I am going to take this time to share a little more about what the Girasoles Program is doing here in Peru to give you a better understanding of where the boys in my photographs are coming from.
I should note, that this post was written by a great friend, Billy, who is also down here in Peru right now. He has taken some of the most frequently asked questions we are asked and has graciously shared his knowledge here. While this entry is quite lengthy, I do strongly encourage you to keep reading to find out about this unique abandoned boys program.
Thank you Billy for all your hard work in compiling this information.
Street Children & Girasoles
– Billy Greenman
Every once in awhile, I think that I will write a post to share a little bit of background and information about Scripture Union Peru and its ministries for those of you who are not incredibly familiar with the organization.
Because I am currently doing work that is specific to Scripture Union’s Girasoles program, I want to start this series of posts by explaining a little bit more about this problem with street children that we experience here in Peru as well as in many other parts of the world. I will do my best to explain the issues to the best of my knowledge, but please have some grace with me as I am fairly new to the Peruvian culture. I do not have all the answers, and much of the following information has been gleaned off of other friends, such as Paul Clark, Billy Clark, and many of the house parents in the different Girasoles homes. I will warn readers ahead of time–this is heavy stuff, but it is real. Even in the darkest places, God is working! This is a longer post, but I encourage you to read through it, and learn how you can better pray for these children.
Where do these children come from?
There is not always an easy, clear cut answer to a question like this. Each child is different, so there is not just one blanket answer. With that said, the root of the problem is almost always extreme poverty. Behind the lives of many children on the street is a single mother who is struggling to provide for her family. In Peruvian culture, Latin American culture, and probably many other places around the world there is a definite double standard between the position of the man and the position of the woman in a household. It is culturally acceptable in Peru for a man to be the macho figure who can do what he wants, when he wants, and with whomever he wants. The sociological term for this is “machismo.” It is not uncommon, especially in impoverished communities, for a man to have children with a number of different women. While the man goes around doing whatever he wants, the mother is expected to provide for and care for the children. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, poverty turns into a vicious cycle. When a mother can no longer provide for the children on her own, she is forced to attach herself to another, often times abusive, man for income.
So where do the children come from? Many times the reason that they end up on the street is very simple. From the mother’s perspective, she can either abandon one child on the streets or try to care for everybody as the risk of starving the entire family. Paul Clark, the director of Scripture Union Peru, often uses the illustration of a life boat. When the boat is full one person needs to go overboard, or the entire boat will sink, and everyone drowns. There are other cases where the new boyfriend of the mother wants nothing to do with children from a different father, so he puts them out on the streets, or he at least abuses them until they run away on their own.
Other children begin spending days on the streets trying to sell small bits of candy, shine shoes, or just beg to try to provide income for the family. Many times, they are expected to bring home a certain quota daily, and if they do not meet that quota then they can expect to be beaten. Even when they do bring the proper amount of money home, very seldom does that translate to food on their plates. Many times the father will gamble the money away with his other friends or spend it away on beer to feed his alcohol addiction. After awhile, sometimes the boy decides that he would be better off living on his own rather than trying to meet an unreasonable quota and still not getting fed.
Once a child is out on the street, what becomes of him?
Nothing good is waiting for a child who is living out on the streets. To begin with, many of the populated cities in Peru have a fairly mild or sometimes downright cold climate. The leading cause of death of kids on the streets of Lima is pneumonia, among a host of other preventable or curable diseases, during the winter months of June, July, and August. Even if disease does not come upon a child, the streets are a world of drugs, gangs, violence, and abuse.
Street children in Peru’s culture are the lowest of the low. They are generally feared and hated. Prostitutes would have higher social status than street children. Billy Clark often tells a story of a time when the work with the Girasoles had recently begun. He had taken some pictures with the kids, and he took the pictures to get developed. When he arrived to pick up the pictures, the man at the store recognized that the pictures were of street boys, so he asked Billy why he would be taking pictures of these nobodies. Billy answered and explained the ministry that Scripture Union has here on the streets. The man looked at Billy and coldly said, “You want a solution for this problem? Well I have one for you–one bullet for each head!”
One of the most common derogatory names used to refer to a street boy is “piraña,” in English–piranha. The name comes from a common practice that some of the boys have of descending upon an unsuspecting person in a small pack. When they mug a person in this manner, they will sometimes even take the clothes off of the person’s back. Because they are known for crimes like this, they are feared and hated. Thus, the cycle of poverty once again begins.
If a boy is living on the street, he is already categorized as the lowest of the low. So what are the chances that this young boy will get a legitimate job to support himself in a country where the unemployment rate is sky high? He cannot get a job, and he is hated by the majority of the people around him, so he goes and finds a hiding place to get away from the hostile world. If it were not for the sharp pain of hunger, a boy might well spend his entire life in hiding, but there a comes a point where hunger becomes so unbearable that he has to leave the safety of his secret spot.
Without employment, the child’s next best option is to try to steal to survive. Sometimes this means stealing an apple from the market, but other times the boys will attempt to pick a pocket or grab someone’s watch to trade for a plate of food. Some of the children on the streets become incredibly skilled at petty theft. I have spent a considerable amount of time with different boys living in our Girasoles homes, and they have shown me how easy it could be for them to get a watch off of my wrist or a camera out of my pocket without me even noticing.
Unfortunately, many of the kids–especially the youngest ones who are too slow to make a fast getaway–get caught and end up in the hands of the police. While there are many goodhearted and well intentioned people in the Peruvian police force, there are also many very abusive, corrupt police officers. It is hard to know exactly why police are often incredibly cruel to these children, but they are. Perhaps it is just the hatred that the culture has coming out in a tangible form. Maybe it is because these boys make the officers’ jobs more difficult and more dangerous. Whatever the reason is behind the cruelty–it is absolutely unjustifiable. I have heard story after story. Boy’s have been taken to a dungeon and used as a soccer ball to be kicked around. They have been forced to drink other peoples’ urine. They have had water thrown on them and then electrical wires attached to their testicles. Sometimes a truck is filled with the children, and then they are driven out into the middle of the desert and left to find their way back into the city–some make it, and some don’t. They have been fed sandwiches laced with rat poison…and sadly, the list goes on.
After facing this sort of abuse from the police force many of the children on the streets are very reluctant to continue to steal to survive. But what is left? No family to provide, no job to earn a living, no stealing for fear of getting caught. What other option is there? While it seems like the end of the road, there is one other option. It is safer in the sense that they will probably not be bothered by the police, but in actuality it can be far more damaging long term. The last option for survival is prostitution. In Peru and all over the world sex trafficking and sex tourism is on the rise. The boys will extend sexual favors in exchange for a small sum of money or just a plate of food. Sadly, I have heard there are some places on the internet where you can book a vacation in Peru that includes the services of these children. Of course it is illegal, but it isn’t always easy to keep track of, and corruption means that sometimes a simple bribe is all it takes to keep the authorities off of your back.
At the end of the day after a boy has done whatever it is that he needs to to satisfy his hunger, he will probably scrounge around for a few coins to buy a bag of glue called “terokal,” and he will go back to his hiding spot huffing the fumes from the glue. When asked why they huff the glue, they often simply answer, “Quiero borrarme” (I want to erase myself). We have now come full circle. They will hide once again until hunger drives them out from safety.
The simple answer to this question is that yes there are girls on the streets, but there are far more street boys. It is hard to know exactly why there are more boys than girls. Perhaps when a mother finds herself in the situation where she has to put a child out on the street so that the rest of the family can survive, she would opt to choose the oldest boy. It could be that she feels that her oldest boy will have the best chances of survival out on his own. Another factor could be that when a mother looks at her young boy, she imagines him to grow up to be just like all of the other men in her life–abusive, promiscuous, gambling, alcoholics who care very little for the well being of the family. On the other hand, the mother want to identify with her young daughter. She might imagine her to grow up going through all of the same abuses, and she may want to try to protect her daughter from the world that she has experienced. For these reasons, the boy ends up on the street, and the girl remains at home.
With all of that said, I think that the number of girls on Peru’s streets is growing. There are some organizations who do work diligently with girls from the streets, and Scripture Union has at times partnered with some of these efforts. We have hosted some of these girls at our summer camp programs that we run. At this time, we are just not well equipped to meet the needs of the girls on a long term basis. We would need to have separate facilities from the boys and care for pregnant girls and infants among other resources. Poverty is everywhere, and hopefully we will never become so numb to it that we can just ignore it, but at the same time, because there are so many different problems we have to be really intentional about defining a very specific mission. If we tried to help solve every problem that presented itself, then we would be spread so thin that we would not be effective anywhere.
On a similar note, we also limit the number of boys at each of our Girasoles homes to about forty. The need is so great that we could easily open our doors to hundreds of children, and some places do. But again, we have a very specific mission. We hope to be able to provide not just for the physical needs of the boys, but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We really want the children in our homes to learn what it means to be a part of a loving, Christian family, and that mission would be impossible if we allowed for greater numbers.
As is the case of many other questions, this one is difficult to answer because each boy has a different story, and there are many different means by which they arrive. To be honest, I am not the most qualified person to answer this question because I have very little to do with this specific part of the ministry. If you ever come to Peru, I encourage you to ask Pablo Lavado, the director of the Girasoles program, or any of the house parents at our different boys’ homes. I know that sometime the house parents go out and do street work. They actually go find boys on the streets and tell them about the home. Sometimes word of our homes travels by word of mouth on the streets, and children show up because they heard about us from a friend. There are also times when children are referred to us by different government agencies when a case of abuse or neglect is discovered in the home.
Before I answer this, I want to reiterate once again that I am not the most qualified person to answer this question. I can say with confidence that the ultimate goal of the Girasoles ministry and virtually every other ministry of Scripture Union Peru is to bring children and their families to the feet of Jesus–the only true means of eternal redemption and transformation. In the case of the street boys, this is often a long process. When you tell a street child, “Jesus loves you,” the meaning of the phrase seems so simple, but when you begin to look at it through their point of view, those three words can have a very different connotation. Most of the time, the boys in our homes have very little knowledge of who Jesus is. They have very little experience with any type of church, so Jesus really has no meaning. If they have any image in their minds of who Jesus is, it usually comes from the crucifix that is on display at the many catholic churches all over the country. Jesus is just a dead, bloody man on a cross. The term, “love,” is another difficult one to communicate with a boy from the streets. In his world, love is always associated with some sort of sexual relationship. Try to look at it through there eyes–“Jesus loves you,” can become an almost gruesome sentence.
While there is a lot of baggage to work through, we still believe that it is important to really explain who Jesus is and what true, unconditional love is. The full time Peruvian staff work day and night to care for and counsel the kids. They really do give themselves sacrificially to this ministry to help communicate this message to the boys. We have also found that the different foreign work teams that come to support Scripture Union also play an important part. A boy who has grown up being told that he is garbage will eventually start to believe those lies. In their mind God loves and blesses good people. Because the foreigners that come all of the way to Peru are usually pretty rich, God must love them. When they think about themselves, they believe that they are bad people, and God does not love them so He has not blessed them. Most of the readers of this blog will know that that way of reasoning is not true, but that does not change the fact that this is the way that the boys perceive the world. For a foreigner (again, a good person in the boys’ minds) to come specifically to dedicate time towards bettering the lives of the children sends a loud and clear message to the boys that they are important people and that God does care about them. The short term groups help greatly to reinforce the message that the long term Peruvian staff and house parents are trying to communicate to the boys on a daily basis.
So what kind of results have we seen? As with most ministries of this nature, there are happy stories, and there are sad stories. We have found that no matter how hard we try to help a child adjust to life in one of our homes, there are some who just cannot cope with it long term. Perhaps it is they feel unworthy to live somewhere where they are so well cared for. Maybe after so much abuse, they just cannot grow to trust the Scripture Union staff. Some children have a hard time leaving their addictions to alcohol and drugs, and others just cannot adjust to living under rules and a daily routine after so much time of living without anybody telling them what to do. Whatever the reason is, there are boys who come and then leave our homes. We have an open door policy–we do not keep the children against their will. If we kept them under lock and key, then developing a bond of trust would be next to impossible.
On the other hand, there are many boys who have adjusted well to life at Girasoles. We do have children who I believe have come to a place of genuine faith in Christ. There are some boys (now men) who have graduated from the program and are maintaining a job. Many of our homes are fairly new, meaning that very long term results are yet to be seen, but I know children living in some of these homes who have dreams of being mechanics, bakers, policemen, military, and even pastors! Here in Cusco, our Girasoles home has only been open for just over a year. Most of the boys are between eight and twelve years old, and have a long way to go before they are ready to leave and live on their own. When the time does come, we will not just kick them out and never hear from them again. Just as any family, Scripture Union will always be these boys’ family, and we hope to remain involved in their lives.
The questions above are some of the most common questions that I get asked by work teams in Peru and by friends abroad. I know that many of you may have other questions or comments about this ministry. I welcome your thoughts. Reply to this post with a specific question, and I would love to share more.
“Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”