MEJICANOS, El Salvador — Two years ago, horses and goats roamed a large expanse of dirt that men in the Mejicanos neighborhood of Santa Rosa, El Salvador, used to play informal soccer games.
“I come here with my friends to have fun.”— Naomi Montoya, 14-year-old Santa Rosa resident
Now, a group of children are playing a game of pickup soccer on a newly remodeled turf field. The goals have nets and the field boundaries are clearly marked. The soccer field is flanked by a playground, picnic tables, tiered stands to watch the games, and a small building with locker rooms. There are a basketball and volleyball court and a running track around the field. The entire facility is fenced and illuminated by bright lights at night.
This change came as part of a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded project executed by the International Organization for Migration that seeks to build community cohesion and improve reintegration of returning refugees and migrants in El Salvador. By improving public spaces, they aim to strengthen community ties — helping people who are returning and those who never left.
“We think it’s really important to strengthen those community spaces that facilitate integration of community members,” said Natalia Zepeda, a national project officer with IOM.
The project began in 2016 and will conclude in 2019, at which point control and care of the facility will be fully turned over to the people of Mejicanos. The IOM program is designed to jump-start small-scale infrastructure projects and provides funds for the capital improvements required to make over public spaces. It involves the community to be equipped to carry the work forward after formal cooperation from the organization ends. IOM works with mayors and local leaders to ensure projects develop in line with community needs.
“We work with the communities for them to create their standards of conduct on how to administer the place, how to take care of it, how to develop, for example, sport sessions for children, so it’s their leadership, “ Zepeda explained. “And in this way, we leave a sustainable approach [to] the communities and the municipalities.”
Baltazar Canalez, a pastor and community member who has been involved with the repurposing of the complex, said people of all ages can now enjoy it.
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“With all of the conflict that there has been in our country, this space was only for the enjoyment of certain people,” said Canalez, who has lived in the Santa Rosa neighborhood for over 20 years. “Now it’s more inclusive.”
Mejicanos was selected for the return and reintegration program because it is one of the communities targeted in the Plan El Salvador Seguro, the government’s national plan to improve citizen security and quality of life. Violence and economic insecurity — and widespread migration to escape those situations — are a major barrier to development in El Salvador.
The Salvadoran government has partnered with NGOs such as IOM as well as the U.S. government to tackle these challenges.
“Our work is very linked to [the] government of El Salvador[´s] own efforts,” a U.S. government official told Devex. “These are problems that require that we all work together … We’re one partner amongst many, right? But we see a commitment on the part of the society, which includes the government and other organizations, to help address these problems.”
The facility in Mejicanos, a municipality in the department of San Salvador, is one of 16 similar projects in eight municipalities across the country that have both high homicide rates and a large number of returnees. Mejicanos received 253 returnees between January 2017-March 2018, according to IOM.
As a part of the project, IOM also conducts workshops on migration and reintegration for government and community leaders. These aim to increase awareness and reduce the stigmatization of returnees by creating a more receptive environment. The overall goal is also to decrease the chance they might feel the need to leave again.
Alejandro Antonio Turcios, a sports coordinator for the sports’ complex, has organized a soccer tournament for 285 kids. Having formal soccer leagues as well as the ability to play pickup soccer in a safe space has given youth something productive to do with their time, he said, rather than getting involved with gangs that drive much of the country’s violence.
Naomi Montoya, 14, lives just across from the field. She now comes to play soccer nearly every day.
“I come here with my friends to have fun,” she said. “There’s a difference in the field now, before it was just dust.”
When the field was primarily used by men and was not lit or fenced in, it was challenging for girls such as Montoya to use it, said Ada Arevalo, chief of the Mejicanos Department of Social Promotion.
“For girls and youth this is a safe alternative for them,” Arevalo said. “It looks nice and safe, there’s always people that are here.”
According to IOM, 5,632 families and over 26,856 people, including students of the school up the hill from the field, have benefited from the facility overhaul.
In addition to sports activities on the field, the community has also used the complex as a gathering place for other activities such as aerobics classes and health fairs. In the future, they hope to use the public space to conduct workshops and classes on topics such as art and cosmetology, and as a hub to provide additional services to women.
“Of course, there are people that want to migrate … but we’re better than before,” Canalez said of the difference having this public space has made. “Definitively, it has changed the face of the community.”