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”.
I 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.
Eventually 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.
Ben 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.