Saturday 16th February 2019
I have often wondered how people are trained before, during and after they go into some of the most difficult and challenging circumstances around the world. I was watching the news the other day and saw the faces of some very tired reporters in Syria and I could see that, despite their robust façade, there were moments of real strain and tears when they had time to reflect on what they were experiencing each day.
The question came to mind when I sat back last week in the comfortable chair next to my bed and wondered how what we see and hear on a daily basis here in Guatemala affects us. Often, I am caught in the same conversation with Ben Soden, who coordinates the street work here, about how what we see each day would shock most people or that the reality of our world is so far removed from comfortable Amersham, in leafy Buckinghamshire in the United Kingdom.
Please forgive me sharing this with you all as I know it has become part of my way of coping with what happens here and hope that it will not traumatise you in any way, but help you understand that the cost of being here and doing this work is well worth it, and that without your support we could not do all we do. So, thanks for sticking with us and helping to fund the daily work with vulnerable children and youth.
I had two visitors from the UK last week, Chris Dobson and Mike Hill. Chris is an Anglican minister but also a very gifted photographer (all photos, apart from one, in this blog were taken by Chris). Mike is a retired Bishop, but is invited to speak at many conferences and events around the world and was my first boss when I became a youth worker in 1987. I had been taking them around the city and sowing them the huge contrasts in wealth and poverty and how we are trying to reach some of the most vulnerable kids and prevent them from taking to the streets.
Despite the sadness of arriving at the grave of a child who has died on the streets, there is something rather comforting in the ritual of showing visitors a grave, talking about what that person meant to me and how their life was one of extremes, tinged with sadness but always with moments of hope, of joy, of fun visits and trips, and of many hours sitting in silence on the streets in the dark just looking at the stars.
It came to the day when I had invited them to join me for a visit to the city rubbish dump and central cemetery. It is never the most exciting of visits and leaves one always feeling rather numb and helpless at the sight of so much poverty, need and exclusion. I wanted to show them the grave of Gerson, a boy we buried last year, as I often went there to put flowers on his grave and remember the very good times we shared together on the streets over the last 6 years. Gerson was like a son to me and would call me most days and say “Papa, what are you doing today?”. It was always good to hear from him and when his coin ran out in the phone box it was a sad moment indeed.
We drove to the spot where Gerson was buried and I got out the flowers we had bought on our way into the cemetery and thanked a man who had cycled from the entrance with a bucket of water to place in the flower pots either side of the plaque over his resting place. In Guatemala, most people are buried in tombs, not so much in the ground. The tombs are then rented out to the family for a 7-year period and then they have to be renewed or the remains are removed and the tomb becomes available for the next occupant.
My heart stopped as I knew exactly where Gerson´s grave was but it became clear to me that his body was no longer there. His tomb had been occupied by another and when I asked the man with the water, who worked at the cemetery, what had happened, he told me that he suspected that it was in order to make more money. I was numb and didn´t know if I should cry and get angry and tried to remain calm as our visitors had come to see Gerson´s grave, but I had to explain he was no longer there.
In the end it turned out that the cemetery had assumed that since he had no family registered to his grave, he was an easy occupant to remove. We drove slowly back up the hill to the cemetery entrance and part of me had to deal with being the tour guide, while the other part of me was still in shock. The way Gerson was treated in his life was just the same as he was treated after his death. It was not fair and despite my phone calls and pleas for help in knowing what happened, I knew it would not make any difference. I had to remind myself that Gerson was now with God and that his body was no longer of any use to him. But the sadness of losing him last year came back and slapped me again hard in the face.
It was another one of those times when I knew I would have to deal with this tragedy at a later stage, as there were too many other things to be dealt with right now. I later had a few minutes at home to think about the day and wanted to just curl up and cry, but my phone rang. I could hear a young child crying and then an adult says: “please come and help us Duncan”. I was asked to come to the aid of a young boy who was in great pain and apparently had been for the whole day. He was clearly in need of help as I could hear him screaming and so took off to the Terminal and found him laying on a small bed in his mother´s arms and whimpering softly.
On first inspection of him I could see no obvious reason why he was in pain and so we carried him into my little jeep and rushed him to a private hospital for immediate evaluation. Just before we left the family asked me to pray for him and so I did that as quickly as I could because I wanted to get him to the hospital. Miraculously he already looked better and had stopped crying, but I was still taking him to hospital to get him checked out.
As the hours went by we knew he was in good hands and was examined, x-rayed and blood tested in order to find the reason for his acute pain. There seemed nothing wrong with him now and I did feel rather awkward bringing in a young boy in the middle of the night who was now looking fine. We returned to their little room and spent ages trying to get back in as the other children had securely locked the door and were now fast asleep.
When I woke the next day I was feeling tired, but had to wake early to get Mike and Chris to the airport and then get on with another long day. At least I was now going to start the day with our amazing team and spend some time praying for and discussing the various urgent situations. Quite often there seem so many, but at least we can share out the load a little.
It is now lunchtime and I head up the road to collect little Moses and three other children from school and bring them back to our mentoring centre. Moses needs some personal time and space and so our mentoring session does not last as long as it usually does. When we finish I leave the door open in our small counselling room and then have a steady stream of young children coming in asking for my help, advice and prayers. I will just give you a quick overview of some of the stories I was told. They are all very real and compound the pain I am already feeling and I desperately try and find strength to keep going and keep listening and supporting.
- One boy tells me that he has had thoughts of ending his life this week and found a busy road where he knew cars passed quickly and where he could best throw himself under the passing traffic.
- A girl comes in and is struggling as there is not enough food to eat each day and asks me for advice to give to another girl who was ridiculed in school when she had her first period.
- A boy tells me of a fight with his mum and how it got to the point where he picked up a knife to defend himself and nearly stabbed her in anger.
- Another boy comes in to just cry and tell me that he does not know where he will live if his mum dies in hospital in the coming days from a minor operation. He feels alone and needs to know someone will care for him.
- The last boy comes in and is struggling with the fact that his dad now has a court order for capture on him for robbery. But he tells me his is pleased that he, his younger siblings and his mum have found a little room to rent and so they don´t need to live on the streets. But there is a daily struggle for his mum to work and maintain the family as her ex-husband will shortly be arrested and put into prison.
I will stop there and remember that we can only do what we can do with the resources and time we have available. I wish I could do more, but for now being available, listening, praying and giving the occasional cuddle is all I can do. One day we will have more people working with us to help make a difference in the lives of these vulnerable children.
The drive home is long now as it is busy Friday evening traffic, and, as always, you are very aware of the risks of driving through a city like Guatemala City, as yet another ambulance forces its way through oncoming traffic to reach a person at the end of the road where our centre is, who has either been hit by a car or shot. The light changes to green and we are off and I leave yet another tragedy behind and head to my little home and am glad to make it through another day.