From behind safe walls
Protecting our kids from gang violence at NPH Mexico
November 16, 2016 - New Zealand
NPH NZ Board Member and godparent, Lisa-Marie Richan, recently travelled to Mexico to learn of the work of some of NPH’s first orphanages, now stepping up to the challenge of providing sanctuary for some of the youngest victims of drug-related violence, one smile at a time.
Morelos lies south of the sprawl Mexico City, the temporate and lush valley state that produced some of the revolutionary fathers of modern Mexico and is now considered a cultural heartland of the country – rich in both early civilisation sites and the decorative haciendas of the Spanish.
Far from the sprawl of one of the world’s biggest cities, the Morelos state’s capital Cuernavaca and the village of Miacátlan further south are home to two extrordianary places of healing and care for the country’s most vulnerable children. They are also act as sancturies for the smallest victims of what the country’s massive tourism industry rarely sees – the violence and social upheaval of the drug economy further North.
A thin young boy wearing a medical mask runs up to the Mexico NPH’s country’s director Rafael for a quick hug like any father and son. A few words of greeting and encouragement and then the boy skips back into the nearby comedor for 2pm lunch.
With over 500 children from 12 months to 15 years old, the children’s specific backgrounds and histories are recalled easily by Rafael. He was one of them himself soon after the organisation, NPH, was founded in 1954 by a priest from Arizona, Father Wasson. Called back to the organisation, Raffael left his business career to lead NPH’s efforts in Mexico.
In a country where today 80 per cent of its citizens identify as Catholic, priests in 1950s Mexico were a respected and prominent part of daily life, but Father Wasson, the attractive American priest in Buddy Holly glasses, was particulary popular. A tall and striking man, his charisma drew many in his adopted country. One of the current staff, who left his career as a software engineer to join NPH as a volunteer coordinator, tells me his mother knew Father Wasson when she was growing up in Cuernavaca ; “What a waste!” the girls and women used to laugh about the priest’s good looks.
Father Wasson became known for a simple act of forgiveness when a small boy had was brought to him by the local police. Before being taken to jail, he had been brought to Fr Wasson so he could apologise for stealing money from the church collection plate. On discovering the child lived on the streets he offered to give him refuge. Soon a steady stream of children began arriving in need of a home and hope.
With help from donations back in the US, Fr Wasson eventually set up NPH, now in a huge hacienda complex with a farm, bakery, schools, accomodation and medical services in what was an old sugar mill in Miacátlan, two hours south of Mexico City.
There are four other NPH homes throughout Mexico as well as in Guatemala, Peru, Haiti, Boliva, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Those helping to run them include ‘original pequeños’ (former ‘little ones’) from the 1950s and later years, who left established careers to help Father Wasson until his death in 2006.
Other pequeños have also returned from throughout the US and Latin America to give back to the homes that gave them the shelter and love they needed.
The organisation has moved with the times and, as it solely relies on donations from ‘Godparents’ and other private donors from Europe, North America and New Zealand, it has to fundraise for every new need.
Haiti is particularly well known to celebrities such as Beyonce who recently visited and the Italian opera star Andrea Bocelli, who has since set up his own foundation for the medical centre at NPH Haiti following the devestating 2010 earthquakes and to support the charismatic motorbike riding priest and head of the Haiti NPH operation, Father Rick Frenchette.
Meanwhile, NPH became increasingly concerned about the children caught up in Mexico’s own escalating tragedy – those famlies on the country’s northern border towns who daily run the gauntlet of turf wars between gangs and the authorites’ war on the drug cartels that run them.
At NPH Miacatlán, a team of pediatric psychologists are the first to see the children once they are placed in NPH’s care. Juan sits down with me and goes through the common stories he hears, mostly torn experiences he has to piece together for assessment.
“Mia came from a border town to us when she was 11 years old”, he says through a translator. Like many, she’d been abandonded and was begging on the streets. The police tried to find her parents but only a mother with a number of other children was tracked down. She was likely involved in the thriving illegal economy and refused to take Mia back.
All the children we see from the Northern area have been exposed to so much violence that it becomes a way of life. The only way they know how to express feelings becomes to lash out, and with much anger.
Mia has just turned 16 and she’s probably the happiest she’s ever been. But still everyday can be an emotional rollercoaster for her, and due to her abandonment and treatment as a young child, she struggles to give and receive affection.”
At Miacátlan there are many stories of young lives not just saved, but also flourishing. Karen from another northern town, Matamoros, one of the most dangerous border towns, is in her late teens and practices the tradtional Spanish mandolin and the violin every day with music teacher and another former pequeño, Profesor Jose.
Through US donors she will soon travel to Boston to perform publicly for the first time with several other members of the NPH Miacátlan Music Group.
She is one of the 78 Matamoros children in the care of NPH. She has three brothers, the youngest who is also with her at Miacátlan. A fifth sibling died back in Matamoros.
Next year she will go back to her home town to fulfil her year of service to NPH. She then wants to go to the prestigious university in Monterey, which also boasts a number of NPH students, to study law. She wants to be a criminal barrister and then a judge. To help out people who are treated unjustly, she tells me.
Matamoros has seen some of Mexico’s fiercest gun battles between government forces and the drug gangs. Half an hour from the town, the NPH casa is in the middle of a large field surrounded by security. Here the children live in precious sanctuary.
Karen tells me everyone there knows what it’s like on the streets and recognises noise when people are outside the gates. All sounds of guns are quickly extinguished as the children get together in a safe room to watch movies.
“We put the volume up a little higher, but here we are safe,” Karen says.
But for now, Karen concludes her music practice for the day – she plays her favourite song with flourish on the violin – her version of Viva la Vidada by Cold Play. Life is Happy. "I like the words in the song," she says.
“They makes me happy.”
Lisa Marie Richan