Dear family and friends,
It's taken me more than a minute to digest the images of suffering and resilience I saw at Casa Alianza Nicaragua
when I visited there many months ago.
Nothing - not even 20 years of working with street kids - prepared me for the deep-set hollowed eyes, bruises, scars and amputations of the teenagers living in the squalor of Managua's eastern market. The kids are wary of every adult - they have been abandoned and betrayed by the adults in their lives, and many have turned to glue sniffing to numb their pain. They hold the glue in baby food jars and plastic soda bottles beneath their shirts, and they sniff every couple minutes - five jars a day.
I came to the market with our Covenant House Board members Tom Woods and Janet Keating, and my partner in this work, Peggy Healy - three great friends of children the world over. The kids allowed us to approach them on the street because we were accompanied by the outreach team from Casa Alianza
. The kids' trust with our team has been hard won through years of faithful, consistent service on the streets of Managua. My niece Elizabeth was one of the members of this street outreach team, and she told me there are days she simply has to pray for grace to do the work.
Each child had a different story - Jennifer was stolen by traffickers at age 10, repeatedly abused and now fends for herself among the market vendors at the age of 15, unsure where her family is; Armando's family died in a storm of some sort, leaving him to take care of himself at age 14; Norbert lost his finger in a street fight with a local bully, and now sweeps a small patch of Somoza cobblestone in exchange for enough cordobas to buy his glue fix for the day; Mateo cuts his face with a dirty switchblade because he is angry at himself for being alive; and a half dozen other equally heart-breaking stories.
The Casa Alianza
team offered to treat the children's hair for lice, and four kids accepted. The team poured Zanate, a yellow liquid, into the children's hair and massaged their scalps. The kids gazed at the staff and momentarily seemed to soften. I imagine from what I heard it was the only loving physical contact of the day. The moment of rest was fleeting: these kids can't be vulnerable and stay alive.
The despair rises from these children like a tsunami - it pulls everything and everyone down, away from order, into something strange and unsettling. It's one thing to know - intellectually - that there are street children who sniff away their lives in the market. It's quite another to meet them, touch them, learn their names. I left the market puzzled, disoriented. How could we possibly prevent more suffering in the lives of kids as disconnected as these?
One thing became obvious fast: no one at Casa Alianza has time to indulge in despair. They are trying to rescue and heal as many kids as they can reach, to find their families whenever safe and possible and strengthen them, to give them confidence and vocational skills and accompany them on the journey forward, the way one's madre and padre should.
Casa Alianza Nicaragua
is filled with children who were once addicted, or abandoned, or victims of trafficking, and are now rebuilding their lives. Their eyes beam; most are brimming with curiosity and hope. Babies conceived to our teenagers in acts of horrible violence against them, who might otherwise have entered the world as outcasts, are welcomed into our house and provided the best healthcare we can offer. Casa Alianza is a brilliant force of love in Nicaragua, affirming the dignity of our children's lives at every turn.
Of course there is more we should do. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Americas. The children in our care represent a tiny fraction of the kids who need us. I toured the Santo Domingo barrio and saw as many as 6 children and their mother living in 13 x 13 tin huts, no running water in sight. No bathroom facilities, no shelter from the withering heat. Families are living in unspeakable conditions.
But there is a new joy in this barrio, everyone told me, and it emanates from two children. They were once lost to the squalor of the streets and the scourge of addiction, but no longer. They battled back and found purpose for their lives. The staff of Casa Alianza
introduced them to the world of soccer ("football") - and each of them - both naturals - fell in love with the game, played with zeal and became stars on the field. They ultimately won spots on our Casa Alianza Nicaragua
soccer team and then, to everyone's delight, found themselves invited to represent the entire nation at the 2010 Youth World Cup in Durban, South Africa last March.
Through a grant from the Casa Alianza-UK foundation, the kids traveled to South Africa and miraculously defeated teams from all over the world, and won third place. Yes, a band of teenagers who a year earlier had wandered the streets alone, managed to believe in themselves again, and rallied on the shoulders of everyone at Casa Alianza
to achieve a feat unthinkable to any of us last year.
So do I think Jennifer, Armando, Norbert and Mateo can beat the streets of the eastern market, surviving long enough for us to persuade them to come inside and kick their glue addictions? I don't know. But if you'd asked me a year ago if a rag-tag band of formerly homeless kids from Casa Alianza Nicaragua
would learn to play soccer on our field so well that they would go on to win a third place trophy at the International Youth World Cup, I would have said the same thing - I don't know. The only sure thing at is, if we love these kids with everything we've got, anything is possible.
Three of my own kids accompanied me, and they connected so easily with our Casa kids, I was reminded that kids are kids wherever you go. We are all connected, really. The kids in Managua could just as easily be our neighbors down the street. The fact that so many of you treat them as such truly lifts me up.
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