Hillel Students Face Poverty Overseas
March 23, 2007Comments (0)
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Hillel students experience an alternative spring break in Nicaragua.
By Michelle Rosenberg
Two worlds collided in a unique cross cultural exchange as a group of 10 Rutgers students and seven George Washington University students left the comforts of American life to visit the village of El Horno in Nicaragua.
The students participating in the alternative spring break trip run by the Rutgers Hillel on the College Avenue campus became a part of the El Horno community by sleeping, eating, and working as local residents do. The group dealt with issues of poverty, community service, obligations of giving and the economic divide around the world as they experienced the nuances of village life first hand.
The goal of the trip was to contribute to the sustainable development already taking place in Nicaragua. The American Jewish World Service, organized the trip, worked with the local Non Governmental Organization in Nicaragua to appropriately assess the needs of the community and continue in the ongoing efforts to make improvements in the village.
The experience was enlightening and often sobering as students realized the meaning of poverty. Tin roofed houses, simple meals of beans, rice and tortillas, dirt roads, latrines and lack of running water are basic characteristics of the village. And yet, the cohesive and cooperative nature of the community proved more important than advanced technology and money. Observing the Nicaraguan lifestyle gave students a new appreciation for the privileges of American life, and the importance of cooperation.
"It was an eye-opening experience," said Maytal Rand, a Cook College sophomore. "Seeing the impoverished conditions in Nicaragua helped me place where I stand in the scheme of things, especially economically. It helped me appreciate all that I have and take for granted seeing the people in the community being so happy with the little they have."
The experience was humbling to some students.
"I no longer want more, I just want to help," she said.
Students participated in agricultural work, helping plant and maintain corn and tomatoes, and making bags of soil for coffee beans. They even built a barbed wire fence and a rock wall to prevent soil from polluting the river, the main water source of the community.
Students grappled with difficult issues and wondered how much of an impact they were making on the Nicaraguans lives.
Through conversations with the locals, the purpose of the work and its benefits became apparent. Some of the crops were distributed to the local school to feed poor, malnourished children and the rock wall protected the water source for the entire community.
The people of El Horno expressed their gratitude during a farewell party as community members performed cultural songs and dances. The Nicaraguans and Americans, the young and old all danced and celebrated together, and for the evening the two communities merged. Because of the strong relationships and friendships, which were established during the week, both communities were able to learn from each other.
"It truly defined what an intercultural experience was," said Geri Wurman, a Rutgers College senior. "As much as we wanted to learn about their culture and way of life, they only wanted to know the same about us, and engaged us in questions about 9/11 and the war in Iraq."
It was also important for the Nicaraguan community to see a positive and active response from Americans involving themselves in the Nicaraguan problems. One of the community members expressed her prior belief that Americans did not even know Nicaraguans existed until she saw the students who were so eager to help.
Students recognized the personal satisfactions inherent in giving, as well as the need to help sustain life in impoverished communities, and the importance of spreading awareness of poverty. After the hard work and the new knowledge, it became clear to the students that their volunteer work and efforts could not end with the people of El Horno.
"The country changed me," said Vanessa Mattes, a Rutgers College sophomore. "Even though we paid for it, I really felt like it was a gift."
Students also realized the crucial role they, as educated students, could play.
"We are responsible to each other. To those in our own backyard, and to those thousands of miles away," said Avi Smolen a Rutgers College sophomore. "Even though we don't always think about it, I realize now how we are all connected."
This article was originally published in The Daily Targum.