Sunday, April 1, 2007

Christmas at the Orphanage

“Hi, how are you?”
“I don’t know.”
A nine-year old boy is blankly looking at me. I’m looking at him. I don’t know what to say.
“How long you’ve been here?”
“Since yesterday,” he says.
We’re looking at each other and sweat is running down my face in this 35-degree hot weather. His Christmas started with the death of his parents.

People from the company where I work have been helping this orphanage on the edge of Rio, in one of the wildest part of the city, Duque de Caxias, for several years.

They go there every now and then and bring some money. A few enthusiasts built a roof and equipped the building with things like a refrigerator, washing machine, and stove.

I always knew they visit here but I never came along. I had a feeling they’d look at me like at a gringo who’s more interested in taking some pictures of the favela from the inside. I was probably also lazy to go to a place like this. But now I’ve decided to go. I’ll be handing out presents to the kids. It seems almost unreal. I feel a little like I am coming to atone for my sins.

The kids fall upon us. In a short moment, I have three little black kids hanging on my neck and three more are pulling my shirt.

“Uncle, uncle, I want up too.”

They don’t have anybody, neither daddy nor mommy who could hold them in the air and play with them. They’re begging for something that is for most kids, especially in Europe, a matter of course. They want, at least for a short moment, to experience that feeling of security of being held in the arms of an adult, somebody else than their caregivers.

My shirt is dusty and the kids are merry. The Christmas decorations are curling in the noon heat.

I walk through the orphanage. A few rooms, beds next to each other. Stuffed toys dominate the area.

The kids are showing off but I can still feel their longing for physical contact with an adult. They feel they should be close together with an adult somewhere else than in the dormitory. For example at home.

“Uncle, come on, I’ll show you where we play.”

A girl three years old or so with colorfully braided hair pulls on my hand. I go with her. It’d make a really funny picture. A two-meter tall gringo and a half-meter tall black girl walk hand in hand along the dusty road of an orphanage.

We look like a Christmas symbol. The children are standing in a row and we hand them presents. Everybody gets one. Every child, from three to twelve, stands and eagerly stares at the pile of the presents. Which one will they get?

I’m thinking about the orgies that take place in Europe. I don’t have to go too far, it’s the same in my house. Children attacking the Christmas tree, their eyes glowing, doggedly ripping the wrappings, and collecting their presents that they then spend the next hour moving to their room. However, prior to this madness, there is a three-month brutal campaign during which their exhausted parents – in the interest of the holiday of peace and ease – are forced to purchase things about which one really wonders.

I hand out the presents. A ball, doll, car… the children’s faces are almost grimacing with happiness. Once again, they want to be carried around, even the eight and nine-year old ones. Or at least get a hug. It seems that the feeling of having a family, which we’ve tried to bring them for this very short while, is the greatest gift they got.

Most kids get here because their parents die or leave them somewhere. The relatively dangerous life style in the poor neighborhoods easily fills up these establishments. They are usually run by volunteers who depend on contributions and the minimal help they get from the government. The community around then tries to help with forming different values for the children than banditism.

“Do you want to play catch?” I ask the boy I talked to initially. But it doesn’t work. He’s totally disoriented. He has no idea what’s going on, why he is suddenly here. Seven-year old Julio is holding his still wrapped present, dully staring straight ahead.

We finish handing out presents and the children wander around the small kitchen with their new toys. They perform a dance for us, and two girls sing a modern Brazilian song. Two boys are fighting over an old bike in the corner of a little courtyard.

“Uncle, could you swing me?” It’s my little girlfriend who earlier showed me the play area.

I push her on the swing. It squeaks, like in a movie.

She leans backwards and smothers me with laughter.

1 comment:

Peter Chen said...

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