By Judy Bird

El Salvador GCYL Program 3

Tiarra Bigsnake-Keewatin and a local youth. Photo courtesy SCIC Global Citizen Youth Leadership program.

For Tiarra Bigsnake-Keewatin, a trip to El Salvador in August was a life-changing experience.

“It really opened my eyes. I never really thought much of First Nation kids going out and getting to see the world, and so for me to go out all the way over there, it was pretty spectacular,” she said.

The Peepeekisis First Nation teen was chosen as one of eight students in Saskatchewan to go on the trip with the Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation’s (SCIC) Global Citizen Youth Leadership program. She was also the only First Nation student on the trip.

The program teaches students about Saskatchewan’s international development efforts, community responses to HIV/AIDS in El Salvador, and youth leadership across borders. The students visited projects supported by the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) and their partner in El Salvador, the Committee Against AIDS (CoCoSI).

“El Salvadorians were so amazing. They’re really nice people. They really welcome you with open arms,” said Bigsnake-Keewatin.

She saw similarities between El Salvadorians and First Nations and the living conditions of poverty.

“I grew up on the reserve. I’ve always been witness to that my whole life. Going to El Salvador, seeing that it’s the second largest country impoverished, it wasn’t that big of a shock. You just get used to it. The people reminded me of the people back home. It wasn’t much of a culture shock.”

The students learned about the history and struggles of the people in El Salvador. Since the students didn’t speak much Spanish, and their hosts didn’t speak much English, most communication was done through a translator. The mood wasn’t always so serious, and despite the language barrier, they managed to communicated with the common language of laughter.

“It was like a big game of charades,” said Bigsnake-Keewatin. “If we weren’t learning about about the history and what happened to the the people, it was mostly laughs. It was an emotional trip but also educationally intense. It was really good though.”

One of her favourite memories was during a bus trip with a CoCoSI member named Cesar who taught her a bit of Spanish. She also learned how dangerous life is for Cesar. “He’s the first openly gay male in Santa Marta’s area, and he’s really targeted for getting killed. It’s really taboo to be openly gay, or gay, or anything but heterosexual,” she said.

Back home, Bigsnake-Keewatin is sharing her experience with students in other schools as part of the school speaking tour portion of the program. “My school started a gay-straight alliance club in our school (Bert Fox in Fort Qu’Appelle) after our presentation because some of the teachers were motivated to bring it forth after our presentation here. They wanted me to lead it, so I’m leading that now. It’s my first year at this new school so I don’t know a lot of people but I think I’m making a more positive change.”

She is also beginning to understand just how much the trip and the people in El Salvador changed her. “I don’t think they know how big of an impact they had on me and I didn’t know that either. I think it made me more confident. When we had our fall speaking tour, I was really shy, and it still hurts talking about more of the emotional stuff that we witnessed, and I don’t even think I could get myself to say it, but I know that further down the road when I am more comfortable with saying it, I will be able to express it more,” she said.

El Salvador GCYL Program 2

The students met with the Indigenous people of Izalco just outside of San Salvador, El Salvador to learn about their history of genocide as well as their current community projects aimed at self-sufficiency and cultural survival. Photo courtesy SCIC Global Citizen Youth Leadership program.

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