Pubdate: Tue, 12 Dec 2000
Source: Independent  (UK)
Copyright: 2000 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Contact:  1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL
Author: By Jan Mcgirk and Ruth Morris


MEDELLIN, Colombia - To sleep rough in Medellin, Colombia's violent cocaine
capital, hundreds of abandoned urchins take inordinate risks in a world
where stray bullets cost lives.

Jose Lopez, an outreach worker with the British charity Let The Children
Live!, sees too many die. Once, he had to bury two young boys on consecutive

Opening the world's eyes to the perilous lives of Colombian youngsters who
hawk roses, fruit and candy on the mean street or wash windscreens at stop
lights is a challenge for the small British foundation, set up by a priest
who was once taken under the wing of the street children while stranded in
Colombia as a young tourist.

The street urchin project is financially supported by Hope for Children, the
British charity that the editor of The Independent has chosen this year as
the recipient for this newspaper's Christmas appeal.

In Medellin, the staff of 16 tends 450 children each day, feeding them
balanced meals, tutoring them and giving them lots of love. They might take
an ailing girl to hospital in the middle of the night, or simply play games
with six-year-olds on the street corners where they work. They find shelter
with the state welfare office or place troubled teenagers in local
programmes that treat underage drug-addicts or prostitutes.

The foundation acts as a bridge between existing agencies, but sees a need
to start a halfway house for children with behavioural problems that
standard schools cannot handle. One hurdle is to convince impoverished
parents that their children should work as little as possible, and few leave
street vending altogether.

These youngsters have not run away from poverty and squalor, but are
society's unwanted "throwaways" - vulnerable to beatings, muggings, rape,
abuse and even murder. Let the Children Live! attempts to give them a
future, and seeks out youngsters when they first come to beg on the streets.
Often driven from their villages by civil war massacres, Colombian refugee
families tend to disintegrate in the city.

"In the marginal barrios, life is extremely violent. A parish priest there
expects to bury a murder victim every other day," explains Father Peter
Walters, the British priest who started the foundation five years ago.

"Some of their older brothers are in youth gangs and fight one another for
turf. So sometimes children come on to the street to try to get away from
the violence at home." Single-parent families find it hard to cope.

"Most of the men whom these boys know, father figures, are either dead or
absent," Father Peter points out, "or they're involved with drugs or
violence themselves."

As a 26-year-old backpacker, Mr Walters became stranded in Colombia after
his discount air ticket expired and he couldn't get on a flight back to
Britain. When his money ran out, he ended up on the street himself. "I got
adopted by a group of these scruffy, smelly street children who used to beg
outside my hotel. Seeing a foreigner who hadn't got any money amused them
and so they decided to help me.

"They kept me out of trouble, they showed me the cheap places to eat and the
places to avoid. As we became friends, they even shared their food with me,"
he recounted. "What made the most impact on me was the kindness and the
humanity of the children who reached out to me in my need, and that's what
really set the whole thing going."

One group of urchins now lives together on a farm, alongside seven street
dogs. Many street children forge strong bonds with stray dogs and no attempt
is made to separate them.

Father Enrique Montes said: "We keep them together. It's a form of therapy."
He oversees five such shelters in Pereira, an area notorious for child
prostitutes. In a room of bunk beds, one boy with a bleached fringe is still
fast asleep at nine in the morning.

According to Father Enrique, this is good therapy too. "One of the biggest
anxieties they have on the street is sleeping alone," he explained.

One of the most energetic boys is skinny Victor Alfonso Gomez, 13. Every
day, he boards buses in Medellin to sell candy and brings back his earnings
to his mother.

But he is nervous after dark. "You can't stay in the street too late because
where I live there are a lot of drug addicts and they could suddenly start
shooting bullets," he says.

Over the years, 27 boys and girls who have come through the homes have died
in street violence or from drug overdoses. But one of the first boys to join
the programme just graduated from secondary school in July.

Father Peter said: "Juan Guillermo is the first to actually finish secondary
school. We're very proud of him."

For more information on helping street urchins go to www.Hope-for-
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