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Invisible Children, Children of Paper

An invisible boy lies on a main street in Cartagena. I stopped and looked at both sides of the street over and over again, watched the people go by without looking at him and, surprised, wondered what had caused this to happen.

With just enough time to arrive at a trial in the labor court, I walked slowly next to the little boy, continuing towards my appointment with uneasiness. Throughout the whole hearing, my heart hung from that desolate image. On my way out I looked for him. I observed him, and realized that everything happening around him was happening normally, as if he was a mirage, as if the boy was invisible. I continued my path to work slowly and turned my head once and again to observe the image from far away, to be certain of what I had seen.

“A child was lying on a sidewalk”, I said that night when I got home, narrating the event.

“Why doesn’t anyone do anything?” Sitting around the dinner table facing the sea, my husband and my daughter were shocked at my story.

“What if I go and ask him what the matter is? Maybe I’ll put some cookies in my purse and give them to him next time.”

One morning, some days later, next to the main entrance of the courthouse, I found a child of about ten or twelve years lying in the middle of the sidewalk. He slept with strewn legs, lying on his back, facing the sun. I approached him, leaned over to his side, and put the package of cookies in his hand. I asked him, “Do you want a cookie?” The little one kept his eyes closed, but squeezed the package between his fist. I walked a few steps ahead, then turned back to look at him. The boy reached his hand to his face, turned his face around brightly and met my eyes. I smiled at him and winked. He returned to his position and ate a cookie. I felt a burst of joy wash over me.

But what does it mean when a child collapses in a central city street, halfway between the government buildings and the courthouse? Is it not an unspoken cry for help, a silent plea saying: “Look at me! Here I am!” He could just as well sleep peacefully under a tree shade in one of the nearby parks, or on the white sand bordering the sea a few meters away.

A lawyer colleague of mine told me that abused or mistreated children have a low self-esteem and some of them inhale glue to get high. Talking with her made me understand the importance of getting them off the street. I started to get close to them and wake them up saying, “Do you want some bread or juice? Some oatmeal?” I became friends with several of them, and as soon as they would see me they would come and say hello. Sometimes I would ask them "Where is your mother?" Without getting an answer.

This is how I met a very cheerful and young boy, whom I told that if you wanted to be a “big man” you should eat well and stop inhaling glue because glue would make you stay small. One day we walked to the door of the institution where I worked. It was a beautiful house located in the old part of town, with high ceilings and bougainvilleas on the balcony. I introduced him to the guard and said:

“When this child asks for me, please let him in.”

I went upstairs to my office with the boy, up through the beautiful stone stairway, and we crossed the balcony from where I was always amazed to see the beautiful garden. It had a lush tree that stood against the ancient walls in front of an endless sky. As we said goodbye, I felt my heart leave my chest. I said,

“If someone offers you this glue, do not accept it. Remember me. I want you to grow strong.”

Days later, the boy looked for me. He started pulling my coat and said,

"You know, the other day I was offered glue and I didn’t want to accept it because I remembered you."
I shuddered, and I felt like crying.

Later, I heard of non-profits that collect street children and provide shelter for them, but I also heard that the children often return to the streets afterwards. “We can help many children, but every time we save one, there will be ten falling back,” someone said.

Later on, I noticed another young teenager sleeping on the sidewalk by the entrance of a store. His clear face and blond hair reminded me of the children of my native Caldas, always clean, even the poorest, and gentle and polite. He seemed to belong to a good family.

“What are you doing here lying on the street?” I asked him. “Why are you sleeping on the street?”

The boy told me that he had had a fight with his mother’s husband, and he had arrived in a truck to Cartagena with a friend who had invited him. “How can I help you? Do you want me to call your mother?” I said. The boy replied, but avoided answering the question, so I finally pointed out to him where he could find me if he needed help.

So I began to see him every day. I would offer him some breakfast or lunch, depending on the time, and I noticed that the restaurants and stores gave him food as well (this is because the people of Cartagena are very supportive and generous.) I asked one day, “How about if we go to a foundation that helps children and young people like you? They’ll give you shelter and food.” “No, because that is boring,” he answered, “There, you must go to bed at 6 pm.” Compared with the colorful life on the street, the option of being locked up in an institution does not always interest these children.

“What if we call your mom? Maybe you can give me her phone number?” Finally, one day I convinced him to give me her number and I called his mother from a nearby store.

“I'm calling from Cartagena,” I said. “I am with your son who is on the street. He sleeps on the street.”

The woman told me, her voice full of regret, that it was not the first time he had run away from home, that her husband had been good to him, that they had searched for him everywhere, that they did not know what else to do.

“Lady, this boy needs help. Please talk to him,” I said.

There was a pause on the other side and the lady agreed. Her voice was soft and nervous. I ran to get the boy.

“Come quickly. Your mom wants to talk to you,” I said.

I heard him greet her respectfully. After they talked, I gave her my phone number and we agreed that she would talk with her husband and then call me back.

Shortly after ending my work contract, I decided to leave Cartagena and go back home. I felt like I could not leave the boy. I went down to the streets looking for him and I found him covered in wounds on his legs and knees. His clothes were frayed and he looked like he had deteriorated.

“I have to leave Cartagena,” I told him. “I would like to help you before I go. I want you to meet a friend of mine who you can find if you need any help.” Then I suddenly asked,

“Would you be willing to go home today?”

To my surprise, he accepted. We entered my friend’s office. She was a nice lady from Cartagena who once told me that she was also interested in helping street children. She cried upon seeing the boy, with so much love and compassion! That is when I realized that women have a way of uniting for a common cause. We undertook an enormous task of solidarity for the boy. All the employees and officials helped out. In the beautiful courtyard with the fountain, under the warm shade of the leafy tree, they all gathered. They all helped, brought him clothes, a shirt, pants, some socks, food for the trip. A fellow lawyer, Enrique, took off his good shoes and gave them to him. Within minutes this boy was bathed, trimmed and ready to go back home.

My husband, my daughter, and I kissed and hugged him farewell, and gave him a thousand recommendations for the road. We waved goodbye until we couldn’t see him anymore. I let his mother know he was coming, and later she confirmed that he had arrived at home.

Two days later I returned to my parents’ house and I told them the story. My mother was deeply moved. I remember how, before going to sleep, she stopped at my bedroom door and said, “You should write this story down.” In doing so today, I realize how intensely I keep this memory alive in my heart and my desire to help the young people in the street: the invisible children, children of paper.

“There are children that, like paper, are thrown into the trash. Then there are some who pick them up and turn them into premium quality sheets.” That is the role in Colombia of the Children of Paper Foundation (Fundación Niños de Papel.)

I found out about this NGO in Cartagena, and that’s where I took the small child who inhaled glue. Later I saw his picture in a local newspaper. He was swimming happily in a pool in a rural farm that belongs to the Foundation.

On their website, the Children of Paper Foundation talks about the changes generated by the women in the area starting to work. This causes families to collapse. The least fortunate in the families are the poorest children, whose mothers go work and leave them alone, exposed to the evil of the world. “This is where you see child abuse. Child abuse is most noticeable, where the child has to get his own food and his family’s, where the street becomes the best chance of life, girls easily turn to child prostitution or get involved in the armed conflict, and it is the easiest way to turn to drug abuse.”

The Colombian Code of Children and Teenagers, also called Act 1098 from 2006, regulates all matters concerning the rights of minors, like prevention and punishment of crimes against this demographic. It establishes special laws for the protection of the rights of street children, as a subject of special attention of the State.

However, there has been an alarming increase in crimes against children. According to UNICEF, there are 35,000 children involved in sexual exploitation in Colombia every year, a figure that has tripled in the last three years. Also, there has been an increase in the demand for sexual tourism by foreigners. This leads child prostitution to increase.

Last week, President Alvaro Uribe sent a new referendum to the Constitutional Court for review. It is a referendum promoted by popular initiative, which proposes to amend Article 34 of our Constitution to toughen penalties against violators, operators, and kidnapping of minors by establishing life imprisonment as punishment for such crimes. The vote to pass the referendum will happen in November 2009, and according to the one who proposed it in the House of Representatives, David Luna, “this tool will make the State turn its attention towards the victims who are children and deserve special attention so they can recover their lives."

But how can we further help this woman escape the poverty that forced her to leave her children to go to work? This is our challenge! Let’s look for ways to support women that offer them flexible working options. Let’s create support networks for families, and let’s fight this current disease together, this kind of modern slavery, which is killing the soul and the innocence of our peoples.

Translation by Maria Cuellar. See original article here.

Comments

JaniceW's picture

Moved to tears

Luz, thank you for sharing the story of these children with us. To read that the young boy refused the glue made me weep.

The streets of Colombia (and in so many other cities around the world) are full of children with so much potential yet no-one notices them. How did so many end up living in a world of abandonment, where their lifelong companion is now despair? How, as adults, have we inoculated ourselves against the sight of these children, passing them by without a glance?

The referendum passed by Uribe is a start but conditions remain that force parents to leave their children without care during the day as they attempt to earn enough to place food on the table that evening. Conditions remain that no longer support the extended family structure, where children had grandparents to turn to while the parents were away. Conditions remain that tacitly "permit" the exploitation of children. I do not have any answers but support the efforts of organizations such as Fundación Niños de Papel, and am grateful to you, Luz for telling their story, for now, we cannot pretend the children are invisible.

LUZ MARINA JARAMILLO's picture

Thank you, Janice

Thanks for your comment, Janice. I agree with you!
Best regards,

Luz Marina

jodelight's picture

speechless

Dear Luz,

This entry left me speechless. Thank you for being the voice for these children, and this issue. I am so saddened by the growing number of street children all around the world. I have so much compassion, and desire to change this horrible cycle of poverty. I so agree with you that while many can be helped, so many do 'fall through the cracks' and are never helped. This saddens my heart beyond words.
My hope is strengthened to know that there are organizations that take these children off the street and provide shelter, food and education for them. I want all the children to have an opportunity at life, a good life.
I worked in Cambodia last year, and there were so many street children there. I wanted to scoop each of them up and take them home with me. I wanted to heal their sicknesses, feed them, love them, and take away their sadness. Reading about the homeless children in Columbia, reminds me of Cambodia. Change is happening though. Many organizations are working to create more opportunities for these children. I have seen many children scooped from the streets and are now learning and growing, and are in a place of new life and hope. I want that for every child though. That is what burdens my heart. How can we save ALL the children. I don't know, but in the mean time, I say we keep helping every child we can. WE ARE POWERFUL. We can can the life of a child, of many children. It is on our shoulders to offer love, food, shelter, education and hope to the children.
Take my hand-
Let's link arms-
Let's create a chain-
a circle-
that connects and does not break.
Together we can change the world.
One person at a time. One child at a time.

I won't give up hope.
Thank you again for this entry, you reminded me of while there is so much hopelessness in the world. WE ARE THE HOPE.

best,
Jody

JaniceW's picture

To Luz and Jody

This reminds me of the quote:

"We will surely get to our destination if we join hands."
Aung San Suu Kyi

LUZ MARINA JARAMILLO's picture

Thanks, Jodelight

Dear Jodelight:

Thank you for your beautiful words.... I hope so, too. "...together we can change the world!
As Janice quoted: "we will surely get to our destination if we join hands".
Thanks for your comment!

Best regards

Luz Marina

Maria de Chirikof's picture

Inspiring story!

While I loved reading of the foundations and the help what gives me most cause for feeling like a real difference is being made is reading how they want to stiffen the penalties for those who abuse the children. I agree that it should be a lifelong sentence to help deter this from happening.

I also think that is a very true statement the one boy made who said the kids do not want to go to the shelters because it is very regulated. I believe that is one thing that does need to change because it can feel like a prison rather then a helping hand.

Thank you for such a beautiful and inspiring story!

Maria

LUZ MARINA JARAMILLO's picture

I agree with you

Thanks for your comments, María. I agree with you. I also believe that these children need a place full of love and joy ,where they can learn to develop their talents and open doors to their imagination, intelligence and heart...

Best regards!

Luz Marina

Nusrat Ara's picture

A very beautiful and

A very beautiful and inspiring story. You know if everyone manages to save a child how many lives will be saved. I wish there were more people like you.

You are an inspiring lady!

Love

Nusrat

LUZ MARINA JARAMILLO's picture

Thank you!

Thank you, Nusrat. I deeply appreciate your comment. I always remember these kids, and they are always in my heart!

Regards!

Luz Marina

heatherc67's picture

Very touched my this story...

Hi Luz,

I am so glad your mom told you to share this story, because too many children in the world have become invisible for whatever reason. It is nice to see people like you trying to make them noticeable and valued as precious human beings. This is not an easy thing to do, because people are too consumed with their own lives to care about a poor child living on the streets.

Thank you for giving this child another chance to be loved and cherished.

Blessings,

Heather

LUZ MARINA JARAMILLO's picture

Thanks, Heather!

Thank you, Heather ! I love your comment!

Regards!

Luz Marina

catalicu's picture

At plain sight

Luz Marina,

Yours is an eye widening story. We walk everyday through the same street and enable our eyes to look only inside the bubble we have carefully constructed around our own lives. Outside this bubble, there are infinite possibilities on making a change.

I always think of a cheesy Val Kilmer movie (At first sight, 1999). He plays a blind man whose girlfriend convinces to get an operation to regain sight. There is this scene when he first walks in the street with her and he notices an old man lying on the sidewalk. The kind of poor who does not even ask for change. The character stops, he cannot take his eyes from the man while his girlfriend urges him to continue and stop staring. What´s the point on having the gift of sight, if one decides not to see.

This blindness happens to us all. We stare blankly as children live in the street, as forests are destroyed, as the story unveils before us. Your story is an invitation to open our eyes, to take those pictures into our hearts and to take action.

Thank you Luz and all your children,

Catalina

LUZ MARINA JARAMILLO's picture

Thank you!

Thanks for your comment, Catalicu.... thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I was charmed with the scene of the cinema on that you comment ...

Regards!

Luz Marina

Sophie's picture

One step, one child

That is quite an inspiring story! I was touched by the boy who refused to take glue and the fact that you decided to just help one child at a time, not wondering if I help this one what about the others. In Kenya street chidlren and sometimes family are not a rare site. Even though they have refused with different interventions, there is always some child, or a woman with a child in the street, and it is challenge that it takes one person helping one person in order to heal the world.

Thanks for sharing, and for the great heart!
Cheers

Sophie Ngugi
Child of the Universe -www.sophiengugi.blogspot.com

LUZ MARINA JARAMILLO's picture

Thank you, Sophie!

Thanks for your words, Sophie.. You know? I always remember this little boy ...

Cheers!

Luz Marina

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