Overcoming poverty in slums through the collaborative work of families living in extreme poverty with youth volunteers.
Catriel is two years old. He lives with his mum, Jenny, 18 years old and with his two sisters.
They live in a place called Villa Iapi, in the city of Quilmes, South East of Buenos Aires, only an hour away from the fancy neighbourhood of Recoleta.
I arrived in Villa Iapi late on a Friday night with hundreds of other volunteers. We installed our little sleeping bags inside of an empty school and waited that the Techo group coordinators presented their amazing work.
I came across Techo completely randomly, while living in Buenos Aires, a friend of a friend had been a volunteer over a weekend and told our common friend how inspiring this association was. A couple of weeks later, I was in a bus, heading towards one of the “Villa Miseria”, name of the slums in Argentina.
Techo is an association that was created in 1997 in the small town of Curanilahue in Chile, by a group of young people that wanted to overcome poverty. To face the urgent situation of extremely poor and unacceptable conditions in which some people were living, they decided to build transitional houses for the families in the slums.
This wonderful project lead to an amazing organisation operating nowadays in 19 countries across Latin America and the Caribbeans.
We struggled to find the way into Catriel’s home at first. After banging on a sheet metal wall for 5 minutes and waking up the neighbours, Catriel’s dad, Luis, showed up. We apparently woke him up, he had forgotten we were coming on that sunny autumn day.
Catriel, his sisters and Jenny weren’t there. Luis was with his new girlfriend in the family home.
He told us Jenny and the children had been staying at Jenny’s parents place, a couple of houses away.
In order to get a Techo house the families have to go through a selection process, as the association doesn’t have enough houses for all the families in need. Indeed, only the poorest families living in terrible conditions would get a house.
The fact that Jenny and her kids weren’t there was a problem for the Techo coordinator. Who were we supposed to build a house for ? Luis and his current girlfriend ? The house was supposed to be built next to their actual house, on the small piece of land belonging to Luis.
The Techo coordinator had to have a conversation with the entire family before taking any decision. After a long talk between Techo and the family, Jenny and Luis decided to give their relationship a second chance and really wanted to get a fresh new start. The construction could finally start.
In the middle of the villa, stuck between buildings, there is a small piece of land with a house. Around the house, it is mud and there is a horse. Luis uses the horse for work, he got a new job. He delivers goods with a carriage on his horse all around the Villa.
The house is small, it is around 8 square meters. There is no door. It is more four stone walls than an actual house but there is a mattress on the floor, a stove and a TV with The Simpsons playing. They have electricity but no running water. The toilet is a hole, next to the house hidden by sheet metal walls.
There is no bin, the floor is covered with trash, papers, horse dung, diapers…
The house that we will build for Catriel and his family is only a few centimetres bigger than their actual one, but it will be a good fresh start in healthier conditions of living.
It took us two days, and more than a thousand volunteers to build 145 emergency shelters to families like Catriel’s one.
A month later, we came back to Villa Iapi to check how everything was going with the families. Sadly, Luis and Jenny weren’t together anymore and the house, that was already really worn out was most likely going to be taken down by Techo.
It was really nice though to be able to see Jenny and the kids again, they were all going to live with the grandparents from now on. I left her some pictures of the kids and we said goodbye.
I joined the Techo team once more a few weeks later to participate in the encounter of the families in need of an emergency housing.
We visited Maria’s house. Maria has two grandchildren of 5 and 7 years old, a girl and a boy. They have never met their father. Their mother, Maria’s daughter died a few months back. She was beaten to death in front of the children by her boyfriend. Maria is crying while telling us her story. She is old and sick and the only things she has left on earth are her grandchildren and her son.
She lives in one of the Villa Miserias, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. She lives in extremely poor conditions and shares the same bed than the two kids. Some of their neighbours got a Techo house and Maria had been waiting for an answer to get one as well.
I got the privilege with 4 other Techo volunteers to tell her that their house was going te be constructed the following month. She bursted into tears in a mixture of both sadness and happiness.
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