Honduras program continues despite danger


A group of students from this year’s semester overlook Santa Lucia. Photo by Sarah Hubbel

Since 1996, Calvin has offered a semester programs in Tegulcigalpa, Honduras, focusing on Spanish and development issues in Central America. But after the U.S. Department of State released a travel warning for citizens visiting Honduras this past fall, serious concerns were raised about the trip.

The warning, released on Nov. 21, 2012, detailed prevalent crime and violence that contributed to Honduras’ reputation as the most dangerous country in the world, with a murder rate higher than any other country. The warning also described a lack of ability to prevent such crimes by the Honduran government, citing police corruption and widespread drug trafficking.

“[Drug traffickers] use violence to control drug trafficking routes and carry out other criminal activity,” stated the warning. “Other criminals, acting both individually and in gangs in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, commit crimes such as murder, kidnapping, carjacking, armed robbery, rapes and other aggravated assaults.”

According to Professor Jo Ann Van Engen, who resides in Honduras with her husband as the professors who run the development semester, a little context helps understand the warning.

“In the two months since issuing the travel warning for Honduras, the State Department has issued warnings for 18 other countries including El Salvador, Mexico, The Phillippines, Haiti and Kenya,” said Van Engen. “In the case of Honduras, the U.S. government mentioned in the warning that U.S. citizens are not targeted for crime and that tour groups rarely report any crime.”

Van Engen also referred to one of the many motivations behind the warning: influencing the Honduran government to address the crime problem.

“The truth is that violence has gone up in Honduras and it is sad and something that needs to change,” said Van Engen.

“The U.S. has a very powerful pen and one of the good effects of issuing a warning is that it sends a message to the Honduran government that it needs to work hard to lower the levels of violence in the country.”

However, Tegulcigalpa, the city where students study at La Universidad Pedagogica Nacional, continues to be one of the country’s most crime-ridden areas. This prompted Calvin to send an open letter to students and parents this past fall, keeping them aware of the dangers of the Honduras trip.

According to the letter, the same concerns expressed in the travel warning had already been realized by Calvin during a security audit last year, and significant changes were made to the program as a result.

“Two years ago, we decided to move students to a beautiful little town right on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, the capital,” Van Engen said. “Students live their with their Honduran families and ride the bus to school each day.”

“It has been a really good change. Students love Santa Lucia and life there, but like being close enough to participate in things going on in the city as well. Since the move to Santa Lucia, not one of the students on the development or Spanish semesters has been the victim of any crime.”

Calvin also increased the safety-related training for the program and hired a security consultant to assist Calvin students whenever needed in Honduras. It was measures like that that comforted students like Sarah Hubbel, who is currently in Honduras as a part of the Spanish program.

“Our security expert, Juan Carlos, is a Honduran, so he knows much more about the type of violence that occurs between Hondurans and American tourists,” said Hubbel.

“It was those meetings that prepared us best for how to act while in Honduras.”

While the program definitely has an element of danger that may not be present in other areas, it still brings benefits that convince Calvin professors and students that the program is worth it.

“It’s an incredibly beautiful country with just amazing diversity — you’ve got the Mayan ruins of Copan, the Bay Islands, which are absolutely beautiful, Lake Yojoa surrounded by mountains and all kinds of indigenous culture to explore,” explained Van Engen.

“We have the opportunity to enjoy God’s creation in a different way every single day,” said Hubbel. “Every day we wake up to an amazing view of the mountains; we’ve hiked through waterfalls, explored caves, and enjoyed the crashing waves on the north shore.

“We can enjoy God’s creation anywhere, but I think I can speak for everyone here when I say there’s something about Honduras that reminds us how great and creative our God is.”

There are two off-campus programs that run in Honduras: a Spanish-focused trip led by Pablo Villalta during the spring and a development-focused trip led by VanEngen and her husband Kurt Verbeek in the fall. While each program focuses on something different, both elements are present for each semester.

Van Engen has seen students delve into different projects during the development semester, something she sees as a responsibility for privileged Christians.

“We work with the Association for a more Just Society (AJS), a justice organization which is doing all kinds of cool things in the area of health, education and security, working with the government to make real change that helps the most vulnerable people in Honduras,” said Van Engen.

“Students have worked at bilingual schools, micro-credit organizations, helped build homes, lived with coffee-growing families and helped at drop-in centers for at-risk youth. Its been fun to see what they get involved in and watch them put their hard-earned Spanish to work.”

Despite being in Honduras to focus on Spanish, Hubbel says that the poverty that students have witnessed, even just over the last five weeks, has made an impact.

“Our trips around Honduras and even to Tegucigalpa every day, have been beneficial in the sense that we can really see the poverty that has afflicted Honduras,” said Hubbel.

“I think noticing that poverty and even living in houses without hot water motivates us to follow Jesus’ command to help ‘the least of these.’”