her mother was once deported. “I hope to go to law school,” she said. “One day, I would like to be a judge and work to improve conditions for these people.”

Kiara Rafailan’s parents are from El Salvador; she is majoring in Biology and Spanish and felt obligated to educate herself on the situation in Central America and Latin America. “This is happening where my family is from, and if I’m to help the situation in any way, knowledge is power.”

Celina Chapman, a double major in English and French, whose mother is from Korea, is very interested in postgraduate service with the homeless. “I feel like there is a lot of overlap, and I want to hear from people who work from within this issue, because they have the power to effect change.”