Tuesday 27th June 2017

The phone call came through around 6pm as Ben and me had just started to work with the children and their families in a place called Las Casitas in La Terminal in Guatemala City.  It was Frank, the coordinator of the mentoring programme and he was calling to ask for help as a lady and her 7 children had been brought to our Centre and were in desperate need.  We decided to return immediately to assess the situation.

As we opened the door of the Centre we found Doña Cecilia sat on the stairs and her 7 children playing in the entrance area with various toys.  Looking into Doña Cecilia´s face I could see that desperation and sense of abandonment that we often see when people begin to give up on life.  I introduced myself and Ben and was informed as to why they had been brought to us by Doña Judith who had found them sleeping in the streets.

It´s a story that will continue to be told over the next few weeks I am sure but one that was hard to hear and tough to get out of our heads last night.  I later discussed the various situations we faced during last night with Ben as we stopped for dinner around 10:30pm.  We were both exhausted and needed to talk and make plans for what we would do tomorrow for the children and families we came across tonight and the need was far too overwhelming for us both.

Doña Cecilia had taken the decision to leave her home in the early hours of Sunday morning with her 7 young children and head to the city centre and eventually La Terminal.  It was not an easy decision but she knew she had to protect herself and her children who have suffered years of abuse by her husband and his parents.  Her own family lives nearby, but according to Doña Cecilia, they are all drug addicts and “dangerous people”.

DoñaCeceiliaI invited her to the office to talk more about the situation while Frank and Ben entertained the children.  Doña Cecilia was understandably cautious with the information but eventually Juan Carlos, one of our team, and me started to piece together the bare bones version in order to offer some immediate help.  Doña Cecilia told us stories of her abuse at the hands of her husband and his parents and how he had hit the two older boys (9 and 7) in the face on Saturday and left all of them in such a state that caused her to abandon the home and take the children with her.  She told us how she was often forced to forage for food for them as her husband provided very little for the children, spending any money he earned on drink.  Sometimes she was forced to sleep outside in the streets and on various occasions lived in the forest in order to stay safe.  It was a captivating and depressing story but we now needed to act and do something.

The immediate need was to find them safe place to sleep for the night and thanks to Juan Carlos a room was found in zone 1 with two beds, a toilet and shower.  The next would be to work with Doña Cecilia in getting all the papers of the children in order so that they could be taken to the authorities, as it was clear she could not look after them.  The children would be placed in a home and she would then have visiting access while she found work and established a home for them. 

The reality of the situation was starting to dawn on her and she begun to cry.  Her oldest, 10-year-old Damaris, came in and comforted her mum and started to tell me how she felt when she knew they were all going to have to sleep on the streets: “I was so scared”, she said “and worried all night about what would happen to us”.  She is a brave soul and it is clear she is a huge support to her mum and helps with the care of her younger siblings.

CelciliaFamilyEventually we managed to fit them all in the jeep and take them to their room where they were so happy to see two beds and where the children began to shower and change into cleaner clothes.  Ben had gone with the family and Juan Carlos to the room while Frank accompanied me to Las Casitas as Ben and me had gone there to look in on three young children who have started to spend more time on the streets.  All three were in their shack when we first visited but we had to leave them when we got the phone call and so informed them would be back ASAP.

I knocked on the door of the shack and since there was now answer slowly pushed the door open to discover a young child asleep on a pile of clothes, a fire smoldering to my right, which is where the mum had been cooking earlier, and the room filled with smoke.  As I pulled the door closed the mum arrived carrying two large pieces of cardboard and scuttled past us and into her shack.  A few seconds later she appeared and tried to greet us but it was clear she was very drunk and was struggling to make sense and stand upright!

We spent time with three other families before leaving to look for the three children that should be with her in the home.  We knew that they would either be in “las maquinitas” (game machines)or en La Casona and begun our search.  We walked further into La Terminal and then two girls came to tell us that we needed to go with them to help an old lady who they had found was living on her own and in a bad way.

Accompanied by the two girls we hurried along the dimly-lit passageways that is a haven to drug dealers, market stall vendors and contract killers.  Eventually we found her shack and knocked on her door for about 1 minute before she called out and asked who it was.  On hearing the voice of the two girls she opened the door and invited us in. 

Doña Rosita is 80 years of age and was one of the very first people to build a shack in Las Casitas for her and her son.  Now her home is a crumbling mess of burnt and rotten wood that props up sheets of tin that always leak when heavy rains come.  The floor is just dirt and everywhere there is evidence of rats, cobwebs and a layer of dust has formed over everything but her bed.  Doña Rosita shows us around and tells us she asks God to take her every night but would he do so during the week so that she would not be left for dead over the weekend because she didn´t want her body to be left to decay and just be eaten by worms.  She told us of how her neighbours have told her she should die so that they can take her shack and benefit from the space she currently occupies.

The girls begin to tell me how they try and pop by during the week to see how she is doing and bring her food when they have some spare.  This leads us to discover that her son pays for her electric meter and gives her £1.50 a week to live on! Doña Rosita begins to cry and tells me that some days all she has to eat is two small tortillas, and not fresh ones either - these are tortillas that others have discarded.

The harrowing story gets worse as she tells us her fears of going to sleep at night.  “I have to leave the light on all night”, she tells me “because the bat comes in and tries to feed on me”.  Rather startled by what I have just heard I probe a little more and discover that a bat has taken up residence somewhere in the shack and comes out at night and bites her face for blood.  The thought of what is happening is like something from a horror movie but Doña Rosita shows me how she cups her hands to collect the blood that streams down her face from the last attack.  If it´s not the bat it´s the rats and with her makeshift mattress on the dirt floor this situation is not going to get any better.

We pray for her and promise to come back when we have decided what we can do to help.  I tell Ben later that I don´t know what we can do but we must do something.

Frank and me continue our search for the three children and as we look among “las maquintitas” and we are told they have not been around for the last hour or so but then come across 13-year-old Jonathan.  Jonathan is now working full-time on the streets selling sweets like his father and is now resting from his day of walking the streets and pleased he has something to take home to help with the family income.  He is sitting on one of the now closed market stalls and introduces us to his two young friends Marvin and Lucas, 10 and 12 respectively.

The three boys then introduce us to other young boys who have been selling on the streets all day and now were looking to start a game of football in the streets.  I call them all together and explain who we are and what we do on the streets and that if they ever needed to talk to anyone about anything then they could talk to us.  The boys thanked us, gave us the customary hand punch and then walked with us as we dropped Jonathan back at his home as he told us he had to be home by 9pm and it was now 8:55pm.

BenSoden1Ben joined me now and Frank went home and we both accompanied Jonathan to his home followed by his little mates.  We chatted about their lives and Ben was desperate to tell me how it had gone with the family but that would have to wait as we had now arrived at La Casona and needed to say goodnight to Jonathan and the boys before greeting the guys in the streets.

Before we could cross the road to say hi to them all Vicky came over and grabbed onto me and started to cry.  She had called me earlier in the afternoon in a state as she was once again behind on her bills and needed support, advice and comfort.  Vicky has lived on the streets for many years and then took the very brave decision to leave and look after her 4 children.  Life hit her hard as her husband was arrested for theft and is now in prison.  Tonight her 4 children will once again have to spend the night alone without their mum as Vicky hangs out with her friends on the streets and tries to beg at the traffic lights in order to take something back to her family.

It was at this point that 3 young boys came over and sat next to us and begun to compete for our attention.  Ben and me had gone out earlier in the evening with the plan to visit the boys but when we got to one of their shacks they were not there and so we headed for the game machines to look for them.

All 3 boys were sniffing solvents, the youngest, Danny who just 9, is holding his grubby hand to his mouth and trying to gain some form of comfort from his solvent-soaked rag.  The other boys are Jon who is 10 and Carlos who is 14.  Tonight they all look so small and vulnerable and Carlos grabbed hold of my arm and wrapped it around his neck whilst dropping his head into my shoulder.  His show of affection encouraged the other two to reach out in various ways whilst trying to look cool and hard at the same time.  It was both funny and desperately sad.

As I tried to finish my conversation with Vicky the boys slipped away and walked to the other side of the street where they squatted down next to one of the guys who had a bad accident that had left him with a very swollen leg and foot and two large open wounds.  The boys kept calling me over to look at his leg and do something for him.  The streetlights illuminated a scene that could be from any city around the world – young boys squatting down in the streets, scruffy, dirty and with that desperate look of abandonment that is comforted by the abuse of solvents.  They are nobody´s children right now and it breaks my heart to see them like this.

I cross the street to help Juan with his leg the discussion quickly turns to what happened earlier that day to Geovany.  Geovany is now in his mid 30s and I remember meeting him 25 years ago when he was a small boy on the streets of El Hoyo, in La Teminal.  He is one of the very few who have survived the streets and found a job recently and was hoping, yet again,  to start a new life.  For some reason someone poured solvent over his face and then set it alight.  He had severe burns and walked back to La Casona shaking with shock and so the guys helped get him to hospital.  He remains in a critical condition and we pray he will come through but what next for him?  The street takes everything from you; it wears you down, crushes your spirit, robs you of your humanity and leaves you desperately clinging on to another pulse of life.

Sleeping tonight won´t be easy and Ben and me will hope to have some energy to work another day.

Friday 26th May

“Amazing, disturbing, inspiring and depressing”. These were the words I heard from the Lord Bishop of Bristol, Rt. Rev Mike Hill, after his day with our project here in Guatemala City.

Bishop Mike Hill has been visiting us over the last few days and wanted to see for himself the work I am doing here with Mi Arca and so accompanied me on a whirlwind tour of our Centre, the new building we would like to use for the Protection Home and then onto the streets.

Mike in TerminalI was dropping Mike off, together with his armed bodyguard, at his hotel and Mike was reflecting back over his day.  He mentioned how it would take him time to process what he had seen and wondered how I was able to keep going with the relentless demands on my time, the pain of seeing so much abuse and the constant dangers all around on a daily basis.

I have known Mike since 1987 when I joined his staff team as a youth worker and then five years later left the parish in Chesham Bois to move to Guatemala and founded The Toybox Charity and the El Castillo project.

When Mike, his bodyguard, the Mi Arca street team and me headed to the streets I was sure he would find the afternoon and evening difficult.  No sooner as we arrived in La Terminal a man was shot in the chest and sadly Mike had to witness the guy fighting for his life as the municipal ambulance team tried to keep blood loss to a minimum.  The reality of the visit was hard for Mike, as it would be for any visitor, as it´s not everyday people from the UK see this sort of thing.

Mike at EmbassyThe following day, and with some time to reflect on his experience on the streets, Mike delivered a powerful message to a group of invited guests at the British Embassy Residence in Guatemala City.  The Embassy has always been very supportive of our work and had invited Mike and me to The Residence to talk about the work on the streets and for Mike to discuss “Spiritual life in public space” and guests included the pastor of my church, a Guatemalan Bishop, members of the British community, UNICEF, local VIPs and the Attorney General.  It was a very special time.

The photo shows me with Bishop Mike Hill and Chargé d’ Affaires of the British Embassy, Mr. Andrew Tate.

Over the last two weeks we have seen our two CMS missionaries, Mark and Rosalie Balfour, be taken to Mexico so that Rosalie can get urgent treatment on her leg after a fall here in Guatemala, Joesph Soden recover enough to return home to the UK and to welcome his brother Ben Soden to Guatemala.

streets with jospehOn one of the last trips to the streets with me Joseph was keen to say goodbye to the various groups of street youths and this photo was taken by one of the boys when we said our goodbye to the guys at La Casona. 

It was heartbreaking to find little Jonathan in La Casona abusing solvents.  You will see him in the photo and, like me, will struggle to understand how a baby-faced 10-year-old boy can live like this.  I have tried to get to know Jonathan over the last few weeks and am slowly building up a picture of his life in order to try and help prevent him living on the streets full-time.  It can become rather overwhelming seeing young children living like this but it only reinforces my determination to make a difference in his life.

welcome Ben

 

Ben arrived in Guatemala City to a mass of photos, applause, shouts of joy and tons of hugs from staff, volunteers and children.  Ben will spend two weeks studying Spanish in Antigua before moving to Guatemala City where he will begin working with the street team.  Ben´s gifts and skills will help him quickly develop the relationships that are at the centre of our work and I will help him take on the responsibility for coordinating the expansion of the street work in August this year.

It has been interesting working with the kids in the mentoring programme recently and it is so much fun being at the Centre when the kids pile in from school and seek that extra bit of support, a hug, some food and a place to belong.  Just as I was leaving the kids decided to gather around me (I was kneeling at the time due to my back issues) and pray for me.  What an incredible time that was!

Jesus birthdayLittle Jesus had celebrated his birthday in style with us and I had managed to find some extra money to buy him a cool present.  The resilience of Jesus and his brother Marcos never ceases to amaze me.  They have now moved from their home in the country to a room near the rubbish dump in La Terminal.  I know they miss the weekends at their old home as the fresh air and countryside was good for them.  But the fact they had to get up at 3:30am everyday in order to get the first bus into the city (a 2-hour journey) so that their mum could start work on the dump first thing while they walked to school was draining on them and I could see just how tired they were everyday.

Juan Carlos, another boy in the mentoring programme, told me recently that he had a dream of becoming a volunteer fire and rescue worker.  Los Bomberos, as they are called here, do an amazing job and seem to spend most of their time picking up dead bodies from around the city, but do offer immediate support to people every hour of the day and night.  Juan Carlos told me that he had learned in the Centre that we must help others and so he went home and told his mum about his dream. 

Juan carlos firetruckThat was many months ago and so after talking with him I spoke to a friend of mine who volunteers each week with Los Bomberos.  Byron, a friend from my church, invited Juan Carlos and me to the station to get to know their work and to talk with him about the junior brigade.  Juan Carlos was in his element as any 12-year-old would be in a fire and rescue station.  At the end of his visit Byron offered to sponsor Juan Carlos through his junior bombero training and so all that is needed now is for Juan Carlos to obtain good school results later this year.  Another child with his mind fixed on success.

This last week has been very stressful and tiring but I always count it a joy and privilege to work here in Guatemala and to serve these children.  One of the boys I work closely with is 9-year-old Moses who has been in a mentoring relationship with me for the last 3 years.  Over the last few weeks I have been exploring the mentoring module called “community” with Moses and it became very clear from the beginning that he saw community as a dangerous place.

moses mapOur first discussion around the idea included the drawing of a map of where he lives and since he lives between two family members, two maps were created.  On both maps large areas were identified with red marker pen as dangerous and only one place was coloured in as “safe”.  The safe place was our Centre and despite me asking him three times in different ways where he feels safe he replied: “only in The Centre”.  I am sure that is true for so many of the children who come everyday and so I wanted to take time here to say THANK YOU to all of you who gave so generously to get this Centre up and running over a year and a half ago.

As I was leaving The Centre today one of the boys came and asked to talk with me alone.  I thought he was going to talk with me about a gift he had just received from a sponsor in the UK, but when I looked into his luring eyes I could see that it was something rather more serious.  “I have nowhere to sleep tonight Duncan”, he told me. His face told me there was so much more to the profoundly heartbreaking statement and he looked at me with hope that I could offer him a solution.

Jony homelessMy mind immediately went to the Protection Home but had to discount that idea, as we have no adults there at the moment, just me camping in one of the rooms till I can find a more permanent place to live.  I offered him a night at the Centre, but that would mean me having to sleep there on the sofa to keep him safe.  But with my back the way it is right now that was not an option.  My only other idea was to talk with him about staying with his mum again but this would certainly mean more pain and rejection but it was better than the street.

I can´t leave him just there at the end of a paragraph as you will want to know what happened to him.  For the moment we are having to assess his situation daily and pray that one day we will find Guatemala families who will open up their homes and offer these kids a loving, caring and protective family.  After all, that is what they all want.  When I asked little Duncan in Honduras recently what he would prefer, a children´s home or a family, he said right away: “I want to have a family”.

One of the reasons we are exploring the idea of a Protection Home is not to create another children´s home, but rather offer a short-term space for the most vulnerable children we work with based on the UK boarding house model.  While they are able to stay in the home Monday to Friday our prevention team will work with their family in order to strengthen the family unit and help create a safer and more loving place in which children can grow up.  More about this in the coming months.

Tuesday 25th April

It was all going really well!

It had been a busy and challenging week as one of our British volunteers, Joseph Soden, had been complaining of feeling unwell and when I took him to the clinic his health deteriorated within minutes.  The next thing we know he is being rushed into A&E and then into hospital.  The last week has been spent at his side in the La Paz hospital in the city while doctors confirmed he has Typhoid.

breakfastAs the tests continued and more and varied drugs are given to him Joseph slowly recovered.  It all looked rather promising and on Sunday his health was looking so much better that he allowed me to bring some of the children to visit him.  It was a special time and when I asked the two girls who came with Moses if they would like a late breakfast their faces lit up and said, “yes please”.  Over breakfast in the hospital canteen (all rather posh in the private hospital) I asked the girls if they had eaten breakfast.  They told me that they hadn´t eaten since Friday and by the way they were eating I could see that this was probably true. 

I left Joseph on the Sunday evening and took the children home, as I wanted an early night and knew that Monday would be a long and busy day.  Joseph was doing so well and I was expecting him to leave hospital on Tuesday and then recuperate back at the house.

The girls were very happy when I dropped them off and as they climbed up the concrete bank to the building where they, their brother and grandmother live.  Despite being hungry they had both squirreled away some of their food for the grandmother and waved me off as I drove to drop Moses home.

Moses, the 9-year-old I am mentoring, is now living back with his grandmother who has moved house but still in the notorious zone 18 of Guatemala City.  The journey takes about half an hour as the Sunday traffic is much lighter at this time of day.  As we enter zone 18 my sense of security raises and both Moses and me are on our watch for gunmen on motorbikes, gangs and anyone acting in a way that would cause alarm.

el limonEl Limon is a conflict-ridden sector in one of the most violent zones in Guatemala City, Zone 18, and it´s in El Limon that Moses now lives.  We turn right into the troubled area and right away Moses begins to point out gang members and talks freely about armed attacks, murders and things that have happened to his family that I would rather not print here.

We make it through the narrow streets filled with people and the Guatemalan Army who have erected small outposts and sit nervously behind a huge wall of sandbags as they clutch hold of the type of armory that would expect to see in a war zone.

Moses´s grandmother was clear that he was to be dropped off at the top of the road as she didn´t want me to be in any danger but I really couldn´t do that and wanted to not only make sure he got home safely but that I could see where he was now living.  We park the car in a dead-end street and Moses keeps his eyes close to the ground and tells me that 3-4 of the boys we are now approaching are gang members.  The group of 6 boys are standing on the corner and watching us closely as we walk by.  The oldest is probably 8-years-of-age and I wonder, as I look at them and smile, how children so young can be involved in gangs.

The gang scene in Guatemala has increased dramatically since the late 90s and it is barrios and favelas like this where the gangs hold the greatest amount of control and to some degree respect.  The national paper ran an article this week on the increase in the number of bus drivers being killed, 62 already this year, in Guatemala City and this photo (Prensa Libre: Erick Ávila) is of the latest assassination of a bus driver in El Limon. 

bus attackToday I am sent a photo of a police officer that is lying dead on the ground and covered with a white sheet.  A young boy on a bicycle gunned him down as he crossed the road.  Gangs are using young boys more and more as they know that if the boy is under the age of responsibility there is little the police can do if that child is handed a gun and shoots someone.  Another death and another broken family but a young boy who can probably now be held in esteem in the gang for having killed a police officer.

Eventually we arrive at the house Moses’ grandmother is renting.  It´s super cheap and there is a reason for it.  It is brick built, single storey and is protected only by a simple metal front door.  All the windows have bars on them and inside there are no doors at all, just 6 empty rooms and a small sink in the patio at the rear.  There has been a mass exodus from Zone 18 over recent years and some parts of it resemble a war zone rather than a city suburb.

Moses´ grandmother welcomes us and looks up and down the street as she closes the door and offers me a drink.  It is clear she lives in fear and with good reason.  Every house in the area is now being numbered.  Neighbours are waking up each morning to find a number painted on their house.  The number corresponds to a property tax the gang are now extorting on every house and it won´t be long before they come knocking on the house where Moses lives.  No wonder he does not sleep well and can´t go out to play in the street.

On my safe return I prepare for the long day that is Monday.  The day starts at 4:30am as I head to our Centre for prayer and catching up with emails.  I need to leave at 8:30am to be one of the first in the queue at the bank in order to double check that the donations from the US and the UK have arrived in time to order the printing of cashiers cheques for the purchase of the house we will be converting into our first Protection Home.  The bank confirms the money from the US has arrived but the money from the UK is stuck between two accounts due a mix-up with some bank digits.  The news hits me hard as we have arranged the completion of the purchase with lawyers and the owners of the house.  All this will need to be cancelled while I sort out how to get the money to the right account.

Joseph in hospitalI then head over to the hospital to find Joseph in a lot of pain and the doctors working hard with more drugs and more tests.  He seems rather low and so I decide to cancel meetings for the following day and spend time with him and the doctors working on a solution.  Sort of makes me feel like Dr. House!  It was all going really well but the day was not shaping up as I had planned – what´s new.

On my return to the Centre I see that children are now arriving and so I begin by spending time with each one using a new app we have developed to get feedback from them on how they feel about the mentoring programme.  Some of the children are playing; others doing homework and some are cooking pancakes and seeing how high they can toss them in the air.  Such a beautiful time before I head to the streets and try and find Marcos and David.

pancakesI arrive at the rubbish dump in La Terminal and find Jesus doing some homework with one of the families that help support our work.  We sit down and chat for about an hour about what is going on in the dump and how Marcos and Jesus are doing.  Jesus is now keen to start the mentoring programme and the family asks about how Joseph is doing and if they can visit him.  As the clouds turn black it is looking like the rainy season is starting early and so I head back to the Centre to collect Victor, a teenage boy we are looking after at the moment, and head to the hospital with the oldest son of the family in the rubbish dump.

We try not to spend too long visiting Joseph as I know how tiring having visitors in hospital is.  The news seems promising but we will have to see how Joseph is in the morning and then makes plans.  I now have to take Victor to the supermarket so he can spend my money on food for himself over the next week, as he will need to stay with us in the house for a while.  I bump into a stand that is selling freshly cooked chicken and so decide to buy two, as we are very hungry and we could go back to the dump and share them with the family there.  The boys are very excited about this plan and so we head to the checkout and then the dump.

It´s now very dark at the dump and raining but there are still many people working there.  We are invited into a small shack and we sit down and share chicken and bread rolls.  It´s a special and intimate time and the family are so pleased we have eaten with them and offer whatever help we need when we open the new Protection Home.  We need to get home and so I climb in the car and Victor jumps in beside me.  As I turn on the engine the windscreen wipers remove the rain from my view and there in front of me, highlighted by the car´s headlights, are four small children.  The children can´t be more than 3-4 years of age and look like they have been working or playing on the rubbish dump all day.

The sight of them fills my heart with sadness as we have just sat and eaten a chicken and maybe we could have shared it with them.  Victor says to me as I comment on how sad this is that “this was me a few years ago”.  We seem to be frozen in time for a while and I find it very difficult to drive off and leave them.  Victor and me talk about his childhood for a bit and then we both drive back in silence.  Arriving back to the house is not easy as we have beds to sleep in and so the best thing to do tonight is to have a shower, climb into bed and cry.

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