A never-ending story: Belvedere alumni in Chile

January 16, 2023 in News

Lorcan O’Brien, alumnus of Belvedere College SJ, volunteered with NGO Techo International in the slums of Santiago, Chile in October 2022. You can read below a reflection on his experience under the heading ‘Men for others’. You can also read below an introduction and conclusion by spiritual mentor T. Avram SJ that provides some context on Lorcan’s experience.

Introduction by T. Avram SJ

A fortuitous collaboration was brought to fruition between Jesuits in Ireland and Techo International last October. As with most coincidences that animate hearts towards good will, they are actually God-incidences. The experience was initiated by Nemo Castelli, SJ, a Chilean Jesuit who is engaged in a doctorate in Trinity College and Ramiro Perez, an Argentinian (yes, just like Messi, although he prefers to be called Ramadona) the man in charge of Techo International, living in Spain. They requested T. Avram, SJ – a Jesuit working in Belvedere College, Dublin and in youth ministry more broadly – for some select students that would be willing to work and experience the slums of Santiago de Chile, the kind of young men that would be fit for the job, and that would benefit morally and spiritually from the experience. Under his direction, four Belvedere Alumni, now students in Trinity in their second year Undergrad, were prepared for this experience: Mark Ryan, Cathal Lacey, Lorcan O’Brien and Mark Heanue (from left to right in photo).

Here are some of the things that Lorcan O’Brien reported on his return from the experience:

Men for others by Lorcan O’Brien

From the slums of Santiago to the hills of the Andes, a country, that to my shame I only located on the map for the first time a month before travelling there, turned out to be the setting of a truly eye-opening trip. Despite the heart-breaking poverty we encountered, travelling with TECHO to Santiago, Chile was a remarkable experience.

The first thing that struck our little group (myself, Mark R, Mark H and Cathal) about Chile was the inequality. In Chile, the poverty is far more visible than in Ireland. All throughout the city there are slums called “campamentos”, in which anywhere from 100-1000 families live. Here, people live in haphazardly built, temporary accommodation. Houses are made from plastics, boards of wood, and nylon gauge. Compared to the luxury and decadence of the main street in Santiago, where we dinned the first night, it is startling. What is said about Chile could not be more accurate:

“There are two different Chiles, for some the stars of our flag ever shine”

Lorcan spoke about the surprising first part of the trip which included getting to understand why inequalities exist in Chile and the specific approaches to help the situation. He said:

“After having done the initial process and being here now, I see why it wasn’t just important but it was so necessary because if we were just here and were sticking up a few houses it would feel like we were doing it anywhere in the world… Whilst once you understand what’s going on, why you’re doing what you’re doing, it all feels much more genuine and vital to the process. So it’s more of an education the way we’ve done it.”

Discussing this inequality with the Chileans themselves was fascinating. It is worth highlighting that, because of the nature of our work, we were conversing mostly with young, progressives. A common indictment of these types at home is that they see the world too simply and that they fail to move beyond their ideals. However, what struck us about the volunteers of Techo was that they were acutely aware of the complexities of the Chilean situation. The solutions they proposed were fiercely practical and possessed all the worldly maturity of people who knew how vital it was that their solutions worked. The insights that they passionately shared with us shed light on what is a vastly complex situation.

Firstly, the current constitution does not include some basic rights such as the right to housing. A majority of Chile is working to change this; however, a proposed new constitution was recently rejected. This rejection can be attributed to a fear of socialism (well documented in Chile’s troubled past) and misinformation campaigns run by the countries elite claiming that the new constitution would lead to land seizures. While this was dismissed by the volunteers, this is evidently a very real fear for many Chileans who worry that the instability that has consumed socialist, Latin American countries such as Venezuela, could soon be Chile’s reality. While the willingness remains to fix the constitution, particularly among Chile’s young people, the fears of some of their countrymen will have to be appeased before any real change can occur.

The second factor contributing to the inequality in Chile is the poor communication between the Chilean government and low-income communities. For too long the government addressed social issues piecemeal. They would build a school, but not the transport to get kids there. They would build housing quickly, but of poor quality, resulting in houses falling apart within a decade. All these misguided attempts to improve the lives of Chile’s most vulnerable could have been far more effective if the government had taken the time to speak with these communities first. After all, it is the people living in these communities that know the issues of these communities best. What impressed us most about Techo’s approach was their emphasis on communication. The room we helped construct for a little girl, Ignatia, was built on the back of months of communication with the community. These prolonged periods of discussion do not play well politically however, so governments opt for the big numbers but poor results.

Belvedere alumni with Techo volunteers (Ramiro Perez in front)

Techo and other organisations help alleviate some of these issues by providing local assistance to the communities. Techo runs re-education programmes to deal with the high levels of unemployment among the adults living in campamentos. Techo builds quality housing close to facilities, giving residents access to schools, hospitals, and toilets. Finally, Techo runs after-school programs for kids living in these areas, believing education is the most permanent way out of poverty. A common criticism of NGOs back in Europe is that they work in communities, not with communities. From our time working with Techo, it seems that they truly understand the importance of empowering communities so that they can address their own issues.

Perhaps it is the individual solutions that Techo provide that win the respect of these communities. One instance that stands out was that of meeting a little girl in a wheelchair and subsequently finding out that, up until last year, she was bedridden because her family could not afford a wheelchair for her. When Techo heard about this they organised one and she is now attending school. Working with volunteers who each possess their own stories such as this one was very humbling.

The final major contributor to the inequality in Chile is the prevailing narratives circulated among Chile’s elite about the people living in campamentos. Firstly, that the people who live in campamentos are lazy. While in a small minority of cases this is true, our first-hand experience in these areas alerted us to the presence of many smart, resourceful, and hardworking people. Anyone that can make a home, work a job(s), or provide for a family, whilst living in such tough conditions, has shown that they are capable of what the average “9-to-5” person can do. Thus, any difference between the quality of their lifestyle and the middle class’s lifestyle must be attributed to Chile having a broken system. By broken it is meant that the system either keeps poor people down no matter how hard they work, or the system prohibitively punishes people for past mistakes that they have made. This must be changed, but in the meantime, painting all residents of campamentos as lazy is inaccurate. However, even in the cases it is accurate, a modicum of compassion would compel a person to assent that no man or woman, no matter how lazy, should live without a roof, or without a floor. One volunteer told us of a story of an old lady who, during heavy rainfall, was lashed on all night because her bedroom roof collapsed, and she was unable to get out of bed. When neighbours found her in the morning, she had pneumonia. No matter how much responsibility lies with her that she ended up living in a campamento, none of us should be indifferent that this kind of thing occurs.

The second narrative is that people living in campamentos are dangerous criminals. Sadly, there are cases where this is true. We were told by volunteers that many of the people who live in these communities are either engaged in illegal, off-the-books work or are involved in organised-crime. We even got some insight into this ourselves, when, clearing debris away from the house, we found knives that had been stashed away. Anywhere there is poverty, there is crime, because people are trying to survive. That does not mean there are not decent people in these areas, it just means there are desperate people. True justice considers the circumstances as well as the crime before attributing blame. But because the wealthy blind themselves to the poor’s circumstances they feel justified in resting the blame solely on the inhabitants of these campamentos. We were curious about this blindness, feeling it was somewhat present in ourselves. When we asked TECHOs volunteers about it we were told that what the elite do in Chile is engage in a kind of wilful ignorance. One volunteer told us that when she was growing up her parents would cover her eyes as they passed through campamentos. This shocking admission made us realise that turning a blind eye was the only way privileged people could coexist around such depths of poverty and suffering. We are as guilty of this back in Ireland as anywhere, with the state of our refugee centres and homeless shelters. However, to see the extent to which people were willingly blinding themselves was shocking.

Chile’s progressives work hard to educate people on issues inside these campamentos, but there also must be a willingness on the part of the privileged to engage with these issues. That is what impressed us so much about Techo’s volunteers. Most of them came from high income families but still chose to confront the suffering their fellow countrymen faced. By going into the campamentos they were able to separate the wood from the trees, the people from the issues, and dispel many of the harmful narratives that surround these areas and the people that live in them. As one volunteer beautifully put it:

“Where the feet go, the heart follows”

Overall, my experience of working with Techo in Santiago was uplifting. To see real change occurring in these areas confounded the cynic in me and gave birth to a new hope that, through Techo’s principles of empowerment and communication, lives can be changed. While this sounds very effusive, it is not until you walk through these communities, wearing a Techo shirt, and receive the smiles earned by the volunteers that came before you, that you realise that if these NGOs are not making a real difference, then no one told the people in these communities.

Conclusion by T. Avram SJ

After their return, the four young men engaged in deep spiritual reflection regarding the matter, considering what commitments they should make to bettering the world. One of their commitments was that they wish for other young men such as themselves to engage in the Techo experience which hopefully would be an annual one, and for which they will help with fundraising via crowdfunding or other means to pay for the flights and necessities and preparing them for what lies ahead. In order for this experience to be lived authentically, the mindset of volun-turism must be avoided, and the mindset of a spiritual quest, and service for the Kingdom of God must be adopted.