It was quite an experience bringing together the many young people who live on the streets and celebrate the International Day of the Street Child last week.
The International Day began in 2012 when many organisations, like Street Kids Direct, met with the Consortium for Street Children in London to put pressure on the United Nations to recognise this unique but forgotten population.
One of the things that have come out of this dialogue with the UN has been the establishment of the International Day, which we hope will continue to focus attention on those children and young people who have chosen to or have been forced to count the streets as their home.
We organised two events to celebrate the day this year and the first one was the walk of witness through Guatemala City with some of the children in our mentoring programme and representatives of four other organisations we work closely with and who support those at risk of the streets and those living on the streets. We are grateful to Mojoca, Sigo Vivo, Puerta de Esperanza and Aaron Musch for working with us to help keep vulnerable children and youths safe.
The walk started at our mentoring centre in zona 9 of Guatemala City and then we met up with the various organisations and many homeless youths to march into the centre of the city (zona 1) with our banners and Municipal Police escort.
We stopped at an important junction in zona 1 to pause and remember the boy whose death sparked off a huge international outcry and a BBC documentary that later led to my moving to Guatemala in 1992 to work on the streets with the hundreds of homeless children. Nahamán Carmona López was doing nothing more than sitting on a street corner in Guatemala City when he and a small group of other homeless children were approached by four police officers. The police began to harass the children and one officer poured a bottle of glue they were sniffing over his head before pushing 13-year-old Nahamán down some steps. This followed by him been literally kicked to death by the officers. A plaque still remains at the spot where he fell and the words on it still haunt me today: “They called me a street child, because that is where I grew up and lived – but no one asked me why”.
His tragic death has led to many things and so as I told his story to the children gathered there we paused in silence to remember him and the hundreds of children who have been killed by the police, the death squads and by other street children or youths. It has been a life changing 27 years since I first moved to Guatemala and we can now celebrate the fact that very few children now live on the streets of the city. A few months ago, we would say that no child lived on the streets, but this changes as one or two have arrived on the streets and we focus our attention at their rescue and rehabilitation.
The following day we invited all the street youths and homeless adults we know to join us for a night of celebration together. It was our “Big Sleep”, as we spent time together with them from 6pm to 6am and enjoyed games, a football tournament, food, music, rap, storytelling, worship and just time to hang out and chat.
This year´s events have helped remind us of the urgency of the work, as we always look back and remember those who have lost their lives over the past year. Bringing them all together in one space was rather moving in that you could see the work ahead and hope that if we could just get each one off the streets then their lives, as well as Guatemala, would change forever.
As the days passed and we headed into the weekend before Easter I had a few more mentoring sessions to complete before the Easter holidays could begin. Easter is an important time for this religious country and the many street processions and the intricately designed carpets of flowers that adorn the city streets tell you that something special is about to happen. This is also the highlight of the summer season as families head to the beach and other tourist locations in Guatemala, which leaves the city is eerily quiet.
I always remain at home to work in my study, to visit those in the mentoring programme and be around for any emergency. Mentoring is one of the highlights of my week and this past weekend was no exception. I had the opportunity of spending personal time with each of the 9 boys I mentor and this included a day of self defence classes for some of them.
The class was provided by friends of mine who own a security company here and came with a host of “toys” that the boys were keen to get their hands on. Before any actual bodily contact happened, something the boys were desperate for, we spent time discussing the reason why self defence was important. It was sad to hear how the “kidnap express” was now one of the most popular ways gangs made money. Our instructor explained what to do if they were kidnapped, offered a phone for free (something kidnappers do to involve children in their ransom demand) and what to when they hear gunfire.
Our instructor asked the boys if any had seen a shooting or anything dangerous happen on the streets. All the boys had and they began to tell of all the things they had witnessed in the last week including a bus driver and his mate who were shot at point-blank range right outside where one of the boys live. Witnessing such events can be traumatic for any child, but these boys have grown up seeing these types of things as normal and so the training was just what they needed.
The long weekend of mentoring finished with a visit to Santa Fas. Santa Fas is a slum community on the outskirts of Guatemala City and where two boys I am mentoring live. Jhony is 14, but you would think he was 9 as he is so underdeveloped due to living in poverty and Jonathan is 9 and the same size as Jhony. Both boys need to be brought into the programme as they need support and help to stay away from the streets and to not get involved in the local gangs.
This trip, which is usually on a Sunday (due to the reduction in traffic), was special as Julian joined me to help support both boys. Julian is one of our young people and the son of one of our workers – Lorena Guzman. Julian (photo - on the far left) was quite overwhelmed by what he saw, despite having seen many children living in poverty in both Guatemala and Honduras. The two boys live in very simple tin structures, with dirt floors and their homes are precariously clinging onto the mountainside where land is cheap. The pungent smell emanating from the river below hangs in the air day and night and today it was particularly strong. Julian wondered how anyone could spend more than an hour here let alone live here.
Both boys are now in regular school and doing well. Their recent school results showed great progress despite their lack of resources to get access to information they need for their daily homework. It still makes me angry when I think of how the teachers set these kids homework knowing that almost all of them have no access to the internet. In order to do so they have to pay Q5 (50p) for each piece of internet investigation. Some parents only earn between Q10 and Q60 a day and so this is a luxury item. Without the homework the children are marked down, further compounding their struggle to just keep their head above the water and pass the school year. It seems a very unjust system as those who have can get more and those who don´t will be pushed down and never helped to enjoy what the rest do.
For those in the mentoring programme homework help is a vital component of the programme and one that ensures better results and greater expectation that they will go on to achieve their dreams. Your support for this work is never taken for granted and we hope that each year we can put more children into private schooling and see them thrive and together change the outcomes for both them and their families. Thank you for your regular support of this work, it really does impact lives.