"Street kids of Lima"

By Sarah Ostman
Columbia Chronicle
Feb. 1, 2010

LIMA, Peru – It’s a warm summer night and Haydee has her strategy down pat. A sturdy, outgoing girl of 11, she fearlessly works the rounds in Parque Central in Lima’s Miraflores district, clutching a red fast food cup that has gone soft around the edges. It’s far from home, but tourists are abundant in this neighborhood, many of whom sit coupled on benches, necking or eating ice cream.

Haydee tucks her cup under her arm, parks herself in front of a couple of gringos, pouts her lips and waits.

Sometimes, it works. At the end of the night, she goes home to San Juan de Lurigancho, known as one of the poorest neighborhoods in Lima, where her mother runs a bodega out of their home. She has 20 soles — a little less than $7 — in her pocket.

Thousands of children like Haydee eke out a dangerous living on the streets of Lima every day, begging, stealing or selling trinkets to anyone with a sol to spare. Many have run away from home because of abuse, neglect or drug addiction, setting up camp near garbage dumps or under bridges outside of town. Others live at home with their families, but are sent out alone by their cash-strapped parents to work the streets of more affluent neighborhoods.

For many turistas, these “street kids” are simply a nuisance, yet another reason to keep a firm grip on their purses in this land of haves and have-nots. But for some, these children’s constant presence is emblematic of something deeper — a gaping riff between rich and poor, city and shantytown, those with beds and those with cold, hard floors.

Street kids are plentiful in Lima Central, where narrow streets choked with exhaust give way to vibrant, wide-open plazas of yellow and red. Between the tour buses that hum outside the Catedral de Lima and the crowd that gathers at the president’s palace for the daily changing of the guards, the historic Plaza de Armas makes for a smart market for street kids. I’ve come to try to learn more about these kids’ lives.

The square is quiet at first on this Saturday morning; on the church steps sit only a silent Andean family dressed in layers that seem too heavy for the heat and a solitary Peruvian strumming a guitar.

But before long I spot a boy hesitantly approaching strangers as they exit the church. He wears dirty jean shorts emblazoned with Daffy Duck and has with him a plastic bag, which he swings awkwardly around his skinny wrist. As I approach, I see that he’s gripping packets of chewing gum in his fist as if he is trying to hide them there.

He is hesitant to talk at first, but eventually tells me his name, Hector Juarez, and his age, 12. In a quiet voice he tells me that he, too, is from San Juan de Lurigancho, where he lives with his parents and five siblings; he boards a bus in the morning for the half-hour ride downtown. I ask him how long he has to work. Until the gum is gone, he says.

Our conversation is brief and Hector appears relieved to escape my questions. Not a minute after he does, a tiny girl is in front of me, holding in her little hands a crucifix on a nylon cord and a prayer card cut out of thin cardboard. She is clean-faced and fawnlike — all legs and light on her feet, as if she could blow over or take off running at any moment.

I learn that this girl, Jacqui Bazan Carrera, is 7 years old, but could have passed for 5. She is happy to have a seat next to me on the top step of the church and leans in, wide eyed, hanging on my every question.

She tells me on this Saturday that she works “only from Monday to Friday,” adding unprompted that she does it “for milk for my little brother.” She said she came to the plaza this morning alone on public transportation and that the money she collects will help her father, who works in a print shop, and her mother, who cleans houses.

Jacqui flits away and I’m soon approached by Delia Escobar Antizana, a toothy 11-year-old with a soft voice who offers me one of dozens of tiny Peruvian dolls pinned to a sheet of cardboard. She holds the sheet delicately, as if it were a tray full of China.

Delia tells me she has been selling dolls since she was “very little,” and that she buys the cholitas down the street and sells them here. Like Jacqui, she says she traveled here alone on public transportation.

“Yes, it’s very easy!” Delia declares, taking me aback with her enthusiasm. I ask her if she is ever afraid of personas malas; she insists she isn’t. I question her further — what has her day been like so far? Where are her 10 brothers and sisters?

“My mom is doing badly,” is her response. “She has fallen. She has fallen down the stairs.”

Delia could be lying to garner sympathy — her mother might be in perfect health. Likewise, Jacqui may be feeding me a line about buying milk for her baby brother. And while all three children claimed to attend school, that too may be untrue; it is estimated that more than a quarter of Peruvian kids drop out to go to work.

Bruce Thornton, a Trujillo resident who has worked with street kids in Latin America for 50 years, says that their chaotic home lives often do them more damage than their work on the streets.

Most live with their mothers, who are responsible for teaching them the tricks of their trades, Thornton said. Their fathers tend to be absent or there only part-time, as they often have multiple families to support. The kids often suffer from malnutrition, lack emotional support, and go to sleep at night on sheets of plastic in their homes.

Some situations are more dire. Thornton recalls one child who started eating at one of his organization’s soup kitchens at the age of 8. Workers were impressed that the boy stayed late to clean up, but soon noticed that he was sneaking garbage from the trash cans and bagging it to take home. The boy, they learned, was the sole breadwinner for his mother, who had tuberculosis, and his five younger siblings.

“He would get up early and go to work in a woodcutter’s shed,” Thornton said. “Then he would look for garbage on the way home and his mother would cook garbage soup on the wood cuttings he brought home.”

There is some help available for street kids, if they can find it. Organizations like Thornton’s Agenda SOS International as well as Aldeas Infantiles SOS offer programs to get kids off the streets and back into school.

Thornton began opening schools for street kids in 2002, and today his organizations operate 27 schools throughout Latin America, including six in Peru. The children spend two years in small classrooms designed by the organization before they are transitioned to public schools; after they are integrated into the larger system, they attend monthly check-in sessions to give them a sense of community.

More than 5,000 children have gone through Agenda SOS International schools, including 900 in Lima alone, Thornton said.

Aldeas Infantiles SOS, also known as SOS Children’s Villages, takes a different approach, providing new home environments for kids in high-risk situations. The organization currently runs eight group homes in Peru and provides parenting classes for parents.

Still, the problem sometimes seems overwhelming.

“It’s nothing. We help 8,000 children, but there are so many more,” said SOS Children’s Villages Sponsorship Director Laura Aguirre. “We hope someday to see that our work is really making a difference.”