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.

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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

Friday 10th March, 2017

This has been a tough week but also one that has had some very exciting moments.  I have decided it would be best to write first about the amazing things that have happened and then write another blog about the tragedy of the fire in the secure children´s home here in Guatemala City.

sleeping on the streetsOur visit to the guys in La Casona is always a mix of joy and sadness.  I find Brandon asleep on the streets and had expected him to be waiting for me because I had driven past an hour earlier and found him begging at the traffic lights.  He knocked on my darkened window for money and when I wound it down and he saw me he smiled and asked if I was visiting later.

Gerson was still unwell and was telling me again how bad his eyesight has now become.  He asked very respectfully is he could borrow my phone to play a game on it called Talking Carl.  It is a simple game but Gerson loves it.  I watch him squat down and play on the phone and interact with it like a small 6-year-old boy would with two actions figures.

JosueAfter our time there we head back to The Centre and I meet with Josué, one of the older boys in the programme.  Josué, is 16 and like so many his age, are now at school at the weekend and working during the week.  Saldy Josué had not been able to find work.  He is a hard worker and despite his slim build he is very strong due to the many lorries he has had to unload in La Terminal.  One day he worked all-day and late into the night and was exhausted by the end but was only paid $2!

I had spoken with one of the bosses at a local hardware store and asked if he would give Josué a chance.  Things had been tough for them, as a company, and they were not looking to take on another worker.  I knew that he would have a good job here and so offered the incentive of paying for the first few months salary if they would train him.  The boss was very excited about helping him and since it came at no cost for the time being he was willing to take him on board.  We hope this works out for Josué as I know he will use his salary to help support his family rather than spend it on himself.

MosesThe good start to the week continued with little Moses telling me how much he loved school and was doing well.  One day he had to go dressed to celebrate the day of the Indian.  Being in the mentoring programme means that we get deeply involved in the lives of the kids and have the joy of seeing how much they change as they grow.  Another one off the streets and in school!

Joseph Soden and me had been talking together about the next big project – the Protection Home.  We had recorded a short video and wanted to launch an appeal for funds to help us buy the home we are currently renting and transform it into a short-term weekly boarding home for the most vulnerable kids we work with, as well as develop a second mentoring centre there.  It is quite an exciting project and I am sure you will be hearing more about it as the weeks go by but there is more about this on our website.

Front houseThe purchase price is $240,000 and then we would need to refurbish the home in four different phases starting with the actual living accommodation for the children.  We had promises and one donation that came to between $40,000 - $50,000 and quite a way short of the money needed to buy it.  Then I had a phone call!

A couple called me one evening to ask me a series of questions about the home and how it would look and be run.  I know there are still so many things to work out and budgets to prepare and permissions to obtain, but we are excited about what we feel God wants of us and of this place.  As the questions were answered I was informed that they both felt before God that they wanted to help us and offered us a donation of $200,000!  It was one incredible phone call and we are thankful to them and to God for this amazing answer to prayer.

We are now moving forwards to buy the property and will soon be launching an appeal from now to the end of the summer to help refurbish the place, buy all that the home needs and see how we can make the dream come true.  Joseph Soden, from Amersham in the UK, has offered stay on and head this project up for us.  Exciting times indeed.

Sunday 5th March, 2017

dumpWe had been visiting the rubbish dump at the far end of the bustling Terminal – Central America´s largest market - and Diego, one of the young boys who works on the dump, came and threw his arms around my waist.  He smiled as I looked down at him and gave him a hug and he buried his face into my side and just hung on for a while.  “Can I come and talk to you later”, he asked.  Of course he could and so we agreed to meet up that evening as he said he wanted to tell me something.

It was already turning into another long day and we still had to move on to a notorious area of La Terminal where we had helped re-build tin shacks (homes) after the fire last year.  Even during the day the place is dark, but the sun does its best to penetrate through the maze of alleyways and tin shacks to provide spots of sunshine where hundreds of pieces of clothing are hung up high to dry.

I always greet the dogs first.  It´s a wise move and guarantees they get to know you don´t attack you.  They smell me, jump all over me and rub up against me while expecting a patting and some attention before they allow you to say hi to the many families that live there.

lonely in the streetsThree young boys appear from the shadows and two run and give me a hug while the third boy stands at a distance.  He is new to the scene and it takes a while before he trusts me with a street-style handshake.  The boy is 10 and has a baby face and despite sniffing solvents he looks surprisingly innocent.  His two little friends, who are also sniffing solvents, ask me if I have any games and so we step out into the sunshine and take out the game of Loto.  All three boys try and concentrate on the game, but the solvent is winning until Claire, one of our volunteers, tells me she has a bag of chocolate to give out.  This gets their attention as I explain that the winner of each round will win some chocolate.

There are still many young children with more skin infections and are constantly scratching and pulling at their skin while they play with us.  One little boy, who can´t be more than 18 months old, is wandering around on his own in cute blue pyjamas.  Am I the only one who thinks that this is bad?  He seems lost and looks to anyone around him for love and keeps lifting up his arms, but no one takes any notice until Joseph (another volunteer) and Claire try and give him some attention.  He wants more and begins to follow them around to the point where we are wondering what to do because, as we leave, he follows behind us.  Then his mother appears and drags him off by his arm and he is gone.

feeding boysThe three boys catch up with us and tell me they have not eaten anything that day and are now hungry.  We wouldn´t normally take kids out for meals but we wouldn´t normally do a lot of things!  Just around the corner is a canteen that is now serving budget meals and so all three boys sit down and enjoy a hot meal.  We say our goodbyes and head back to drop off Claire so she can get her bus home.  She is brave.  There are not many 19-year-old American females who would use the bus everyday.

Waiting for me at The Centre, our first mentoring centre on the edge of La Terminal, are two boys who want to ask me to help them setup a business selling fruit in a market on the outskirts of the city.  They would like to make good choices and be productive with their lives instead of being on the streets.  I can only help with a small loan but they leave happy and determined to make something of the loan.

Then Diego arrives and asks if he can come in and talk with me.  He is fresh from the rubbish dump and so the smell of the dump is still quite pungent but this does not stop him having a hug and he sits in the kitchen and asks me how I am.  I talk about my last trip back to the UK and he is full of questions.  Despite being 10, Diego does seem wise beyond his age and I love the way he asks deep probing questions.

As if it was part of a conversation we were already having, Diego blurts out: “and I am not living with my mum anymore”.  This is clearly what he wanted to come and talk with me about and so I let him continue, as I feel there is a lot more to come.  Last year Diego had got into all sorts of difficult situations including us trying to have him removed from his mother´s care and getting involved with a man who he wanted to live with as, in his words: “he is kind to me and kisses me a lot”.  Diego is a boy at risk but is packed with intelligence and potential and I look into his little ruddy face and just wish he could have been born in another part of the world or in different circumstances.

There is a beautiful moment of silence where we sit and look at each other and there seems no need for either of us to talk.  After a while I ask Diego where he is living now if he is not with his mum.  “The same place”, he tells me.  He little chin starts to wobble and tears well up in his red eyes.  He continues to sob but says: “I am there with my sister and brother but mum left us and now I feel alone”.  I ask him if he would like a hug and he throws his arms around my neck and cries.

I always wish I could take them all home and care for them and moments like this are so hard to move on from.  I can´t just say: “well, I wish you well and hope your mum comes back”.  At the same time I can´t make a promise like: “come home and live with me”.  I try and navigate somewhere in between and will commit myself to keep visiting him and helping him cope with the tough hand he has been dealt.

Going home to bed is hard tonight, as I know I have a bed to rest in and food to eat and know that I will be safe as I sleep.  There are so many who won´t. 

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