Wow. Where to start?

The IWMF fellowship was top-notch at every single turn, starting with the tremendous HEFAT training. In addition to learning self-defense skills and basic First Aid, I also came away with some great, non-technical pointers for protecting myself as a female reporter. For example, I now know to make hotel reservations using my first initial and last name, so as to hide my gender. And to ask for two room keys, even when I’m alone, so people think another person is staying with me. I pray I never have to use some of the other skills I learned – like what to do if I am kidnapped or in an active shooter situation – but it’s also comforting to know that I have some preparation if that ever comes to pass.

I went on the reporting trip to El Salvador with the fabulous photographer Alicia Vera. We planned to work on two stories – about how climate change is decimating specialty coffee production, and the impact of a historic, year-old mining ban on gold and other minerals. Then we arrived in El Salvador and President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy separating migrant families at the border erupted into the news cycle. Our editors in the U.S. wanted stories from El Salvador about this topic, and so Alicia and I switched gears (as was also the case for many of the other fellows on this reporting trip). We continued reporting on the coffee story – and hope to publish a piece on that soon – but ditched the idea about mining and instead focused on the immigration crisis.

We spent two days at a migrant center in the capital city of San Salvador. I interviewed one of El Salvador’s top officials about the country’s response to Trump’s family separation policy, as well as spoke with many Salvadorans who had been deported. I used this material for several stories for National Public Radio. At the same time, Alicia and I struggled with asking (which can sometimes feel like harassing) people for interviews in their most vulnerable moments – a feeling compounded by the herd of other reporters doing the exact same thing. With that in mind, our goal was to identify people we could follow up with later in more intimate settings.

Sometimes reporting can lead to unexpected places, and that was the case for us. We ended up pursuing an unusual story about the ties between the gangs in El Salvador and the evangelical church, and how the church offers the only escape route for many young people looking to avoid or get out of gang life. This topic has so many interesting layers – the symbiotic embrace between the gangs and the Evangelical Church is fascinating and one that I find myself still thinking about weeks after the trip. One thing is clear: young people growing up in gang-controlled neighborhoods have very few life paths to pursue, and the church offers perhaps the safest route.

Before I end this post, I want to give a huge shout-out to IWMF, which in addition to the HEFAT training, assembled the dream team of people who enabled us to do these stories and didn’t get a byline. Just consider: there were six reporters on the El Salvador trip, and another six people behind the scenes helping us figure out who to interview, where to go, and ensuring our safety. (That doesn’t even include the drivers.) Not only that, they kept us in constant laughter despite the very heavy subject matters we were reporting on. Shoot. I forgot one more thing. That’s that the other women on the trip are some of the most supportive, engaging and talented reporters I’ve met. I have no doubt we will continue to support each other and collaborate in the years to come.

– Emily Green