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The Right to Love
By Christine Stoddard
Editor's Note: This blog post was written for Blog Action Day. #BAD2013, #humanrights
Winter was fading fast in Piura, Peru, and one blazing afternoon, I found myself scheduled to meet several dozen high school orphans. My group, which included mostly Americans, one Mexican, and a couple Peruvians, had just finished siesta at the parish. Refreshed after journaling and napping, we set out on our next task. The time to load our suitcases full of small gifts had come upon us. A few minutes later, we were piled in our seats and ready for the bumps and thuds of half-paved roads. Along the way, we passed moto taxi after moto taxi and stray dog after stray dog.
Perhaps sooner than we had anticipated, the roads began to narrow and become dustier until they were nothing but sandy paths. Dark-haired children chased one another. A kitten mewed from a shallow hole not far from our barreling tires. One man watered the tiny patch of grass outside his home, a yard singular among all the area's yards, which betrayed the city's natural desert habitat. Rubble, graffiti, and garbage were less of an eyesore than a fitting feature of the landscape. At the end of the road lied what resembled a castle, plain but imposing.
The white van—a symbol of the church in action—idled outside the fortress in a neighborhood of shacks. Inside, nearly 70 teenage girls eagerly anticipated our arrival, or so we thought. As we waited for someone to open the gates, one of the missionaries pointed at the broken glass bottles lining the top of the 30-foot walls. Just above the shards stood posts holding up rusted barbed wire.
“Look at those,” the missionary said. “How interesting.”
“To keep people out,” said another missionary. Then after a beat, “Think of how vulnerable the girls are.”
Right on cue, about six girls pulled open the massive gates and a pack of German Shepherds growled and gnashed their teeth at us. The van driver allowed the girls to move away before he pushed past the dogs and onto the orphanage grounds. Though the girls scattered, the dogs would not. The dogs hounded us until the driver parked the van outside of the dining hall and the nuns shooed them away.
We poured out of the car, expecting scores of girls to bombard us with hugs and their charming attempts at American English. Instead we met the girls who had opened the gates for us. The rest were at mass. We spent the next hour or so playing soccer and volleyball in the barren courtyard until the rest of the girls returned from mass. That's when the storm of holas and pecks descended upon us. More than one girl threw her arms around me with the clear intent of never letting go. Then the next girl would throw her arms around me so that the former one would be forced to wiggle away.
After we had exchanged greetings with the girls, the nuns warned us that a storm was coming and that this neighborhood was dangerous at night. We unzipped our suitcases, distributed the gifts, took photos, and left, much to everyone's disappointment. The dash-and-run didn't really satisfy either party.
Two days later, two missionaries and I assisted parish workers as they haggled their way through the produce market. The goal was to budget a donation from an American sponsor so that it would buy enough food to feed the orphans for two to three weeks. The first step was to remove the seats from the van and drive to the market. The next step was to see the vendors the parish frequented and check out their selection. The third step was to bargain, buy, and load food onto the van. After a little more than an hour, the van was packed nearly to the ceiling, bearing everything from sacks of rice to cabbages bigger than my torso. We were filthy, drenched in sweat and covered in dirt, but we had a van worth of groceries to justify every smear on our skin and clothes. Of course, it was the parish workers—not the missionaries—who had made the trip a success. We were but tourists in a place that didn't need or want saving. We were there to learn, not teach.
When we got to the orphanage, girls tackled us with affection. The other two missionaries and I were treated like guests rather than volunteers. Each time I tried to unload something from the van, a girl would swat at my hand and insist on carrying the item to the dining hall for me. If I did manage to help a girl, it was only to her great reluctance. Contrast this behavior to that of the stereotypical American teenager who texts on her phone while watching reality television instead of offering to do household chores.
Once all of the food had been unloaded, the girls made a poster to thank their food sponsor and we posed for a group photo. Four flashes later, the girls grabbed at us again and asked to show us around the orphanage. We followed them as they introduced us to the parakeets, walked us through their dormitories, and then led us to the chapel where they serenaded us with “Ave Maria.” When they asked us to sing to them, we blushed and muttered something right before a nun retrieved us. The parish workers said we needed to leave for dinner.
Again, the other missionaries and I left the girls, feeling only slightly more connected to them than we had after our first visit. There was still so much we did not know about their stories and how life at the orphanage went.
Our third visit closed the gap. I led the girls in a poetry and art workshop, with two missionaries assisting me in passing out papers and patting the girls on the back. They did not speak Spanish and, as it turned out, many of the orphans did not speak or write Spanish as a first language, either. I discovered this as I read their writing and noticed orthographical errors I would not expect from a teenage girl in Catholic school, even a troubled one.
As I asked the girls where they were from, I learned that they came from all over Peru, not just Piura. Many were Indians, not Mestizas, and therefore seen as lower-class. Even if more Peruvians could afford to adopt these Indian girls, chances are they would choose not to because the girls are considered undesirable. The girls are ostracized purely for being born.
Growing up, I had a good friend whose parents were foster parents. Every few months, her family—which included her parents and two biological sisters—would welcome a new child. The child would stay in their home until the child's parents (usually the mother) had, in most cases, gotten sober, gotten a job, and gotten an apartment. Sometimes the child would be sent to live with a distant relative who had turned up. Other times the child would bounce from foster family to foster family until that one fatal birthday—the eighteenth—meant it was time to face the world alone.
Earlier on in the week, the other missionaries and I had toured a home established for eight women who had lived in the orphanage as teenagers. The oldest woman was 22. The women shared a humble apartment set up like a college dorm suite. Each one held a job and all but one studied; the singleton was waiting on a scholarship to come in. These women were the lucky ones. The other orphans had to fend for themselves upon their eighteenth birthday. That's one of the reasons why the nun tried to teach them useful skills, like sewing, cooking, and jewelry-making. The girls would go from a life where they were guaranteed (though limited to) two cups of water a day to a life where they could literally die of thirst in the desert if they did not find a job.
After the art and poetry workshop, the girls showed us their baubles and books. They had made necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and cell phone charms to sell to missionaries like us. The church had also given them an array of literature, ranging from the Bible to a wallet-size prayer pamphlet, to peddle.
We pawed through piles of packets, minutes after learning that the orphanage had no regular funding source. Month to month, the nuns prayed for a new sponsor. Usually sponsors would donate a one-time gift, such as a week's worth of food, but were not able or willing to guarantee that gift on a regular basis. More often than not, the four nuns who cared for the girls went begging in the streets to get enough money to feed everyone. If a place was deemed safe enough, the girls would come along and table their wares.
The jewelry was woefully underpriced, so the other missionaries and I bought up as many pieces as we could. At some point, I returned some of the jewelry to the table and just gave the nun all the money I had in my purse. It didn't amount to much in American dollars or even Soles, but the gesture was more than appreciated.
As I strolled back to the dining hall, a girl on each arm, I jingled and jangled with each step. The girls told me more than once that the jewelry looked pretty on me. I smiled, thanked them, and wondered to myself how much food my meager purchase would buy them. I hadn't brought a solution; I had brought a pittance. Nobody could just bring a solution. It would take an entire society and generations to provide a more stable life for girls like these.
Minutes into our impromptu soccer game, the parish workers asked the other missionaries and me to get into the van. We had to get ready for mass. We hugged each and every girl good-bye, and then endured the ride back to the parish in silence. We were too tired and confused to cry, not that tears would have changed anything. All three of us would be home with our families in less than a week. We'd have a roof over our heads, a car to take wherever we pleased, and a job with bi-weekly pay. More importantly, we'd have our loved ones—loved ones we knew would stay because they had proven to us time and time again that they wanted to stay.
What hurt me most about imagining these orphans' future was the idea that many of them would not have a stable, loving support system once they left the orphanage. Clearly the nuns love these girls or they would not sacrifice their comfort and sanity for them on a daily basis. The girls must love each other because know each other's pain. Every one of these girls has been abandoned. When the girls leave the orphanage, most of them will inevitably leave each other for whatever prospects come their way: a job, an education, marriage. Some of them might spend the rest of their lives floating, longing consciously or subconsciously for the love they had had at the orphanage.
About a year ago, my childhood friend saw off her parents' last foster child. While my friend's parents could not provide for the boy once he graduated from high school, they did help him find an apartment and enroll in community college. They've encouraged him to visit whenever he'd like and spend the holidays with them. He was the first and only foster child they had seen through adolescence and into adulthood. That is one of the reasons why they are so attached to him. They have shown him love, not because he has proven himself worthy but because he, like all human beings, has a right to love.