On Thursday June 23rd, we went to a rehabilitation center (Hospital Mental de Antioquia) for children (ages 7-19) who were living on the streets of Medellín. The majority of them were found on the streets addicted to some form of cocaine. The director of the center told us that not only are these children/teens found on the streets, but there are also hundreds of them that gather in abandoned buildings to do illicit things. He described it as the closest thing to infierno (hell) he has ever seen: there are close to 300 children in a room — people are having sex (child prostitution) in one corner, defecating in another, doing cocaine, dying, etc. And there are children who are so addicted to their drugs, that they don’t eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom — they only want to keep doing the cocaine to feel the effects 24/7. Some of these children take 200-300 hits of cocaine a day. We learned a lot about the philosophy of the center and their daily schedule. Then we went to visit the kids/teens…it was an indescribable experience. First of all, the children look 2-3 years younger than they actually are (most likely because of malnutrition/drugs). We went to a classroom where a group of about 10 children were practicing plays and singing. It was touching to see how happy they were to see us — one boy thanked us for coming from the US and visiting the center, saying it meant a lot to him because his family lives in a different city so he never sees them. Messages of thanks are extremely beautiful in Spanish, because the language allows people to use mindblowingly elegant and descriptive phrases. The children were so curious about us, wondering why we weren’t all blonde with blue eyes, asking us how to pronounce our names, and pleading us to teach them words like “cool” in English. One of the boys had scars all over his face and neck, and told us that he had been playing with petroleum when he was 3 years old and burnt himself. The boy had run away from home to Medellín when he was 7 years old, and his older brother left home to find him. He found him on the streets of Medellín, and the two were able to stay together even after they were discovered on the streets and sent to the center. Recently, the center was able to locate their family and set up visits for them. A girl came up to the director and started begging him for something: although I couldn’t hear their conversation it seemed like she wanted drugs. When he turned her request down, she started crying desperately and walked away from the group. But the other children came and hugged all of us and introduced themselves, and then gave us kisses on the cheek (Colombian custom) when we said goodbye. It was a bittersweet experience: the children made me laugh so much with their antics and smiles, but I also teared up every time I remembered how incomprehensible their lives are to me and how ridiculously difficult their past has been.
The kids were so excited to know that we were from the United States. They wanted us to speak in English because it was so foreign to them. And they didn't even believe that I was from the US because I'm black. They have this perception that everyone from the US is blonde haired and blue eyes. Some of the students even had blue eyes and they thought that they were fake. Everything was new to them. They performed some of the things they learned in theater class for us. One of the boys sung for us. It was really special. They were so excited to talk to us. Over and over again, they asked questions about money in the US, how to make money, how to buy a plane ticket, how to get a job. They wanted to know how to have a brighter future and that was so surprising to me. Like going to the US was something that the strive to do.
There were a few black kids there but not many. One black girl who was really tall, probably about my height, came up to me and she couldn't stop smiling. She said, "You look like me!" She was so excited. I think because some of the kids don't really have families and because they haven't been exposed to much that it was her first time seeing someone with dark skin like hers and I think that even for that little bit of time that we were there, she was really touched. Funny part is that the feeling was completely mutual. She told me when we were getting ready to leave that I couldn't go. I wish I could have stayed. Those kids had gone through so much and all they were looking for now was someone to love and care for them.
We were introduced to the director of the center and sat in a circle, listening to him explain La Pola. He was a lovely man, and he was joined by Anderson, a 19-year-old boy from the center. You see, I don’t have the heart to call him a delinquent. Although I may not know what crime he committed, he was just another kid like us. He was obviously very well-behaved as well because of his special opportunity to talk to us. Him and the director told us about the detention center and all of the programs/rules/accommodations. The idea was to create an environment free of strict rules so that the kids could concentrate on their own self-acceptance. So different than the centers in America. They still had their privacy intact (the toilets and showers had stalls), and their dorm rooms had windows and could be decorated.
Then they brought us into the center and we walked in. We were split up into two different small groups. We walked past a building as about 30 boys sat watching us walk by. They were all wearing red polos tucked into black sweat pants. All donned black Chucks; all donned a bewildered expression as well. Yeah, some mumbled some things, but I kind of felt bad. I didn’t want to come in as an outsider and observe them as if I were above them. I didn’t want to think there would be some kind of line dividing us. But still, that line remained as we walked in while a room of boys were eating their lunches. The director continued on with his tour, but as he did, all the boys would continuously come over and hug him. It was definitely not an act; not planned whatsoever. It was really touching – their love for one another was pure.
Then there was a moment after we saw their dorm rooms, when we all went back outside, where we all went past them in a line. Two lines, facing one another, from completely different backgrounds/lives/everything. One boy even murmured “Those girls are brave.” Not in a harmful kind of way, but in a way that meant that this opportunity was rare for us. And them. Juntos.
In the first week, I have found that the best thing about Medellin is its people. Without them, Medellin would just be another midsized Latin-American city. Instead, there is a citywide movement from the personal to governmental level to change its international image. Every person we have encountered has been more gracious than the next. After meeting our Companeros, I was blown away by their friendliness. Back home, this type of hospitality is somewhat hard to come by, especially for foreigners . The slogan for sospaisa, a program for expatriate paisas, embodies this ideal, “Donde Hay Un Paisa Esta Medellin (where there is a paisa there is Medellin).” For those who still live in Medellin, the quote can be adapted to “if you know a paisa, you know Medellin.” In the next couple of months, I do hope to get to know this city well, but it will not be as important as getting to know its people.