Helping the street children of Colombia
Fleeing the broken homes of Colombia’s slums, many children land on the streets. Some even turn to prostitution. German university professor Hartwig Weber is mobilizing local teachers to help break the cycle.
Fourteen-year-old Liliana Maria is staying tonight in a budget hotel room, just a few square meters in size. She pays around five euros a night for the accommodation here, in the Colombian city of Medellin.
“I live on the streets because sometimes I don’t earn enough money to pay for my hotel room,” she told DW. “Everyone robs you. They steal from you, any way that they can.”
Family problems and domestic violence forced her to flee her parents’ home, she explains. Now, she works as a prostitute. During the day, she normally stands at the underground train station Prado to wait for customers. If she has a lot of business, she has enough money to sleep in a hotel at the end of the day. If not, she sleeps on the streets.
Part of a wider problem
Ongoing poverty and the drug war means that thousands of people flood into Medellin every year. Guerilla groups, paramilitary fighters and large landowners, force the people to leave their land and head to the slums of the big cities.
Hardest hit are young girls from the internal refugee families. The social problems inside these households, often lead to domestic violence and other attacks. Many kids see a life on the streets as the only way out. But, what starts as a feeling of freedom, often turns into drug addiction and prostitution.
Liliana ran away from home two years ago. Three months ago she found out that she was pregnant. That makes her daily battle for survival even tougher.
Educating on the streets
German and Colombian educational science students are taking part in a research project from the University of Heidelberg, which is designed to help the lives of kids like Liliana. The project is supported in Colombia by the Don Bosco organization.
As part of the project the trainee teachers meet with street kids in public places in Medellin, where they live and work.
On the streets the trainee teachers use special teaching aids and games to engage with the young girls who work as prostitutes. The children are often encouraged to paint or draw, which is usually the starting point for conversation, where they can talk about their daily concerns.
For many teachers here, they otherwise wouldn’t have anything to do with children from these parts of society.
Twenty-one-year-old student Sara Catano, from the Antioquia University in Medellin, says that the street kids deserve more attention from society.
“For me it is not enough, that there are institutions that accept these kids,” Catano told DW. “The quality of the people looking after the children is more important.”
Daniela Correa, also 21 years old, told DW that “an education isn’t enough for these children, they need to have a future as well.”
Teachers can learn too
The main organizer of the project is university professor Hartwig Weber of the University of Heidelberg in Germany. With years of experience behind him, he is considered an expert on the issue of street children in Latin America.
“Together with the students, we go looking for kids and teenagers that no-one else is looking after,” Weber explains. “We believe that students who work with street kids will become different types of teachers, to those that have never had this type of exposure.”
A number of the students involved in the program studied in Germany. Many of them say that their experience with the program has changed their outlook; direct contact with street kids during their teacher training is something they can’t get anywhere else.
“Schools also produce outsiders who eventually end up on the streets,” Weber told DW. “With this project we want to help teachers understand this problem better.”
Showing a caring presence
Still, Weber is aware that the project has its limitations. “Many of the kids we talk to will disappear eventually,” he told DW. “If they are not selling enough drugs, or making enough money as prostitutes, they are often simply killed by their dealers or pimps.”
“Alternatively, sometimes they just die of disease,” he continued. “Their life expectancy is not high. When a project phase is finished, and we start up again a few weeks later, then often a group of kids is just missing.”
Weber says that part of the success of the project exists in simply showing a caring presence on the streets, and the fact that the trainee teachers encourage the street kids to talk about their problems.
Sometimes, the relationship that has developed between the child and the student leads to a better future. Liliana says she has begun to trust the young teachers who come to talk to her. “They are respectful to us, and they teach us,” she says happily.