I have explained briefly before what I do at SERPAJ (Servicio Paz y Justicia), but it is such a big part of my life here that I would like to elaborate a bit more. Forgive me for the article length!
Servicio Paz y Justicia
SERPAJ is an international non- profit, and I am working where it all began: in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires is also the name of the province).
Two days a week, I meet my colleagues in the afternoon at our office in San Telmo, where we prepare drinks and snacks for the children and mothers at the Constitución station.
Then we head to the train/subway station. The station is very large – picture Grand Central Station – in part because it is one of the only places to enter from the interior of the country to the capital via train. I would guess that it was a pretty elegant place when it was first built. From there, commuters have the option of taking one of the many buses outside the station or taking the subway.
Trains are much more economical than buses here, and many times they unofficially let people who are on the streets ride for free, hence one of the reasons why many people in tight financial situations congregate at the station.
Many of the children who I accompany have homes in the province of Buenos Aires and come in each day on the train to the station to sell trinkets and newspapers, beg, or steal. When things are rough at home, they sleep at the station or perhaps only return home only to eat and bathe.
Like any other community, there are many different social circles within the station and people of all ages. Our children range from newborns with their mothers to teenagers. Most of the mothers have many children and started motherhood at a young age. The fathers on the whole are not present.
Unfortunately, I have no photos to share of the inside of the station. The train station and surrounding area is a home for many, so I have no intention of invading that space and privacy with an expensive digital camera.
Together we play and color, giving the kids a place to actually be kids instead of dealing with the adult topics they usually face. Meanwhile, other members of SERPAJ talk with the mothers to check on how things are going and to answer any legal questions or offer accompaniment to schools, hospitals, police stations, etc.
At the Beginning
When I first started working with SERPAJ, I was overwhelmed. The mothers and children did not trust me, and rightfully so. They have not had life stories that encourage trust.
The clean freak in me was also not comfortable with playing on a dirty urban station floor or with exchanging cheek kisses with people whose hygiene practices were different than my own.
Then I got over it. And I have gained so much by doing so. I now have people there who know and trust me to sprawl out on the floor and color with their beautiful children. I now am less judgmental, understanding that there are always histories behind why people turn to drugs or stealing, or why they don’t share the same social graces.
Realistically, I do not think that the community at the station is going to vastly change. With hope, the children will become more aware of their rights and learn about other perspectives and opportunities. Chances are slim that I will see those changes in them in this short time, but I already feel changes in me.
Perhaps that is the key. For the lives of these people to change, the rest of us need to open our eyes and ears, ask questions, and change.