Waves of reinvention

If you were moved, as I was, by the story of Nicaraguan refugee and law student Elizabeth, featured last year on the blog and last week in YES! Magazine, here’s an update for you.

Elizabeth had to reinvent herself after fleeing Nicaragua in 2018: the former law student found work in the snack bar of a gym, trained herself in entrepreneurial skills at the Transforma Foundation, and became a life-changing coach for women struggling with government bureaucracy. You can read more here.

Well, the COVID-19 crisis has forced her to reinvent herself yet again, because she has no longer been able to work at the gym. Together with other women in her community, Elizabeth is making nacatamales, the Nicaraguan incarnation of the delicious tamal treats enjoyed throughout Latin America. (For more on nacatamales, check out the piece in Nicaragua’s La Prensa from which the featured image was taken.)

A community member prepares nacatamales in San José, Costa Rica.

Those familiar with Costa Rican Christmas tamales will recognize much of the process Elizabeth describes: “We prepare the masa with spices, and cook it. Then, in the [banana] leaves, we put the masa with rice, potato, carrot, onion, sweet peppers, meat and pork.” The women, who carefully prepare the tamales wearing masks, then take orders by phone and send them to hungry customers throughout western and central San José. The growing effort has helped provide for their families during the massive economic crisis overwhelming Costa Rica, with its outsize impact on our immigrant and refugee communities.

If you know someone in San José who would like to become a customer, please contact me for details. For readers out of Elizabeth’s nacatamal territory, I share this story as one more example of tireless reinvention and ingenuity. I say “tireless” because every time I express admiration and astonishment and Elizabeth’s latest endeavor, I am met, without fail, with seemingly unshakeable good cheer and energy. When it comes to resilience, she and her fellow cooks are giving us a master class.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or FacebookIf you want to learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.

A celebration of immigrants making a difference

I researched and wrote this piece in a different, pre-pandemic world – for one of my favorite publications, YES! Magazine. Its release was delayed by the COVID-19 coverage that the magazine needed to undertake, and the headline is very poignant now because of all the anti-Nicaraguan sentiment that has grown in Costa Rica in recent weeks because of the interaction between migration dynamics and COVID outbreaks. I just spoke with a Nicaraguan leader this morning who is experiencing terrible xenophobia in Costa Rica right now, so the phrase “Costa Rica’s embrace” weighs heavy on my heart.

However, this just makes a spotlight on the grassroots efforts of Nicaraguan migrants in Costa Rica more important than ever. I hope that this story helps remind people that immigrants and refugees are making an increible contribution to Costa Rica and to all countries around the world.

It was a tremendous honor to meet Elizabeth, whose story sparked the whole piece, along with Carlos, Margarita, José, José Andrés, René and the other incredible Nicaraguan and Nicaraguan-Costa Rican leaders I met along the way. It was also an honor to learn more about the amazing work of Asociacion Ticos Y Nicas: Somos Hermanos, the HUG program at ULACITSOS Nicaragua D.H desde Costa Rica, and the Fundación Transforma, led by Vanessa Valenzuela. These organizations and their communities need our support more than ever before, so I hope you will click through to those tags and learn more about them. U.S. citizens might be particularly interested in the donation option for Ticos y Nicas and the HUG Scholarships, here through Amigos of Costa Rica.

I am very grateeful to YES! and editor Lornet Turnbull for making it possible for me to share these stories. This was a wonderful return from editing to reporting, and I loved every minute I got to spend with these simply extraordinary human beings. I hope you do, too. (Featured image by Carlos Huezo/SOS Nicaragua.) Here’s the story:

What We Can Learn from Costa Rica’s Embrace of Migrants

The overlooked mental health of migrants – and a wellness tip for all

In what I think of as both of my countries, the United States and Costa Rica, waves of migrants and refugees fleeing violence and oppression have dominated plenty of headlines in recent years. However, the impact of migration on mental health is generally not at the forefront, at least not for adults. Since I’m an immigrant myself, this topic is close to my heart, not despite the privileged way I migrated but because of it: the fact that I immigrated voluntarily with every economic, linguistic and cultural advantage, but experienced loneliness and homesickness nonetheless, makes me particularly keen to know more about how the migrants and refugees pouring over borders are coping.

I know lots of Daily Boost readers are in the same camp, so this seemed like a natural place to start when exploring mental health this month. Obviously, it’s incumbent upon the countries that receive migrants and the public and private entities that serve them to provide medical care for serious mental health issues, but I was also curious how organizations are dealing with the earlier steps – providing general support and alleviating sadness. To learn more this, I called Margarita Herdocia.

Margarita Herdocia (second from left) with HUG fellows. Via FB/Ticos y Nicas

Margarita is an extraordinary leader in business and philanthropy whose life story could take up this whole post, but who, among many other efforts, is the president of the Asociación Ticos y Nicas Somos Hermanos, which helps fight xenophobia and support migrants to Costa Rica. Passionate about the violence taking place in her native Nicaragua and the need to help young refugees here continue their university education, she has spearheaded the Humanitarian University Grant (HUG) Program and to fund the continuing education of more than 21 young Nicaraguan refugees.

Thanks to donations from many supporters, the group keeps growing so that these bright young Nicaraguans don’t miss their chance to continue learning. The way Margarita sees it, it’s a huge opportunity not just for Nicaragua’s future, but also for Costa Rica as the host for these brilliant young people – and having met some of the scholarship recipients, I fully agree.

Here’s what she had to say about ways she seeks to support the mental health of her students, and how these practices can apply to all of us:

Mental health is something that, despite everything we talk about these days, is so taboo, and people are really stressed out. In particular, migrating is really stressful, and it’s something that’s usually not looked at. Migrants are seen as people who need jobs, and that’s mostly what is thought about: their Social Security coverage, do they have permits or are they working illegally. They are not thought of as people who really need mental health support.

At the HUG Program, we hold monthly meetings with the students, support-group style. I lead the support groups personally. We have total confidentiality and rules about how we can hear people as they communicate their needs, their distress, their life story, their current mental and emotional state. HUG students have become a social support network for each other… these young people stop being lonely migrants, and they know that they are not alone… You can’t overestimate the importance of belonging for a young person.

The HUG scholars also get exposed to different events with leaders of Costa Rica, whether they are social leaders, business leaders – we even take them to concerts and different types of events. They go from feeling irrelevant to, “Oh my goodness. Life is not only sad. Life is not only difficult. There are also connections, and these people I’m meeting have a big name, but they are also human beings.” That’s also character building. It’s what we call building social capital.

A key component that I think can help anybody – emotionally, spiritually, mentally – is that part of the deal of getting this HUG scholarship is that they must volunteer with one of the charity organizations that we support. These HUG scholars, young people, have to serve and help, whether it’s in an old people’s infirmary or having dinner with girls from orphanages that we sometimes take out, or visiting them in the orphanages – so they have an immediate switch from, “I’m a victim, I’m a migrant, I’m poor, I’m new in a new country” to all of a sudden, “I am a helper. I am the one who provides happiness. I am the one who gives emotional support.”

It is by giving emotional support that you actually strengthen your own, and that is huge. It’s not only something that can be done for students, but something that all of us have to do. The moment we stay inside our heads, thinking “Oh, poor me,” it’s just a downward spiral. The minute you step out of your mind and go serve another, you go from victim to helper, and that’s a huge leap in self-esteem.

That’s a prescription I recommend for everybody, whether you’re a migrant or not. Try, on a regular basis, to get out of yourself and go serve others. Then you’ll see how all problems take a different perspective, and it also becomes a mental health insurance and protection that is enormous. To me, that is the biggest anti-depressant: to go and help and serve others.

To learn more about the HUG program or the Asociación Ticos y Nicas and how to sponsor a HUG scholar, visit their website and Amigos of Costa Rica affiliate page. Read more about my January focus on mental health here.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

 

Why Costa Rica should back up its ‘happiest country’ brand with real talk in 2020

Happy Monday! In 2020, I’m taking the Daily Boost up a notch with a monthly theme, and this month’s is (drumroll please)… mental health! Yes, I’m starting late this month because my mother was visiting, and there’s nothing more important to my mental health than soaking up every minute she’s around.

Every month, I’ll highlight changemakers related to the theme, sharing not only their stories and work but also their tips for travel and living in Costa Rica. I’ll even do a giveaway related to the theme because, in Costa Rica, name just about any social or environmental issue, and I’ll show you small businesses, artisans or nonprofits creating cool products within that wheelhouse. Obviously, not everything during a month will relate to the theme – I’ve gotta save room for plenty of randomness.

So why mental health for January? Because this is a critical and exciting time in Costa Rica for people who care about this issue, and I couldn’t think of a better way to start the new year. First, the critical: Many in the country’s tourism industry tout Costa Rica’s reputation as “the happiest country on earth,” but it is struggling with high suicide rates. The public health care system is working to improve its attention to mental health issues; as with any kind of health care, access is vastly different for different economic groups and geographies, and stigma surrounding mental health disorders worsens this breach. Last year’s emergence of sexual assault and abuse allegations surrounding public figures in Costa Rica provided a glimpse into the massive lack of resources and support for people grappling with mental health challenges arising from abuse. A massive influx of migrants, especially from Nicaragua due to the terrible violence there, has created its own set of emotional problems for people living in exile and isolation.

The exciting part? In Costa Rica, as in many places around the world, mental health champions are not only working steadily in the shadows as they have for years, but also harnessing the power of social media to start lifting the veil on these issues and casting aside the shame that so often results from and contributes to mental health disorders. What’s more, nonprofits focused on teen health and migrant well-being are finding new ways to offer support. In the coming days I’ll be sharing insights from Cris Gomar, founder of Vaso Lleno; migrant rights advocate Margarita Herdocia; and the outstanding nonprofit TeenSmart.

Assessing the happiness of a population is a worthwhile task, because it’s part of creating national indicators that go beyond the economic. What’s more, the public health achievements and strong social networks that help power Costa Rica’s high happiness rankings are worthy of celebration and study. However, the downside is that the “happiest” label makes it even easier to sweep problems under the rug. Here’s to a year in which Costa Rica’s happiness titles are increasingly used as a conversation-starter, rather than a reason for self-congratulation. That way, the studies and accolades will not only celebrate Costa Rica, but also make it a happier place – for real.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

 

Day 26: Meet a Nicaraguan refugee who’s changing lives in Costa Rica

Can you imagine fleeing through the night at age 25 with your two children, over mountains and through dark, unfamiliar landscapes, knowing death awaits you in the place you have called home for your entire life? Can you imagine starting from scratch in a country you have never seen before, where your university studies are worth only the resourcefulness and confidence they instilled in you?

In some abstract way, we can picture it. Sort of. The headlines and statistics surrounding the world’s refugee crises have been inviting us to put ourselves in these shoes for some time now. We sigh, shudder and, in most cases, move on, because – what can we do, exactly? You and I?

Well, try to picture this next part, because the most shocking element of this woman’s story is yet to come. Imagine just starting to get your feet under you, with this traumatic flight just barely in your rearview mirror, with your refugee application still under review, with a new job for which you commute for hours around a crowded city while you also juggle your two kids’ needs. Imagine now saying to yourself, “Well, now that I’ve got some income, it’s about time I did some social responsibility work. Why don’t I put in some serious volunteer hours helping other women to navigate their public aid institutions?”

Can you imagine that? I sure can’t. I don’t do anything like that in my spare time, and that’s without a single one of the disadvantages that this woman could use as an excuse. But for Elizabeth, those disadvantages aren’t excuses. They’re divine clues that are leading her toward her life’s purpose as an advocate for people during the worst moments of their lives. Within five minutes of meeting her last week, my jaw had dropped, and her story is still ringing through my head days later. I knew I had to share it here.

Elizabeth is part of a community of women who have come together to support each other at TRANSFORMA, in San Rafael de Montes de Oca. Photo courtesy of TRANSFORMA.

This law student from Bluefields, Nicaragua, fled her home one day before it erupted in violence last year, part of the ongoing violence and oppression inflicted on Nicaraguans by the government of President Daniel Ortega that has sent so many Nicaraguans across their southern border to seek safety in Costa Rica in recent months and years. (While the crisis has produced one horrific headline after another, the day following Elizabeth’s flight stands out even against that backdrop, because it included the murder of a journalist while making a Facebook Live broadcast on the street in Elizabeth’s hometown.)

She landed in Alajuelita, a canton just south of San José, and eventually found work in a small restaurant all the way across town in Curridabat. In between, she found TRANSFORMA, a nonprofit organization that trains and supports women to become social impact leaders in their low-income communities. The women receive technical training in fields such as sewing and beauty services, but also holistic leadership training and peer support, as well as onsite childcare during their classes. They come together each week in a peaceful building in San Rafael de Montes de Oca, on the east side of the city, to learn but also lean on each other.

Visiting the center last week, I could see why women travel from all the way across town or even hours away – one woman, for example, comes from the Central Pacific coastal town of Jacó – to soak in this positive atmosphere. TRANFORMA motivates the women to develop economic activities that benefit their families, but also empowers them as community leaders, reminding them that no matter how small their microenterprise, they have the potential to give back. Many of the women donate hours of volunteer work or other services to their communities.

“TRANSFORMA has been a blessing, a source of hope. I was in a state of terrible depression. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I had never visited Costa Rica before… it was a huge change. I had never experienced such vulnerability,” Elizabeth told me. “When I came into TRANSFORMA it raised my spirits. I began to belief in myself and I’ve found my vocation, my meaning in life.”

TRANSFORMA director Vanessa Valenzuela had been working with Elizabeth for only a few months when she noticed that Elizabeth had gotten bureaucratic ducks in a row with astonishing speed – something anyone who’s lived in Costa Rica can appreciate. She’d not only completed all the components of her refugee application under difficult circumstances, but also successfully obtained all the forms of support from the Institute for Social Aid, or IMAS, that she was entitled to as a refugee applicant. Some of the Costa Rican women Valenzuela has worked with have been in their situations for decades without achieving those same paperwork milestones that can really make a difference in a family’s life.

Recognizing talent, Vanessa invited Elizabeth to join her in researching the reasons why some women are unable to navigate Costa Rica’s public aid bureaucracies. Their conclusion? A major make-or-break factor was a woman’s ability to concisely summarize her situation and know enough about the institution she was addressing to ask for the right aid channels. Often, after a long wait, with only two minutes to make her case to a rushed government official at a tiny window, a woman asked to boil down her life story to a few sentences would stammer and ramble, leading to “Come back in three months once you’ve filled out Form 3B.”

With Vanessa, Elizabeth started guiding Costa Rican and fellow immigrant women who needed public support through an appreciative inquiry to get to the heart of their needs, and coaching them to be able to make their case confidently and in line with the services each public institution provides. The results were clear: Vanessa and Elizabeth saw an uptick in successful applications by the women who were coached.

Elizabeth wants to continue doing this coaching, find a way to finish her law degree and create a law firm that serves immigrants.

“It’s very natural for me: I want in the bottom of my heart to help others,” she says.

Elizabeth asked that her surname be withheld to protect her family’s privacy. To learn more about TRANSFORMA and how to support Elizabeth or social impact leaders like her, visit https://www.transformacr.org/.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

The amazing true story of tuanis and brete – words to be thankful for

Hi there – just wanted to say thanks so much for your support and readership, and to share my first two columns in The Tico Times, which are inspired by (and will sometimes overlap with) “The Dictionary of You” and will run every other Monday from here on out. The column, “Maeology,” looks at Costa Rican culture and the expatriate experience through the country’s language and slang. I will continue to add them to the “Portfolio” section of the blog as they appear.

A love letter to Costa Rica’s second language, Nov. 10, 2014

The amazing true story of tuanis and brete, Nov. 24, 2014