Sunday, December 10, 2006

Christmas for the Internally Displaced

Yesterday, my wife and I volunteered our time to give out food and gifts to some internally displaced refugees. The following is a detailed description of our day.

We left the house quite early for a Saturday, about 7:45. We had to pick up a friend (who is the main organizer) and drive to a house on the other side of the city. We were the first to arrive, although that's not saying much since the total group was 6 (plus 3 who came for the second part). But after a few minutes, the others arrived and we could get to work.

The first task was to package food supplies into black garbage bags which would be given out, one per family. We were giving basic food stuffs - pasta, rice, beans, lentils, flour, etc. We were told that we had to use black bags for two purposes: to more easily carry the supplies and to hide the contents from the people so as to prevent a swarm effect. This would become a theme for the day. There were many precautions and safeguards to ensure that the food would be delivered to those truly most needy without sparking a riot.

Packing up 100 bags of food took quite some time. Dry goods are heavy and even with six of us working, it was a good 90 minutes or so before we finished up. One hundred bags of food. It's enough to feed 100 families for a month. Plus, there were over 100 toys for the kids as well. Things like plastic trucks for the tots, barbie dolls for the girls (thank you China, 800 pesos each), and futballs (soccer) and basketballs for the older kids and larger families.

After everything was packed up, we wrote numbers on post-it notes for each category. One hundred numbers for food, 72 for barbies, 36 for balls (soccer and basketball), etc. I didn't fully understand the necessity of the system until we arrived to one of the poorest parts of Bogota.

We set out sometime around 10:30 or 11. It took a long time to get to the neighborhood. It's far, far to the south and not easily accesible by car. But after quite a bit of back and forth through narrow streets brimming with humanity, we finally arrived at our stopping point - a police station.

While driving up the hill and through one of the poorest sections of Bogota, I couldn't help but be struck with just how normal everyday life seemed. There were food markets and shops of all types and people laughing and talking and going about their lives. This was not extreme poverty. Poverty yes. But not extreme. Instead, it was just poor people trying to do their best with what they had while enjoying their lives. I don't know if I expected anything different except that it was completely out of character with my experiences with poverty in the US. Where US poverty is something I've always seen as dismal, hopeless, and depressing, the mood on the street in Bogota was more communal, vibrant, and alive. While I'm sure the problems of crime, drugs, and failed dreams are just as severe in Bogota (or throughout the poor areas of Colombia), the air of optimism has not been extinguished here as it has in so many places in the US where the poverty is so much less severe and the possibilities for personal advancement are so much greater.

At any rate, we had to go all the way to the back of the neighborhood, the very top of the hill (mountain) to reach the areas where the displaced have established rudimentary homes. These are the people who live in abject poverty. They are forced off their land by violence (guerillas and paramilitaries share the blame), they lose their livelihoods, make their way to Bogota in hopes of some help from the government or jobs that will enable them to raise their children. But when they arrive, they find a government unable to do much, jobs are scarce, and the numbers of poor are so vast that they just become another statistic. There is little hope for the displaced. They are unlikely to find a future in Bogota, yet are unable to return to their land. It's the classic rock and a hard place being played out for millions of Colombians every year and it defines the word tragedy in the truest sense.

We had to park in front of the police station and leave our cars there. For obvious reasons, it wouldn't be safe to leave our cars anywhere else, but also we wouldn't have been able to drive into the Neighborhood of the Displaced as there is only a steep dirt road and our cars would not have been able to top it.

After discussing our plan with the police, we hopped into a police van for the trip up the mountain. The inside of the van was damp and when we inquired as to why, they explained that the night before had been extremely violent and they had just washed out the blood. Apparently, poverty and alcohol don't mix.

The trip up the mountain was a bit harrowing, at least for me. I'm not a fan of heights and there was a serious dropoff just to the left of the van. Falling over that ridge would have meant a sure death for us all. But, somewhat miraculously, we managed to get most of the way to the top before the road bested the van and we had to get out. We walked the rest of the way into what can only be described as a refugee village.

The first thing you notice is that the buildings are built from a hodgepodge of materials. Anything from metal peices to tarps to cardboard will serve. As long as it keeps the rain out and provides a bit of shelter. The "houses" were stuck to the side of the mountain like boulders after a landslide; there was no rhyme or reason to their position, they appeared built in completely random intervals.

The other thing you notice is the smell. There was a garbage pit to the side the road that gave off a powerfully unappealing odor, but after passing that, the dominant smell is of waste. Animal or human, I could not tell and did not want to know. But the smell of waste product and unwashed humanity will linger in my nose. Of course, by living on a mountainside, the people are spared the worst as there is a great deal of wind and fresh air that blows through. So the smell wasn't unbearable or even particularly heavy for the most part. So for that, they are fortunate. It could be a lot worse.

Our group split up at this point. There were eight of us, so we split into two groups of four. The other group went directly up the mountain to our right, while we went to the top of the hill and up the mountain to the left. The idea was to reach the most difficult to reach homes first to ensure that those people received food and then help those closest to the road last on the presumption that other charities don't have the same persistence.

The climb up the mountain was very difficult and a bit harrowing. The residents had literally cut steps into the mountain earth, but they weren't like a nice even staircase or anything so easy. Instead, they were slick and damp and cut at irregular intervals meaning that it could be a very large step or a very small one. Finally, after considerable effort, we reached the top of the mountain and the fun began.

The idea was to only give out tickets to parents. This is mainly because the extremely poor will do anything to get as much as they can and, as we had limited supplies, our goal was to provide assistance for the maximum number of families.

It didn't take long for the news to spread. After handing out tickets to the first 10 or so families, we got mobbed. Soon there were legions of children following us around the mountain, pushy mothers begging us for tickets, and people who already had tickets telling us they hadn't received any. Managing that was a bit nighmarish. While on the one hand you want to help everyone, when you have limited supplies there is only so much you can do.

We continued to trek around the mountain for quite some time until finally, we ran out of tickets. I believe we distributed them equitably but had it not been for the vigilance of our leader, that could have been different. She is the one that started this project 5 years ago, so she obviously has the experience.

Throughout the process I was struck by the number of families in this relatively small place. When you walk into their "village" you can't imagine that 100 families live there. But the truth is that many houses have 2 or 3 families each. The people are packed together, making the best with what they have because they quite literally don't have any other choice.

I was also struck by another factor. With only rare exception, the vast majority of the parents that we found were women. In fact, the only place I saw a lot of men was in the one "bar" they have in the village. And they were drinking the day away (with whatever scant funds they had to afford such a luxury). But house after house after house was run by women. It makes one wonder where the men are. Were they killed before their families migrated to Bogota? Were they out working? Drinking the day away?

There were no answers to my thoughts, but I suspect that they were either dead or had deserted their families. It's a tough life these women have now, raising children with virtually no money and no hope for a better life. And it's especially tough when the men were the ones with the generational knowledge of farming techniques. Even if the people manage to get their land back, who's going to farm it if the experience and knowledge of previous generations has vanished?

After we had distributed all the tickets, we returned to the police station. There was already a line waiting for us. We started giving out the food first, one bag per ticket. That process was mostly orderly. Of course, one of our helpers, who was obviously less than clever, didn't keep the tickets that she received and enterprising people picked those tickets out of the trash and tried to use them again. Fortunately, we got wise to that quick and didn't give out second bags of food to the same families. In the end, I feel that the food was distributed equitably. There were some people complaining that they didn't get any, which might have been true, but most of those people were the ones that found the tickets in the trash and tried to reuse them.

The toys were different however. I didn't really participate much in the distribution of toys as I was on food duty, but as I saw, the kids and families were pushy and sometimes disappointed. It's a tough thing. We didn't have enough money to get toys for all the kids. So it was basically one toy per family. And you hate to see kids disappointed. But at the end, we gave out what we had and hoped that it made a difference.

One thing that was not surprising, and one of the reasons we distributed these items in front of the police station, was the number of people from that neighborhood that tried to get in on the handouts. We specifically targeted the internally displaced because they're the poorest of the poor. The people who live around the police station, while poor, have houses and hopes. That didn't stop them from pushing their way into the process and trying to get whatever they could. With virtually no exception, all of our goods when to the displaced. As sad as it is, someone else is going to have to help the rest.

At the end we felt good about what we did. For the price Diana and I paid for new glasses (2 pairs), we fed 100 families for a month and gave out Christmas presents to over 100 kids. But ultimately, I can't help but feel that it's not enough.

Think about it. The total money collected was $1.3 million pesos. That's about $600. And Diana and I paid $300,000 pesos just by ourselves. We can do more. The people need the help and the size of the donations required to make a huge difference is nothing to us. What I find hard to believe is that the donors didn't give more.

Not only that, those people need more than just food donations. They need doctors. I saw a little boy, no older than 4, who had a wound on his wrist that was seriously infected. I fear that if he doesn't get treatment, he'll lose his hand, if not worse. There were countless others with health problems that are easily treated. The Colombian government is either unable or unwilling to help. The US government gives $400 million annually (roughly) just for military assistance. The UN tries to do what it can. But in the end, these people are mostly overlooked, forgotten.

We can do better. Internally displaced persons are the victims of the worst kind of violence. They lose their lands, their livelihoods, and more often than not, critical members of their families. When they appeal to their governments for help, they receive silence as their response. They're left to fend for themselves under the most difficult of situations and they have little hope for their children's future. At the end of the day, it doesn't take a lot to help. A little money, a little effort and you can make a big difference in their lives.

I don't know what we're going to do next, but we're talking about organizing another charity drive. Whether it's food or clothing or something else, we hope to do what we can to help with what we have.



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