Building Bridges through Global Education

One of the most important goals of Jesuit education is the formation of “men and women for others.” We seek to educate students to live out their Christian faith in service and solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed not only in their own communities, but also throughout the world. As a Spanish teacher at a Jesuit high school, I often reflect on how to practice this mission amid our daily routine and curriculum requirements. I want my students to know that speaking Spanish is not just a marketable skill or an area of study, but a gift that can build bridges across cultures and foster understanding and empathy. The Global Citizen Education initiatives sponsored by Magis Americas have greatly helped facilitate this mission.

I first became aware of Magis Americas and the Jesuit’s global education programs when I, along with two colleagues, led a student immersion trip to Colombia to collaborate with Fe y Alegría in 2019. Our group of ten students met young Colombians who are a part of the Red de Juventudes, a network of community-action groups facilitated by Fe y Alegría. These groups raise awareness about various social issues that directly impact the well-being of their communities. After decades of civil strife in Colombia, these young people want to create a better future for their country. Together we participated in social justice workshops and painted community murals that addressed the need to care for the environment. The students played games to help learn one another’s languages, experienced mass together, and formed friendships. The Fe y Alegría coordinators enthusiastically welcomed us into their praxis and truly exemplified the Universal Apostolic Preferences of Journeying with Youth and Walking with the Excluded.

For my students, the Colombia trip was an eye-opening experience. They witnessed the impact of internal displacement and environmental disasters on the everyday lives of young people their age. They greatly admired the Colombian students’ commitment to justice, and they were inspired to be more engaged with social issues in our own community.

It is often easy for students in the US, especially those who come from middle-class suburban backgrounds, to assume that their way of life is the norm throughout the world, but through their friendships with their Colombian peers, my students learned first-hand that many students lack the access the opportunities that they take for granted. This was especially true with access to educational opportunities. Whereas the US students were confidently planning for college, many of the Colombian students were concerned they would not be able to continue their studies due to enrollment limits.

The experience in Colombia helped them to grow in empathy and solidarity with young people in other parts of the world and fostered an inter-cultural exchange that benefitted both groups of students.

We were looking forward to returning to Colombia in 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic altered our plans. In the summer of 2020, Fe y Alegría organized their annual meeting of the Red de Juventudes virtually, and we were fortunate to be included. We also met virtually in December of 2020, when our students shared the impact of the pandemic on their education. Our contact with the Red de Juventudes has been entirely virtual for the last year and half, and although we miss the experience of meeting in person, these virtual meetings have enabled us to maintain our relationship with Fe y Alegría until we can hopefully meet again in the future.

Immersion trips are transformative experiences, but they can only accommodate a small number of students. Magis Americas’ La Silla Roja campaign enabled students in all my classes to learn about educational inequities faced by young people around the world without leaving our classroom.

During last year’s campaign, my students researched how the pandemic was affecting education in countries served by Fe y Alegría. We discussed how millions of students are facing more challenges than ever before because of quarantines and in-person closures. Whereas students in our school are equipped with iPads and high-speed Wifi, others lack easy access to technology. For example, my students learned that students often relied on classes transmitted on the radio to continue their education at home. We also discussed how the drop-out rates were exacerbated by the pandemic, especially when students needed to work to help support their families.

In the second part of the campaign, my students were asked to find an individual story that exemplified the issues we had discussed in class. One of my students, Matthew, chose to interview a friend who lives in Venezuela. Her experience of the pandemic was radically different from his own. Matthew expressed to me that he and his friend were able to have a meaningful conversation because of this assignment, and he shared his insights with our class. This experience made the abstract figures and percentages come to life in a tangible way.

This year we are looking forward to initiating the La Silla Roja challenge in September. We are expanding the campaign to more grade levels and are planning an all-school, awareness-raising campaign. The La Silla Roja campaign has brought global issues into my curriculum and exposed students to Jesuit missions around the world. As Ignatian educators, we are called to practice a pedagogy that is not just rooted in the abstract, but also grounded in real contexts and inspires concrete action to make the world a more just place. It is my hope that Magis America’s Global Citizen Education programs, whether they take place abroad or at home, encourage our students to reflect on the meaning of education and seek ways to ensure educational equity for all students.

From Venezuela to Brazil, the Lord Brought Us Here

“Ah, you speak Spanish, thank God” is one of the most common expressions heard by the Fe y Alegría Boa Vista – Brazil staff when they receive a Venezuelan immigrant. This is the expression of those who arrive tired from traveling by foot or bicycle under the beaming sun, adding mileage to an already long journey from an empty house located in what was before their home city. As they take their second breath, they spot the red heart logo with three children drawn in the interior. Venezuelans know this logo, they identify a connection with their beloved country. They know this logo represents something good. In Venezuela, it is everywhere, in hundreds of schools, representing popular education programs. Sometimes these immigrants don’t come alone, they are accompanied by their family, including small children and babies, looking for help in order to achieve what they long for, a better future for their family.

Fe y Alegría did not arrive at Boa Vista by coincidence. We are here as a result of the observation, discernment, and actions of men and women who recognized the necessity of being present at the frontiers of exclusion. I always remember with happiness Ronilson Braga Agnaldo Junior y Pedro Pereira (Pedriño) Jesuits priests who brought forth the Company of Jesus to the north of Brazil. In 2018 we embarked on a path of great challenges and major learnings, first in our work with children, and later, little by little with their families and the community that welcomes them. In the first years, we established our service of coexistence and strengthening of bonds for children and adolescents, guaranteeing them basic services of protection, food, integration to Brazilian society, and the enjoyment of their rights. Today, 3 years later, Fe y Alegría Brazil accompanies thousands of immigrant families and nationals in the middle of a pandemic. Our humanitarian assistance includes delivering food, hygiene kits for the prevention of Covid-19, gas refills, clothes, and accessories for pregnant women, in addition to the services that we already came to provide.

In search of new ways to help the families who experience vulnerability, this month of June we inaugurated the temporary shelter “José María Velaz”. This shelter will welcome families as they transition to other states of Brazil, supporting the efforts of “Operación Acogida” an initiative by the Brazilian army in its strategy to respond to the migratory crisis, called “Interiorization”. This initiative relocates migrants to other Brazilian states, better prepared to receive a high migratory flow. Additionally, Fe y Alegrías’ program supports these migrants by offering training workshops for entrepreneurs, accompanying and helping them for up to four months while their small businesses generate their first earnings. This program contributes to the integration and economic independence of those families who decide to settle in the city of Boa Vista.

Another line of action at Boa Vista is the project “Cuidando a la casa común” (“Taking care of the common home”). This program was developed as part of the Fe y Alegría International Federation initiative focused on integral ecology. At Fe y Algría Boa Vista, we accompany indigenous leaders– Warao, Eñepa, Kariña y Pemon with training, investigation, and activities that promote the recovery and preservation of their language and culture. These groups also are displaced migrants from Venezuela, who also face great challenges, as they work to adapt themselves to a different society and language, all the while trying to find a new place to live.

Brazil is large and diverse, Fe y Alegría is too. With a vocation of welcoming, protecting, and helping, the majority of our collaborators are bilingual, prepared for intercultural and interreligious work. This enables us to adapt to local realities and the specific needs of our beneficiaries. Being prepared to respond to challenging and constantly changing realities is key in our work. Our sense of commitment motivates us and prepares us to always be willing to welcome those who seek our services and think of creative ways to lessen the impact of forced migration on their lives.

The projects developed in Boa Vista are the result of combined work and collaboration; the team of staff members in the city, the team in our national headquarters in Sao Paulo, our national and international staff members, civil society organizations, religious organizations, other works of the company such as the Servicio Jesuita para Migrantes y Refugiados (SJMR) (Jesuit Service for Migrants and Refugees) and the university pastoral staff, in addition to volunteers that donate their time for this cause. Moreover, we are grateful to the countless Brazilians who have welcomed tens of thousands of migrants that have crossed the borders in the last 4 years in order to rebuild their lives and who, in gratitude, want to contribute to the development of this great nation.

I am also an immigrant. 4 Years ago, I arrived in Brazil, just like the others with a suitcase, intending to move a whole life to a different country. Today I understand that we are all migrants in this life, just passing through. As such, we are called to be empathetic with those who for different reasons are forced to abandon their country leaving behind family, a home, dreams, and roots. The migratory experience is painful, sometimes it includes poverty, loneliness, insecurity, and xenophobia, among others. This experience, however, can also be an extraordinary opportunity to extend our horizons, learn about the inherent richness of cultural diversity, in order to reconstruct our lives. Experience allows us to help those who come after us. Only God knows what will come from here. Echoing the words of the singer and philosopher Facundo Cabral, who after visiting over 100 countries was asked, “What is the best place in the world? ” He responded: “This one because the Lord brought me here”, today we can say the same. God brought us here, God blesses this place and the people that welcome us.

Living in Solidarity When Distances are Far

Among the blessings in my life as a Jesuit are the many relationships I’ve developed around the world. Solidarity is a central aspect of our Catholic faith, especially solidarity with those on the margins. Relationships with Jesuits and Jesuit ministries in the United States and abroad have helped me to make that solidarity concrete. I’ve had the opportunity to visit Jesuit ministries doing incredibly inspiring work, often in very difficult contexts. These connections serve as a consoling reminder of our shared mission, regardless of whatever borders may lie between us.

For several years, for example, the Nicaraguan government has been repressing peaceful demonstrations, incarcerating political prisoners, and even “disappearing” opposition figures. Students and faculty members of the Jesuit Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in Managua have been targeted—on multiple occasions forces allied with the government have violently opposed peaceful protesters at the university campus. The university has also suffered serious financial and administrative repercussions from the government. The UCA president, Fr. Chepe Idiaquez, SJ, has been subject to death threats. While this is not a risk we Jesuits typically face in North America, it is an honor to support the vital work of Fr. Chepe and others like him standing up to repressive governments in Central America.

In Venezuela as well, it is remarkable to witness the persistent efforts of Jesuit ministries amidst years of turmoil and societal collapse. The number that brought home to me the severity of the situation there was “20” – it was reported in 2018 that in a single year the average Venezuelan had lost 20 pounds in body weight due to food shortages and the economic crisis. Yet Jesuits’ vital work continues, including the independent social analysis of Centro Gumilla and education of those living at the margins by the 176 Fe y Alegria schools across the country.

The Fe y Alegria model that was developed in Venezuela has taken root across Latin America and the Caribbean. Fe y Alegría, or “Foi et Joie”, is also present in Haiti, another country that has suffered greatly. These schools offer education and vocational training opportunities to children and adults. At the St. Ignace de Loyola School, for example, students learn about ecology, agriculture, and business through a beekeeping initiative, which they can then practice with their parents at their own homes. By integrating education, ecology, and economy, this project aims to improve the quality of life of their students, their families, and the surrounding community. The children gain important and practical knowledge and experience along with the chance to earn some additional income for their family.

The COVID pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated many existing injustices within the United States and around the world. Watching news reports can make these challenges feel simultaneously very close and very distant. The stories, photos, and videos may be compelling, but the people and situations depicted are also foreign. How to live out the solidarity our Catholic faith calls us to when the distances are so great, the differences so stark? Jesuit networks help us to bridge that divide. Most Americans have never visited Nicaragua, but if you’ve attended a Jesuit parish, school, or university, then you have a connection with Fr. Chepe and the struggles of UCA Managua, just as you do to Jesuit ministries in Venezuela, Haiti, and all around the world. We may be working within different social realities, but we all share one mission of reconciliation and justice, grounded in, and united by, our faith in Christ.

The work that the wider international Jesuit network does, connects us. Maintaining our focus on a greater common mission leads us in solidarity with each other even when we are far apart. Organizations such as Magis Americas serve to bridge this distance, as they collaborate with other Jesuit institutions like UCA Managua and Fe y Alegría, creating a connection not only in faith but in how we carry out our faith and commitment to caring for our fellow brothers and sisters.