It was a couple of weeks ago. Even as we were coming back home from visiting Francisco and his family, I knew I needed to share their story and situation, but all I could muster was to share a few photos on facebook. It really exhausted us emotionally to be there. We have seen the poorest of the poor here in Guatemala – although I imagine there is always worse. But, in spite of having already seen folks living in very difficult conditions, this time was different. We went to visit the biological family of 3 girls we love. I want to share this in a way that is eye-opening for you. But I also need to write this with a care for dignity towards the people I am writing about. The truth about how the majority of Guatemalans live will hopefully come across.
Several weeks ago, the local judge who presides over these girls’ case thought it would be good for them to get to know where they came from, to know family with whom they have a blood connection. They call it a lasso here. It’s hard to write what I write without opening up some level of background to why things are as they are today for these 3 precious ones. For respect to their privacy I will not share all details.
The family’s home
The history we heard was that these girls were removed from their biological family around 2009. That’s 7 years ago as of this writing. The court had deemed they were not being cared for adequately for various reasons, which included an inability on their parents’ part to provide for the children’s most basic needs. Malnutrition was a factor, and so was lack of supervision.
So we planned our trip and gathered some supplies for a visit. It would take 1.5 hours to reach their village, where four “homes” had been assembled, each with a mother and several children. The family we visited lives in a shack. Literally a structure made from found branches, plastic sheeting, and a couple of pieces of rusty metal roofing with holes. This is Francisco’s home, where his wife and 3 other children live. The other homes on this hill are sturdier and somewhat bigger. This is a village of squatters who settled here around 2010.
The home we visited is assembled on a dirt floor. It holds 2 beds, a wooden stool, and a wood stove. A big bag of beans doubles as a stool. The family has obviously done their best to look presentable. The mother has her Sunday best on, the children too, except for the 7 year old, who looks like he’s been rolling around in the dirt. The mother is blind in one eye and suffers from several health conditions she later shares with the women who came with us.
Hillside in El Progreso
The father had been out cutting wood that morning and has on the same clothes I saw him in weeks ago at a courthouse audience. The five year old boy looks more like he is two. His name is Cesar. His distended belly may seem like a healthy sign, but the social worker has seen this before, it is a symptom of malnutrition, and the boy likely has a parasitical infection. The seven year old brother seems energetic, though small for his age. He looks closer to five. We spot a fungal infection growing behind his ears. Francisco says the boy goes to public school. He’s wearing what look like dirty and too-short school uniform pants (uniforms are worn by all who attend school in Guatemala). This is José Luis, also known as “Wicho” here.
The oldest sibling still living home is Maria. There were 3 other siblings, from the mother’s previous marriage, but they have left. Maria is 16, with a delicate face and shy demeanor. Her hair isn’t completely black, it is discoloring because of dietary deficiencies. She cares for the youngest boy as if he were her own, dressing him with pants and shoes that haven’t been worn much before. The kids notice on the floor the stuffed animal we sent when I met the dad weeks earlier. The toy is covered with dirt but is clearly coveted. A crucifix withe Jesus’ legs and arms broken off hangs in a corner of the structure.
After a formal introductions and the customary courtesies, small talk begins. The social worker and psychologist with us skillfully assess the conditions through friendly conversation, ask about the status of food, clean water, work, education, relationships, etc. We make a mental record of all that is seen and spoken. We’ve seen this before, and it is bearable. But seeing when it is closer to someone you know, reaches deeper into your soul. We are seeing relatives, in a way. We interact respectfully and kindly, but deep inside we want to see a change.
Moments later I go with Francisco to our little bus to get some gifts we brought for the families: bags of beans, rice, powdered milk, oatmeal, and some juice with vitamins. We brought some clothes too, as much as we could reasonably bring. The box we set aside for this family is very heavy. Francisco throws it on his shoulder and runs up the hill. I wonder how he can do this, a man nearing 60. I reason that he’s work hard all his life, when there’s been work.
And then the older sister warmed up to the girls visiting. And I witnessed the start of a revolution.
What I saw next blew me away. It blew both of us away, Patti and I. It had been seven years since these sister had lived together. Apart from a brief visit six years ago, they had not seen each other. When we arrived here, they didn’t warm up enough to share even a hug or a smile at first.
But something wonderful transpired now, as our olders girl began to teach her older sister the alphabet. This may not seem earth-shattering, but to us it was. Maria doesn’t go to school. She didn’t go much when younger, and, because she “wasn’t much into it” she was allowed to not go. The father felt it was OK for not to go, since she “knew how to make tortillas and cook beans”. Education in Guatemala is not mandatory.
Well the olderst girl who came with us to visit, she likes learning. And she has had to work hard to learn. She herself started school late, and at 14 she is just entering 5th grade. But she likes school. She likes to learn. She is creative and her mind is exploding with ideas. She now likes to read books on her own. Her mind is growing. Her eyes are opening to the possibilities. She has a huge heart. And what she has received, she wants to share with the less experienced.
So, in this awkward moment, not knowing what to talk about, but having just heard that her older sister couldn’t read or write, she grabbed the notebook she had brought, something to write with, and then asked her sister “quieres aprender las letras?” (“do you want to learn the letters?”). And that’s when a revolution flashed through our minds. That’s when I walked away to choke back some tears, as a stood a distance from the shack, over a pile of ashes.
After sharing the meal we had brought for the family – some fried chicken and an orange soda for each person – Francisco tells us about a nearby neighbor, an aging grandmother caring for her grandchildren. The husband had taken the wife’s life, and now the grandmother was left to care for the children. She’d done her best but now she was asking for help, for someone to possibly take the children in. It’s a common situation here in Guatemala, abuse in the home, murder, abandon, too many single moms or grandmothers raising children alone. The social worker promises to check into the situation.
We take a few photographs, and pray with the family, and talk about reconnecting soon. We drive down the dirt road, passing kids playing alone on the side of the road near a cinder block building. We pray quietly until we reach a place to stop and use the restroom. Our minds wrestle. We whisper. One girl cries. Another smiles big. The littlest snuggles up close to me as we share some chips. My heart breaks. I ask God for vision. Several times. I try to picture change in my mind. And I remember our move to Guatemala several years ago. I remember it was crazy and faith-stretching. I trust God without saying a word.
We are thankful for the work Hope of Life is doing on a practical, spiritual and legal level to help the people of Guatemala. We are thankful for everyone who serves with and supports Safe Haven Village: the missionaries, the friends like you who give so kids can have safe families and a good future, friends who take on project and run with it, like building a house, bringing books, computers, knowledge. Friends who bring encouragement.
This family are getting follow up medical and care, and we are looking into options to help them more tangibly.
Thank you for praying for Guatemala’s people, and the work of the gospel herein.
Peruse www.SafeHavenVillage.org for options to serve, including supporting this work financially, joining our prayer team, and coming on a mission trip.