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.