Sunday 26th March 2017

Returning to Guatemala is always exciting and having Lorena, from the Manuelito Children´s Home, with us we knew would be a full and encouraging week.  Lorena had been invited to Guatemala to participate in the mentoring training course as she has plans to launch the programme in Honduras.

That night a phone call returned me to the reality of life in Guatemala.  A neighbour of one of the families we support was calling me to let me know that the mother of the family had been beaten up by her husband and had been left with a very swollen face.  We headed over to see her and when we arrived it seemed like all the neighbours tried to hide their faces from us in embarrassment.  We knocked on the wooden doorframe as the door was just a thin sheet of cloth and are welcomed in.

The mum is lying on the bed and trying to hide her face from me.  Her daughter is sitting at her side and her youngest son, who is about 3-4, tells me that his daddy has hit his mum again.  The mother then allows me to come closer and shows me her face.  She has endured a huge amount of pain and one eye is now closed over and the rest of her face is purple and very swollen.

Her 9-year-old son comes into the room and tells me that he had to try and protect his mum because “it´s not right to hit a woman”.  He looks down at his feet and for a moment I think he is going to burst into tears.  I enquire as to the whereabouts of the father and I am told he has run away as he knew his wife was going to make a formal complaint to the authorities.

I know that it won´t be long before he is back pleading forgiveness and once again she will take him back and then the abuse and violence will return to this family.

lorena on streetsThe next day we head to the streets but decide to check up on the family we visited the night before and I am pleased to hear that the father has not returned home and that they have begun to make plans for life without him in the home.

A few minutes later we are sitting on the streets with Brandon who is complaining that one of the older boys on the streets had fought with him and left him with another injury to his neck. I clean his wound while Lorena gets stuck in with cleaning the feet of some of the guys.  Her gentleness and compassion touches their hearts and they begin to talk with her about their lives on the streets.  While this is happening one of the older guys who is visiting the group to buy drugs steals a packet of wet-wipes we are using to clean feet.

When I realise the packet has been taken I stand up and inform the guys that unless it is returned we will not be visiting them and certainly not bringing more first aid supplies to them.  There is a lot of commotion as the finger is pointed at the man sitting closer to where it went missing and then Gerson identifies the same person.  It only takes a couple of seconds for the group to set on him and recover the packet of wipes.  I know it must seem that a packet of wet-wipes is not worth a fight but in the streets you must have limits and those we work with must know we trust them and they must trust us.  I am hoping this will help the trust we have built with them over many years even though a few nasty minutes had to pass.

moses1On our brief return to the Centre, before we head back to the streets, we find the children having fun playing with toys and games we have been given.  I so love seeing the children being children and enjoying being together and playing and creating a fun environment where every child is involved in play.  Love it!

One little boy is very pleased and so we sit down and have a chat.  It´s 9-year-old Moses and he is in mentoring with me and it´s amazing to think we have been together nearly three years now.  Last year he was struggling in school but we helped get him into a school nearer the room he lives in and a school that offers very small class sizes.  Since his start in late January he has grown in confidence and has achieved so much in the last two months.

I checked through his schoolbooks and see the amount of red ticks and “well done” stamps.  I then check his diary and read two notes from his teacher.  One is a letter of encouragement of his great behaviour and attitude in school and the other is to complement him on his excellent schoolwork.  I am so proud of him and all he has achieved these last three years and what a joy to journey with him and watch him grow.

joseph soden1The week finishes with more street visits that include watching Joseph Soden, a UK volunteer, work on the streets with the young children.  They adore him and gather around him the minute we arrive as he takes time to play with each one and they enjoy his attention and love. It is always hard to leave as we know most of these young ones will be on the streets, playing alone or playing with other young children and most times with no adult supervision and care.  

Joseph is here learning Spanish and volunteering for the Mi Arca project that Street Kids Direct fund.  He plans to return to the UK in May and then return late July to help us setup the new Protection Home and second mentoring programme.

 

jesusThe last visit this week was to see the children on the rubbish dump.  Little Jesus (photo) races over and grabs my hand and pulls down on my arm.  As I bend down he asks me when I am taking him to a swimming pool, something he has been asking me now for nearly a year.  I have no idea of why he and his brother have had this idea in their heads and so offer to plan something soon but convince them to join me one Saturday in visiting Go Guatemala, where they can have a full day of activities and a hot meal.  But I still might have to plan a trip to the pool one day and use the time to chat with Jesus and his brother how they could be part of the mentoring programme.  Will keep you posted but I am hoping that Jesus and his brother Marcos will allow me to shadow them later this year when I begin a challenging and exciting project called "The World Through Their Eyes".  More about this at another time, but it could be one of the hardest personal challenges I have faced since the walk last summer.

Saturday 18th March 2017

welcome to HondurasThe long drive to Honduras is never a tiring journey as it is always full of incredible experiences and often opportunities to help people along the way.  My drive from Guatemala to Tegucigalpa took just over 10 hours and I had the joy of having Joseph Soden with me this time.  Joseph (photo with me at the border) is planning to move out here to Guatemala this summer and is here learning Spanish and seeing the work we do.  He is a gifted jazz musician and feels called to help run our second mentoring centre and protection home in Guatemala City for vulnerable and high-risk children.

On arrival in Honduras we head towards Talanga, where the Manuelito Children´s Home is situated and are given the customary welcome by all the children (tons of hugs and kisses) and then meet with the Director and his wife before heading to our dorm and an early night.

Being at the home for three days means we will both have lots of time to spend with the children and staff and discuss how the Street Kids Direct mentoring programme could offer some extra support to those children who are struggling the most.

girl in schoolWaking up in the home is always full of surprises.  The light is now streaming through the thin curtains in the men´s dorm and I can hear children outside and see little faces peering through the gaps where the curtains have not been drawn enough.  I open the door and little Duncan and two other young boys rush in and give me a huge hug.

It is just gone 6am and the children are getting ready for breakfast as the school day starts at 7am and already some of the 115 children from the local town are arriving.  One of the best sights at the home is watching the children arrive to the home for their day in school.  Due to the local schools struggling to accept the children from the home, a decision was taken a few years ago to educate the children on site.  This proved to be popular with the children as they were suffering from bullying and discrimination from children in the local schools.

I could see then what would happen.  With so many children living in poverty and living in very vulnerable situations locally, and some living on the streets in the town, how long it would be before exceptions would be made and they would be invited to join the school!  Time proved the gut feeling correct and slowly more children from the local community were included in the Manuelito School.  I have spent time visiting many of the children in their homes and can see the desperate need to offer free but also caring and supportive education to children who would normally fit into a “normal” school.  We now have 115 children from the local area coming to the school everyday and so watching them arrive is a precious moment.

Duncan with medalMany wanted to know how my time with the Queen went and so I took along my MBE medal for the staff and children to see.  Little Duncan could not resist the opportunity of having a photo with the medal on his chest and stood up looking proud and pleased to be a part of the special honour.

One of the afternoons I went with Lorena, the coordinator of the home, to try and find two boys who had dropped out of school and were not even coming to the home for food everyday as they used to.

We walked into town and followed the dusty road to the little house that sits a metre or so below the road level.  The mum was in the “garden” washing clothes on a rough piece of wood that was precariously placed on top of a bucket of water.  She smiled and asked us to let ourselves in, which was easy as the door was already open and we find one of the boys sitting watching TV.

The situation is complicated and we don´t need to go into detail here but the boys are at risk, particularly the older one (one the right of this photo).  He is now spending more time in the streets and his innocent face hides the reality of the things he is getting involved with in the town.  We are concerned for him as he can be easily led astray and despite being 15 he is still a little boy really.

boys with ipadThe conversation I have with the boy sitting watching TV proves to hit home and he realises that if he wants a better future then it won´t just come knocking on his door.  He promises to try and find his brother in the streets and bring him to the home that afternoon for a chat.  The boys have a little brother who is attending the school and wants to try and study rather than end up on the streets.

Later that day both boys appear outside my dorm and we sit and chat and play with a new game on my iPad before they go and talk with Lorena about how they could recuperate their schooling.  At last a positive outcome as both boys agree to starting a private night school to gain back the last year of education and Lorena rushes around to get them the books and uniform they need to start in the next few days.  We encourage them as they have made an important decision today and one we hope will lead to greater possibilities for them and their mum.

medical wasteJoseph and I then spend the last two days visiting he AFE project, who work with the children from the city rubbish dump, and two other projects.  There have been some changes to AFE recently and the 140 children and young people are hard at work studying when we arrive.  Jesy shows us around and we are excited by all we see.  This is one inspirational project and it is often hard to comprehend all these kids have to deal with on a daily basis and when we went up on the dump that afternoon we were reminded of the reality that slaps you hard in the face.  We follow a medical van as it winds its way up to the area where medical waste is dumped.  Officially this should all be disposed of hygienically and probably incinerated rather than being dumped in the open and where dogs and people search through dangerous waste that will include body parts, abortions and all manner of medical waste.  It is disgusting and the smell overpowering.

There are still two more projects to visit before we head home to Guatemala and the first one is a short visit to the streets of Tegucigalpa with Stephen, an American volunteer who works for the Micah Project with street children and youths.

Probably not many people see the work Stephen does and it would be a rare moment when someone would encourage him and tell he is doing a great job.  Stephen wanders the streets of the capital and encounters young boys and girls sniffing glue while sitting in alleyways spaced-out and thinking of nothing more than what will happen in the next few minutes.

girlonstreetsWe find this girl, who is about 5 months pregnant and will, I am sure, loose her baby when she gives birth as the hospital will realise she lives on the streets and so her baby will be given to the care of the social services.  Due to her drug use the child might be born drug dependent and so will need extra support in the early stages of life.  It is a very sad moment indeed watching her lie there alone.

The last visit is to support Teressa and her work with one of the gangs in the capital.  We accompany her to visit two prisons where young boys are held until they reach the age of 18.  All are from one of the most powerful gangs in Central America and all have committed all manner of crimes.

Before the main door is opened the boys are told they have visitors and so they call out a warning to the lookouts posted around the prison square.  There are heavily armed police outside who are wearing what I can only describe as the type of kit you would wear in a war zone.  The last time I saw someone wearing a much lighter version of this equipment was when I last went paintballing.

We walk into the square and over 100 boys gather around us.  There are no guards inside; it’s just us and the gang.  We are invited to meet in their hall/dining room out of view from any of the guards or police and we start to talk with them about who we are and what we do.  I am invited to give a little talk to the boys and share something of how God changed my life at the age of 21 and how I felt rescued from my teenage life of crime.

Time runs out, as we have had to fit so much into a day and have already had a visit to another children´s prison earlier in the day.  Before we leave Joseph tries his best to get the boys interested in drumming and does achieve something special where the boys begin a beat on the table.  If these boys were not in prison and were not sold into gang life I know they would be more interested in music, art, games and play.  For now though they are boys who have had to grow up quickly and have had to discard their childhood in order to stay alive, support their family and serve the gang.

It takes me a while to get to sleep that night as I wish I could do more to help all those I have met on this trip.  I wish we had more people working with us, I wish we had more funds; I wish we could just do more.  Finally I get to sleep and begin to think of returning home to Guatemala.  

Saturday 11th March, 2017

protest2Guatemala is coming to the end of three days of national mourning for the 32 girls who lost their lives when a fire was started at the “secure” children´s home on the outskirts of Guatemala City.  The home has been under investigation so many times due to the increasing number of allegations of abuse, rape and torture.  I thought I would write here of a personal experience of the first time I visited the home and how a young boy was treated when he was transferred there in 2009.

I was travelling between the UK and Guatemala in 2009 and trying to continue my work with children and young people on the streets.  I had a growing concern for the children who had been forcibly removed from children´s homes and who had then made contact with me pleading for help.

Sadly a UK charity was behind these removals and had tried their best to cover up what was happening with the charity they ran and funded here in Guatemala.  Two boys who had been told in the middle of the night to pack up their things and leave are still scarred by the experience as they lost contact with all their friends and were left homeless.

protest1I became aware of the situation after the boys contacted me and told me of how one of the younger boys from the home had been removed, according to them, because the costs of paying for his specialist medical treatment was becoming too expensive.  This led me to my first visit to the Virgen de la Asunción Secure Children´s Home in Guatemala.

The boy in question had been taken to the secure home and so I went to visit there in the hope of trying to get access to him and help him find a more suitable place to live and get the care he needed.

Driving up to the home can be quite overwhelming as the walls are high and covered in razor wire and have armed security guard posts around the perimeter, like you would expect to see at a high-security unit for adults.  But this was a children’s home!  Despite not having an appointment or legal papers from a judge allowing me access to the home, I knocked on the large black doors and asked to see the Director.

boy from hogar seguroI was taken to see the Director who listened to my story and called for the Social Worker and Psychologist to join us in her office.  I explained to the three women how I had come to see a boy I will just called Mark.  They quizzed me as to why I wanted to see him and so I talked about how we had rescued him from the streets when he was about nine.  I found him wandering the streets one evening wearing just a pair of shorts and displaying great signs of distress. His first few weeks in the home were hard for staff as they told me of his cries in the night shouting out to stop being abused.  It was distressing for all of us.

The staff in the secure home then realised that I had played a special part in his life and asked me if I wanted to see him.  Of course I did and so Mark was brought into the room.  He did not know how to respond to me as he hadn´t seen me for a long time and was unable to stand up straight.  He was asked who he was and responded by saying his name was Mark.  The next question made me well up.  He was asked who the people in the room were.  He named the Director, the Social Worker and the Psychologist and then said “and Profe Duncan”.  When asked who Profe Duncan was he said: “my family”.

I could not hold back the tears and neither could he and he came over for a hug.  It was clear he was getting some form of care in the home but asked me to take away from there as he didn´t like it.  He was then taken away but I did manage to grab this photo of him before he left.

secure home3

The staff told me how the charity had sought a court order to have him placed there and showed me his file and then showed me MY NAME in the file! The charity had made the case that the boy was dangerous to himself and to others and should be kept under sedation and in now terms should have contact with Duncan Dyason.  “It´s sad”, said the psychologist, “that not once had the charity been to visit him”.  What made matters worse was that the charity had explicitly written that he must not have contact with me.  They found it amazing that I had come to find him after all this time but the charity had not been to see him at all.  It was like he had just been abandoned there.

To make the situation even worse they went on to tell me that because the report had come from the charity they accepted their version of events and kept Mark strapped down and injected him daily to keep him in a semi-comatosed state.  

secure home1

With each visit to see Mark I got to see the home and how it was run and became increasingly disturbed by all I saw and the many children who, when they got the chance, begged me to take them from there.  I walked around rooms filled with cots where young children sat with their legs or wrists tied to the cot and rocked back and forth.  I listened to children talk about rape, abuse and how staff disciplined young children with beatings by older children.

The crowed and dirty facilities were unfit for purpose but the Guatemalan government did not act to close the home, despite receiving many reports of the alleged abuses by staff and other children.  Many children have escaped from the home over the years and some end up on the streets and tell us of stories that many would not believe.  They talk about abuses, torture and rape and how the degrading treatment and disgusting facilities started to turn them mad.  The home was originally designed to house between 300-400 children but on our last visit more than 700 were reportedly detained there.

secure home2

The Virgen de la Asunción home must now close and the facility levelled and maybe the place turned into a memorial park for thoise who lost their lives there.

Rather than 3 days of national mourning and the sad faces of Guatemalan government officials, we NEED JUSTICE.  I would call for the Guatemalan government to allow an independent investigation into the home and to commit themselves to prosecute ALL those who have abused children in the home.

The 50 or so girls who escaped on the 7th of March were recaptured and returned to the home that night.  They were locked in rooms by staff and the following day some girls set light to a mattress to complain about how they were being treated.  This is when things got out of hand.  Staff, it seems, did not respond to the calls as the fire spread and the girls burnt to death.  Many survivors were rushed into hospital with severe burns but died later.

As people around the world celebrated International Women´s Day on Wednesday 8th March, young girls in Guatemala burnt to death in the care of the Guatemalan government.  The press in Guatemala printed pages of the charred remains the girls, piled up on top of each other.  It is not sad, it is outrageous and the world must take action and not allow the Guatemalan government to get away with this. 

We demand ACTION and PROSECUTION NOW!

 

FURTHER READING:

BBC News report

The New York Times report

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