Ahlers Fellow Catharina Nilsson: Tijuana Service Immersion

You never know the circumstances another person deals with on a daily basis, unless you take the time to walk a day in their shoes. The Tijuana Service Immersion Trip that I took on Saturday, March 12th was staggering, disheartening, and awe-inspiring all at once. I learned that, just in a short distance from my comfortable home in San Diego, there is a community that lives with virtually nothing on the outskirts of a landfill in Tijuana, Mexico. I am very grateful to have been able to take part in this experience and want to inform others of the atrocious conditions that this community lives in, not only to educate, but also to instill a sense of initiative in order to take action in any way possible, to help others who aren’t as fortunate.IMG_9839

To start, I will give a brief overview of what the trip encompassed. The first activity, that my volunteer group and I engaged in, included getting involved with the Tijuana community by visiting a local “Scouts” group, much like Boys and Girls Scouts in the United States. We participated in many activities with the Scouts, such as listening to their ritual chants and watching some of the younger members receive honors, in the form of ribbons and sashes, for their achievements. It was a very joyous celebration as all of the Scouts would serenade each member as they received an award. We also sought to educate them more about renewable energy sources and helped them to distinguish between non-renewable, semi-renewable, and renewable. The Scouts split up according to age group, elementary school, middle school, and high school, in order to complete the task. The Scouts used magazines, markers, and other arts and crafts items to showcase their knowledge of these sources. At the end of the activity, two members from each group presented their posters and explained why they thought certain resources were better than others to utilize, in order to improve the sustainability of our planet. The Scouts were very cooperative throughout the activity and were also very curious about how our lives differed from theirs across the border. It was interesting to hear their opinions and views, as well as see the similarities between our interests and activities we enjoy. It was impressive to see that the Scouts were so committed, especially the younger ones still in elementary school, to being a part of a voluntary group that is both caring for their well-being and furthering their education.

The Tijuana trip also contained another component, where we traveled to a landfill on the far outskirts of Tijuana. Driving up to the site at first was astonishing, as it was so far from civilization and we were in a community that barely resembled what I would consider to be a normal “town”. My first thoughts were “Where are we?” and “I can’t believe that people live here”. It was beyond my scope of imagination to think of what life would be like residing next to a large pile of trash.IMG_9842 My volunteer group and I exited the van, taking in our surroundings, and then started to help organize and distribute clothing donated by a local organization to the impoverished community that lived around this landfill. After the community members chose their articles of clothing, we went on a tour of the “town”. We quickly found out that the community had no running water, no electricity, and only small little shacks to protect themselves from the sun, wind, and cold weather. Many of the children living in the community do not have birth certificates and have not had access to a formal education system, so they do not have any opportunity to engage in the real world, nevertheless are they even recognized as real citizens.IMG_9841 The community’s main function is to sort and burn trash that is deposited there by the other citizens of Tijuana. It was beyond saddening to see the conditions that they live in. Also, some group members and I witnessed a dog, who was on the brink of death, suffering on a dirt path while walking around the community. It was so difficult having to walk away, especially being an animal lover, knowing that there was absolutely nothing that we could do to help quell the dog’s pain. The dog’s suffering, however, was a wake up call, in the way that it sort of represents the incurable situation that all of the community members are in right now. I was glad that there is already an organization, the one we paired up with for this component of the trip, set up that was trying to find ways to help the community. The organization’s main goal is to spread the word about the community, and hopefully, get more people involved in its mission to help the community members live a better existence.

Reflecting back on the experience, I believe that the activities I participated in while on the trip were very eye-opening and gave me a better understanding of what other citizens of this world are going through, such as living in simultaneously depressing and mind-boggling conditions, and not having access to what I think are basic human rights, such as running water and an education.IMG_9844

I am very passionate about promoting sustainable practices and ethics, as I want to be able to give future generations the same opportunities that our current generations have, by helping to maintain a healthy planet that we will be able to live on for many years to come. I will always have the Scouts and the community living around the landfill in mind when trying to come up with better ways to combat our ever prominent issue of creating too much waste. I will also continue to brainstorm ways to increase impoverished communities chances of elevating their status by supplying jobs that require more than, in this case, just burning trash. It would be amazing to give the community members the opportunity to receive an education and to gain skills that are vital to use renewable energy sources that are beneficial for our planet and for their well-being. I believe in the power of word-of-mouth, and will continue to spread the message in order for others to see the major issue of creating too much waste, that is occurring not only in Tijuana, but also worldwide.

To check out more student experiences, visit our Study Abroad blog page.

Information on international opportunities can also be found on our website.

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