When an organisation works with young people at risk of gang involvement, you know that visiting their work is going to be tough. When the first person you meet there is a 14 year old girl (Claudia) who is 8 months pregnant you realise it’s a lot tougher than you had thought. As I write I am picturing that young girl’s face and reliving the immense sadness I felt as I looked down at her weighty tummy.
She seemed so mature. I wish she wasn’t. I wish she was still some naïve kid, planning a sleep over with her girlfriends and giggling at photos of cute boy bands in their magazines. Suddenly I was the naïve one. I felt quite awkward thinking about how easy my life has been.
For the next little while at Fundación Paz y Bien (Peace and Wellbeing Foundation) I found it quite difficult to concentrate. But after I got over the initial shock, I felt reassured that this girl was now in very good hands.
Paz y Bien (like many of our partners in Cali) works in the impoverished district of Aguablanca, a known destination for displaced families, violence and gang activity. The staff have the enormous challenge of working to reduce the levels of violence and gang involvement in the area, which all too often leads to rape and murder. Staff and volunteers work from their offices (where many child mothers and pregnant girls can reside) and from 10 “Casas” (houses) in the area. Each “Casa” is similar to a small youth centre, where children and young people can hang out, be safe and study from Monday to Saturday. Children of the Andes supports 2 of these houses – and off we went to explore them…
Paz y Bien´s programme director Maria Theresa is another one of those people who are born to smile. In fact I think it is ok to generalise on this occasion and say that Colombians are the warmest and “smiley-est” people we´ve ever met.
Bueno… Our first stop was casa 5, where about 25 children and teenagers were waiting for us to start their restorative justice workshop. Restorative justice focuses on the involvement of the victim, the wrongdoer and the community as a means of reducing conflict. A topic fairly new to both of us, the workshop was an interesting opportunity to see active participation in a peace building process, where young people were discussing their rights, and how violence denies those rights. These children have obviously experienced a lot of things that we have probably seen on the news, and are determined to build a better future for themselves and generations to come.
Next stop was Casa 7, or rather the scruffy car-park-come-playground outside. What an experience. Bombarded by over 70 children, aged 4-18, we couldn’t escape the game they were about to start – and nor would we want to! It was one of those beautiful moments you share with children, where age doesn’t seem to matter to anyone, all the kids love you and want to hug you and ask you the usual questions – primarily do you (Hannah) know Hannah Montana – with this funny but genuine interest!
Exhausted from running around we were welcomed up some stairs to Casa 7, where 3 lads – aged 15, 16 and 18 – sang a few songs they had prepared for us. You don’t really expect guys this age, living in what is really quite extreme poverty and avoiding local gangs, to have such beautiful voices or to sing these ballads in such harmony. It was a great start to the rest of the afternoon – where we would have the opportunity to relax, and talk with all the young people, while the little ones had a break and played more games. We had so many questions, and so did they. I’d like to share a few of their words – so please read on as surely this is the most important bit?
“I have learnt how to control my angry feelings. I have learnt to respect people. Oh and tolerance too. My parents always used to fight when I was little, so it was all I knew. I started coming here 4 years ago, and now I have learnt to be calm. And I’ve taught my parents to be like this too. They don’t fight anymore. They talk. It’s really cool here.” Sonia, 14
“Gang involvement is a choice. You either want to get involved and you do it. Or you want to stay away and you stay away. I don’t have any contact with the gangs, I don´t agree with what they are doing… Before I think I would have said that reducing the number of people in gangs here was impossible, but with foundations like Paz y Bien its definitely possible.” Andres, 15
“Yeah when you first arrive its hard. I’ve written a song about my whole experience, do you want to hear it?” Guillermo, 16
It was a good job I wanted to hear it as I didn’t have much choice. Yet again this 16 year old boy wowed me with his voice and his lyrics. He has promised to send me the lyrics, so that I can share it with you all. It’s a detailed rap about how his life has transformed from one of only anger and violence to one where he is fighting for peace. He frequently thanks Paz y Bien for everything they have done and everything he has learnt. He is an incredibly talented young man, that with friends from Paz y Bien wants to set up his own foundation to help young people in Aguablanca to get involved in music. I hope I can share his lyrics with you soon – it’s a better testimony of Paz y Bien´s work than anything I can write here.
And what did I think of it all?
The final question was one for me to answer: how I had felt whilst we were all together? My answer:
“Puesss… I have held back tears a few times today listening to you speak and sing. It’s been quite emotional for me. Even though I have only just met you, I feel extremely proud of your respect and commitment to each other, to the work of Paz y Bien, and also to your shared dream of peace in Aguablanca. I also feel excited about going back to England, to tell everyone I know what a wonderful group of people you are and to find as much funding for Paz y Bien as I possibly can”.
True to my word… I hope you won’t think I am being cheeky by fitting in a link in case anyone feels inspired to donate to Children of the Andes´work.
Thank you for reading and for your supportive comments!
Love Hannah and Emily
Read more about COTA´s peace building work in Colombia here.