Working towards solidarity in times of crisis: Partnering in Nicaragua now

Service-learning or solidarity work? Administrator or advocate? How to partner in Nicaragua now?

By Erin Sabato, Director of International Service and Learning, Quinnipiac University

Nicaragua was one of the few countries my university traveled to when I was an undergraduate. Although I first traveled to Nicaragua by chance, it has become an integral part of my life by choice. Nicaragua isn’t just a place on the map to me. It is a place I called home and a huge part of my professional career.

These last two months have been very hard for all of us that are connected to Nicaragua. Buildings burned, lives lost, hundreds injured, jobs scarce, businesses closed, weeks of classes missed, property destroyed, and safety and wellbeing constantly at risk. The ability to say Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America – gone. The future of Nicaragua feels completely unknown.

Over the last two months, I have watched as flights to Nicaragua are cancelled, restaurants I know and love shut their doors “temporarily,” friends relocate to Costa Rica, or seek information about asylum. Host families, who are extensions of my own family, are now unable to work, are standing at roadblocks, and are experiencing conflict within their own families as brothers and sisters and spouses align with different sides of the conflict. Yet I have also seen babies come into the world, neighbors continue to support one another, and the Nicaraguan youth grow stronger in their convictions.

The conflict happened quickly – I spent Spring Break in Nicaragua with 40 students, faculty and alumni. How did this all happen a mere 32 days later?

Quinnipiac University Global Solidarity Programs

A few years ago Quinnipiac University made the intentional decision to change the name of our international service learning programs to “global solidarity programs.” I have fought hard to explain what that means and why that decision was made. Now it is time to put those words into action and truly embody solidarity.

I bring nearly 150 students a year to participate in one of our 11 programs in Nicaragua – specifically to León – the university city – the revolutionary city – where students and youth have been known to create movements for social change – an incredibly vibrant, active, beautiful, and safe city. In León, there are 19 host families that we have worked with since 2004. We have worked with our main partner organization, a language and leadership Institute called Alianza Americana, for 13 years.

We have intentionally not expanded our programs to many different countries. Our approach has always been to focus on one area, one partnership, and one community and have multiple programs piggyback off one another throughout the year in that country. And for over a decade, this approach has worked.

But we are entering new territory where models may need to change and objectives have to shift. We don’t have all the answers – this is something I have never dealt with before. We are committed to working together. Solidarity.

University administrator or advocate?

I’ve struggled to strike a balance between my two roles: (1) university administrator that must always think about the safety and security of our students and faculty and (2) staunch advocate for our Nicaraguan partners.

I also struggle with straddling the line between raising awareness and protecting the image of Nicaragua. For years Nicaragua has fought to free itself from the stereotype of being a violent and unsafe nation. In recent years, our partners were incredibly proud to stand in front of our students and declare that Nicaragua was the safest country in Central America. Now what? Transparency and correct information, especially in terms of what we are sharing with our students and their parents is important, but I also feel protective of how much I share and with whom.

I sit consumed by the news and wonder what this all means for tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Sitting in my office in Hamden, Connecticut, I wonder: what do we do?

Immediate actions: Conversation, evening of solidarity, trip cancellations, and strategizing together

At first I took the wait and see approach – let’s not rush into any decisions about summer programs. Our partners assured me that this would all calm down. I am not sure if we were all in denial or if we all really believed that it would.

April 20th – Skype conversation with students and partner organization representative

We were holding a Spring Break reentry meeting that afternoon. My students came in upset and confused and I myself was still unclear about what was happening. I figured it made the most sense to hear information directly from our partners. At this point no one was sure what exactly this all meant – even those on the ground – and how long this would last.

April 23 – An evening of solidarity for Nicaragua with our students on campus

We discussed the situation (at this point only five days in), broke down some of the complicated aspects of the conflict and discussed appropriate news sources they could follow. At that point many of the were already asking about next academic year’s programming – I told them that we would remain transparent and open about our next steps but at that point it was very early and not feasible to make any predictions.

End of April – Trip cancellations

After much reflection and consultation with our partners, we ended up cancelling our yearly School of Law program in May,  program we have run since 2009 with the main public university in Nicaragua and the Nicaraguan Supreme Court – two main government institutions. We were holding our tenth annual conference on international law and human rights. The irony. We also cancelled programs for medical students, undergraduate research, and clinical fieldwork this summer.

June 4 – Travel to Costa Rica to meet with Nicaraguan partners in order to strategize together

I was scheduled to travel to Nicaragua on June 4 and literally made the decision on June 1 to reroute our meeting to Costa Rica. This meeting was necessary. We needed to sit together and strategize. This isn’t a program we can just pass on and revisit when things “quiet down.” This isn’t a sporadic partnership where we swoop in and out occasionally. We have a responsibility to our community partners and I was determined to strategize together.

I have been told that just knowing that the three of us met together for four days gave community members hope – just knowing that we weren’t going to walk away was encouraging and allowed them to remain optimistic about a very uncertain future. So we sat in a Denny’s in San José, Costa Rica and strategized for hours about immediate needs as well as short and long-term goals.

Next steps & plans

  • Immediate needs: people are hungry. I had reached out to some of the host mothers prior to my trip to Costa Rica asking how we could best support them right now. I had paid them the wage they would have received for hosting our law students even though we cancelled the trip. No one was going to pay them unemployment during this time. No one expected this to happen. Our programs are the main source of reliable income for many of the families – they each host an average of eight Quinnipiac students a year. Due to the looming food shortages and lack of consistent work, we decided to provide two months of a “canasta básica” for each of the host families – a basic basket – rice, beans, oil, sugar, soap, toothpaste, eggs, toilet paper, etc. – basic needs that are becoming increasingly more difficult to acquire. We provided one last weekend and will provide another in July.

Our partners delivered them to each of the host families with a letter I wrote to them – telling them that I wish I could be there with them, that each student and faculty member was thinking about them – that Quinnipiac is still with them and that I couldn’t wait to hug each of them in person. I told them that we would be back. Solidarity.

  • Our primary objective is cross-cultural engagement – learning from one another – so it doesn’t really matter where that learning takes place. We could plan time together at Quinnipiac in Connecticut. That was our initial idea – until the United States Embassy in Nicaragua stopped processing visas. We will still consider this; flexibility is key in this line of work. However, in light of potential visa issue, we are considering alternative locations to host these joint programs. We have partnerships in other areas throughout Central America and the Caribbean – locations much easier for travel for Nicaraguan students or our partners. My alma mater, the University for Peace in Costa Rica has offered their space and network of host families to host joint workshops or trainings about peace building and conflict resolution. That is our Plan B if we are unable to host programs in Connecticut. We will travel – together – to an alternative location and continue to work together.  The opportunity to have our two groups experience Guatemala or Costa Rica together is quite exciting.
  • Continuation of programming in LeónQuinnipiac University and Alianza Americana have run a micro-lending program since 2010 that has provided over 60 loans to small businesses from León and the surrounding communities. Quinnipiac University business students travel to Nicaragua each winter to work with the business on accounting strategies, marketing plans, etc. Even if students cannot travel next winter to Nicaragua and we recognize that the risk may be higher for return, it is important to continue this program that has run successfully for nearly a decade.
  • Technology to continue English classes – Our partners in Nicaragua are a language and leadership institute. English classes are not necessarily a priority in times of crisis. Even those that are able to and want to continue coming to study cannot due to safety reasons. Therefore, we have decided to hold “virtual classes” using Skype or Zoom with our students, faculty and alumni. Members of the Quinnipiac community have agreed to commit 1-2 hours a week to hold either one-on-one sessions as “language partners” or larger conversational “classes” with Alianza Americana English students. Until they are able to meet face to face, we hope that by communicating on a regular basis with a native English speaker, they will not lose the skills they have gained already.  

 

 

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