Sitting in my room at the Balmoral Hotel in San Jose, I was nervous and excited for the first time in my two week adventure through Costa Rica for something other than the worry that big waves were about to break on my head. Most surfers heading to Costa Rica limit their time in San Jose to just the day before their flight leaves, but I was here in the middle of my trip for a different, more important reason. It was great to see how the city had changed over the years. Since the Liberia airport had opened in the north, I hadn’t flown into San Jose in decades.
Part of this trip, the part beyond the surfing, was to connect with various organizations in Costa Rica that I might be able to support through our coffee sales. So far I had planted trees in Nosara with a group called Costas Verdes and had met with Beverly Kitson, founder of the Kitson Library (also in Nosara), to learn more about the educational challenges she’s been helping to address for many years. Through a group called the Amigos of Costa Rica, I had also been put in touch with Margarita Herdocia of Ticos y Nicas Somos Hermanos and I was about to meet a group of their HUG Scholars for lunch.
About Ticos y Nicas Somos Hermanos
Ticos y Nicas is an organization, founded by Herdocia, to “promote brotherhood among peoples, and aid to the Nicaraguan migrant to Costa Rica.” With a shared border to the north but vastly different political environments, there are between 500,000-750,000 Nicaraguan migrants in Costa Rica. However, the recent political unrest, with student-led protests against the Ortega government leading the way, has created a new and more urgent need to support these young people who have been forced to flee their home country.
In April 2018, protests initially fueled by social security reform morphed into a call for Ortega to step down. Protesters included student groups who were routinely fired upon by paramilitaries despite being holed up in schools and churches. As the unrest continued through the summer of 2018, attacks on journalists, students and even Catholic Bishops would become routine. With most media and universities shut down, students and others involved in the protests were forced to flee. A year later, over 500 people believed dead and many hundreds more in jail, doctors were being dismissed for flaunting orders not to treat protesters, and a tourist industry that accounted for 6% of GDP was in tatters.
Student protesters were a large part of the uprising against Ortega, and they felt most of the force used to clamp down. Fleeing to Costa Rica was their only option in most cases, but as I would come to learn, one that they didn’t take lightly.
Meeting for Lunch
I had been communicating off and on with Ms. Herdocia for the last few weeks about scheduling an opportunity to meet with some of these student refugees in Costa Rica. I wanted to hear their stories about their experiences during the protests in Nicaragua, but also about their new lives in Costa Rica.
I was also greatly looking forward to meeting Margarita, but it wasn’t to be as other obligations prevented the timing from coming together. In her place, she asked another member of Ticos y Nicas, Alvaro Salas, to join. Alvaro turned out to be a fascinating character in his own right.
Joining us at the luncheon (hosted by TGIFridays who is a large supporter of Ticos y Nicas), were four beneficiaries of the HUG scholarship. The HUG (Humanitarian University Grant) scholarship awards full tuition coverage for to attend ULCIT – the Latinamerica University of Science and Technology in San Jose. To be eligible for the HUG scholarship, these students were already excelling both academically and as leaders in their communities at home in Nicaragua. It was clear that they were smart, but also extremely grateful for the opportunity that the scholarship had given them. It was pretty simple, they had come here with nothing and without the financial help continuing their studies just wouldn’t be possible.
I arrived in the a downpour, this was Costa Rica in June after all. Sitting down for lunch I was fascinated to hear the stories from these students. Yet it was great to see that they were also just college kids, loading up on food on someone else’s tab the way I had done when I was that age – steaks, desert, nothing was to be missed. It was a great day out. Having participated in the protests in various ways, they and their families were now in serious danger of imprisonment or worse. Showing up in Costa Rica, this scholarship and their connection with Ticos y Nicas was a lifeline that allowed them to live and continue their studies while they awaited the right opportunity to return home. In addition, due to the connections they were making, opportunities for internships and future jobs were opening up for them. They had truly gone from their darkest of days to a glimmer of light with the help of this organization and its supporters.
The most interesting thing that caught my attention though, that each and every one of them could not wait to return home, to Nicaragua. It wasn’t an ‘if I return’ but ‘when I return’, and that country will need these exceptional young individuals if it intends to have any sort of future beyond the Ortega dictatorship. I couldn’t even begin to understand the hardships they had faced and I have a lot to learn from their bravery.
They can’t wait to get home, and although I fear it will take a while, I look forward to hearing about all the good they do in the future.