Sao Paulo saviour
Sr Eleanor Hayes has witnessed at first hand the horrific living conditions of street kids in Brazil. She was in Derry this week and talked to Sunday reporter IAN CULLEN about her work with locally-based charity LASCO and her goal to give hope to kids with none.
For 33 years she lived in the Brazilian city among some of the most impoverished children in Latin America. Its streets are places where outcast children under 12 are forced to sell their bodies for food and find shelter from violence in rat-infested sewers.
One particularly grotesque story of a young girl who came into contact with LASCO - the Derry-based charity which funded the building of a children’s refuge by Sr Eleanor - tells of how the 14 year-old child prostitute gave birth in a sewer and saw her new born baby eaten by rats.
Life is cheap in the favelas (shanty towns) where the Tipperary-born Missionary Sister of the Holy Rosary made her home. Speaking to the ‘Sunday’ on a visit to Derry this week, she described an overwhelming “sense of fear” gripping the forgotten kids. Over and over she has witnessed young lives fall into a vicious circle of violence, drug addiction, child prostitution, imprisonment and rape - ultimately leading to their deaths at the hands of gangs or off-duty police, or becoming one of the many “disappeared”.
Many of the kids have no one to turn to for help. Sr Eleanor explains that ‘meninos da rua’ (street children) are viewed by the elite as “surplus population that needs to be cleaned”.
“The street children and the impoverished people of the favelas have become dehumanised, they are treated brutally when they are arrested, they are raped in detention centres. There is a very high disappearance rate of street children - they are taken away and killed, never to be heard of again. They live in most fear of the violence from the police and the military, and so many are forced to live in the sewers where they are attacked by rats.”
In such a dark and dangerous world gripped by fear, Sr Eleanor and a team of humanitarian volunteers endeavour to sow the seeds of hope. Funded by Derry charity LASCO - which depends on donations from people in the North West and beyond - a new day centre run by the volunteers in a shanty town of Sapopemba on the east side of Sao Paolo is providing a safe haven.
The day centre was built on a site which had been occupied by a fearsome local drugs gang. Undeterred, Sr Eleanor - who has been subjected to threats to her safety throughout her career - approached the mother of a gang member to discuss the possibility of a handover. After lenghty negotiations the gang relinquished control of the site and LASCO then funded the construction of the centre.
Sr Eleanor explained: “They did go, despite not wanting to, and today the site has a centre which caters for children. It was built with money from LASCO after we made a plea for help and is run by the local diocese and some local government funding. It’s been there for eight years now and many of the children who have come through the centre are going to school, finding jobs and going on to brighter futures.”
Lasco’s ‘Children Off the Streets’ project in the favela now feeds and educates 250 street children daily with an outreach programme which provides food for another 150 children in five different favelas.
She added: “Many of the children who come through have never had a home or have come from families crushed by violence, drugs and alcoholism. The love at the centre gives the children emotional security, people they can trust - it allows them to build their self-esteem and express themselves.”
The team is also committed to outreach work - a programme to help bind the fractured communities. “It was always the case the church-going community didn’t want anything to do with the so called ‘street urchins’ but through our outreach work many now want them in the church because they have an understanding of their hardship.”
However, many in Sao Paulo and the other Brazilian cities consider the street kids social outcasts. “Before coming to Brazil I worked in Nigeria but Brazil has a very different type of poverty. There is tremendous wealth in Brazil but also huge poverty. Children are forced to live in the streets in squalor and hunger - young children can be seen hanging around bakeries and other food stores offering their bodies for pennies to buy food.”
When Sr Eleanor, a qualified nurse and midwife teacher, first arrived in the favela - which had a population of 300,000 - there wasn’t a single maternity bed available. With a team of volunteers she set about training some of the impoverished women and with help from LASCO there are now three hospitals to cater for the local population.
But in order to train the local women, trust - “something that doesn’t come easily in such a place” - had first to be established. “We really didn’t know how to approach the women at first, they drew away as if they’d be hit but when trust was established many of the women were trained up.”
Sr Eleanor has dedicated her life to helping those without hope. But she finds it difficult to mask her anger at the root causes of the poverty she has encountered on the streets of Sao Paulo. “The rural people of Brazil have been pushed off the land and forced into cities such as Sao Paulo with nothing to live on and no hope. Multinational companies have taken control of the land and fenced it off to repay the debts of vast amounts of money loaned to military juntas in the past. The result is millions of people being condemned to lives of hunger and poverty today.”
And the authorities and wealthy elite in Brazil “simply want the problem to go away”. People who speak out against the violence “are at serious risk too”, Sr Eleanor said. At the age of 77, she has now returned home to Ireland but she remains fearful for the safety of her colleagues in Sapapemba. “The World Cup and the Olympics are coming up in Rio - where children suffer the same as in Sao Paolo - and the authorities want to present the beautiful image. Anyone who interrupts that glitter will be removed. They’ve already started clearing up the ‘undesirables’ for the soccer and that situation will become much worse.”
Des Boyle, Chair of Lasco explains that it is important to educate the people of Derry and the world that the horrors of the street children have their roots in the 1970s when “North America and Europe lent non-elected military dictatorship in excess of US$100 billion”. He added: “Whenever the leaders spirited away the money to Swiss bank accounts they knew the IMF would ensure that the money would be repaid by structural adjustment programmes where the country’s raw materials are sold off to repay the debt. There is an illusion in Europe that this issue has been solved and that illusion is well documented, but the lie has been spun - extreme poverty as a result of international debt repayments is still a live issue.
In 1996 LASCO began fundraising to support projects in Latin America that raise the quality of the lives of 40 million street children. Brazil is the sixth wealthiest country in the world according to GDP but according to the UN Index of Human Developmnent [a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, quality of life and especially child welfare], it is rated as the 140th best off country. Brazil has 10 million street children and 500,000 child prostitutes under the age of 12, according to UNICEF.
The clamour within Brazil over the plight of its street children has been growing since its return to democracy in the mid-1980s. In July 1993, the whole world’s attention was drawn to the issue, when eight children sleeping in a square in the centre of Rio de Janeiro were massacred by off-duty policemen. The ugly details — those who tried to flee were hunted down and despatched with a bullet in the back — and the apparent indifference of the authorities guaranteed massive media coverage. Soon the world had read of packs of feral children roaming the streets of Brazilian cities, hunted down like rats by exterminators hired by shopkeepers fed up with the children’s pilfering.
The plight of at least some of meninos da rua in Sao Paulo is changing thanks to LASCO and similar organisations but much more help is needed. Lasco is dedicated to raising awareness of the situation and doing what it can to help improve the lives of the improverished chldren and give them hope.
All donations to the charity are welcome. LASCO can accept donations at any branch of the Bank of Ireland. In the North the account number is 64494521, Sort Code 90-49-74 (Branch Strand Road, Derry). In the Republic the account number is 35917353, Sort Code 90-49-10 (Branch Moville, Co Donegal)
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