Making friends with AMIGOS

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

By Priscilla Hoang

Amigos de las Américas (AMIGOS) is an organization dedicated to developing young people’s leadership skills through community work and international travel. For the past two weeks, 26 high-school aged Youth Ambassadors from Paraguay and Uruguay have been occupying Room 7 in my school. It is their last day in the Bay Area before embarking on another journey to Washington D.C. I’ve had the honor of meeting the students and learning more about where they come from.

The video is an interview with two students from Uruguay prior to the trip.

Most of the students come from low-income areas and have never traveled outside of their country. Having the opportunity to come to the Bay Area on a scholarship is one of the most rewarding experiences they have ever encountered in their lives. The Youth Ambassadors have met with many different organizations around the Bay Area, including Youth Speaks, Oakland Chinatown Youth Center, Youth Together, East Side Arts Alliance, Mandela Marketplace, UC Berkeley Alumni, and many more that even I, as an Oakland native, do not know about.

It’s so heartwarming when they tell me, “Wow! Everything here is great. Clean streets... good food… nice people!” The amount of gratitude and positive energy within the group is astounding.

“AND OMG THEY WOULD JUST WALK TOGETHER AND SING LIKE NATIONAL SONGS OUT LOUD. It was so beautiful seeing how close they were and how much they bonded. They had such a sense of community, I was jealous. In America, we don’t have community. We keep to ourselves more… it was really cool and I hope to see them again before they leave back to their country…” – Geoffrey Dang, Oakland Chinatown Youth Center.

The exchange students I’ve spoken with express how much knowledge they’ve gained on the trip. But I feel like the group has given just as much knowledge and love as they’ve received. The Youth Ambassadors presented the histories of Paraguay and Uruguay, local cuisine, what they enjoy in their spare time, and much more. They bring so much caring and love that is lacking in my community. I watched a peer compliment one of the youth’s pins, and without hesitation, the pin was taken off and placed in the hand of the former.

Santiago, a young man that I interviewed, told me, “I am just so happy to be here. I want to make the most of my experience and meet new friends. In Uruguay, people value friendliness and helpfulness. That describes you!” All this even after the initial excitement of working with the Advanced Spanish class had worn off. He came to find that none of us had sufficient conversational skills.

After my interview, I gave Santiago a red envelope containing a good luck charm and several varieties of candy in honor of the Chinese New Year. I told him, “Although this is not typical, I wanted to share a piece of my culture with you…” and he immediately gave me a hug and an air kiss. “You are so cute, thank you so so much!” He couldn’t contain his excitement and immediately put the charm around his neck, which I appreciated.

The Youth Ambassadors leave me with new hope that even cultural, language, and physical barriers aren’t enough to prevent people from connecting. The smiles and laughter made up for the awkward glances and words lost in translation. It doesn’t matter that we may never meet again.

Learning, growth, and friendship are universal.

I hope to see Santiago again. He told me he plans to move to San Francisco after college to be my roommate.

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