Seeking God and good will at the ends of the Earth
Mark Ryan (pictured top right) offers a multi-dimensional perspective on the problem of poverty in the slums of Santiago, Chile. He is one of four Belvedere College SJ alumni, currently studying in Trinity College Dublin, who volunteered with the NGO Techo International in October 2022. This is the last of the reflections by the young men involving the collaboration of Techo International and Jesuits in Ireland.
Ex-Belvederian in Chile by Mark Ryan
Our time in Chile was a week of extremes. From exhaustion to elation, rags to riches, and despair to sheer delight we experienced or witnessed it all. It’s hard to pin down exactly what made this trip so moving – If I was pushed for an answer, I’d say it was the learning and reflections that I brought back, both about some of the tougher issues we face as a society and more individually about my personal development.
Upon arriving home and being asked by friends and family how I got on, I was at a loss for words. I felt there was no way I could accurately sum up our time there – even now a month later I’m still processing some of what we saw. With this in mind I will attempt to do so here anyway and try to capture some of the insights I picked up. I will try to find the balance between personal and general insights – as this is a reflection on my experience but the focus of this trip was, as intended, on the world around me and how we all interconnect.
My dealings with Techo and more generally my time in Chile were overwhelmingly positive. This is because of the warm welcome we received from every single person we encountered. To say they welcomed us like family would be putting it lightly. In a week where we were exposed to the most abject poverty I’ve yet to encounter, I was welcomed into more homes and fed more home-cooked meals than I can count – often by those suffering deeply from that very same hardship.
Despite the overall positive experience, as one might expect when meeting people who’ve been pushed to the fringes of society, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses – I wrestled with a lot of conflicting emotions and opinions throughout my time. I learned a great deal about my place in the world and additionally about the social and political landscape of Chile as I’ll get to later.
In the beginning I was anxious. I felt a strong sense of imposter syndrome. Even from our first real group encounter when three of us lads met with Ted, Chiara, and the charismatic Nemo in Trinity Business School, I felt out of my depth as the group casually waxed philosophical about the finer points of Nietzsche and Kant. I’m not someone to doubt my abilities often, but I did begin to wonder what exactly I had to offer to this trip.
I was relieved to hear later from the others that most of us weren’t sure why we had been chosen; what made us so special that we deserved to be flown to the other side of the world? I naively told myself at first that we were going over to build houses, but logically this made no sense. Why would Techo spend all this time, money, and effort to bring us out there when they could accomplish the same thing with a handful of volunteers and 2 days of hard labour?
I also felt guilty. At this time in my head, we were going over there to do some work and ‘give of ourselves’ and yet I was excited to see a whole new continent and way of life. I was acutely aware of how lucky I was to be travelling to the other side of the world and how this opportunity had seemingly fallen into my lap. This definitely led to some inner conflict and prompted some of the questions we would discuss in our nightly group meetings and when we met with Ted back in Ireland.
I found our group meetings very beneficial. I don’t often take the time to stop and reflect on my experiences and how they made me feel – or at least I didn’t do it too often before this trip – I’ve gotten better since returning. Before we adjourned each night, we would set a focus for the next day and come up with a few key questions we wanted the answers to. Having these in the back of my mind made me more inquisitive about the inner workings of what was happening around me, I wasn’t a passive observer, instead I was actively seeking out answers.
I believe it was in our second group meeting that we collectively agreed to change the focus of our trip. After seeing our itinerary and also thinking practically we realised that the impact we could have from one week’s work was finite (not to say we didn’t give 100% in all the work we did), but the impact we could have from learning how Techo works and applying these techniques and supporting their organisation in the future was limitless. Our focus now became learning, to learn as much as we could about the society and organisations around us. It was from then on that I began to find some answers for the many questions that had plagued me since the start of the trip.
I say clarity with a big asterisk here; by no means did I come to some cliché, “I found myself after – travelling the world”-style enlightenment, but I definitely am clearer now on some of my answers to life’s big questions and clearer on the situation at large in Santiago.
Situation in Chile
The situation in Chile at the moment is that there are huge amounts of people living in brutal housing conditions. The poorest don’t live in permanent buildings, just ramshackle huts built from whatever could be spared. They have limited, if any access to education and will leave school at a young age. These campamentos (slums) grow organically without planning and are precariously built with narrow winding paths in between houses that are claustrophobically close together. We noticed this in particular when bringing the building materials onto the site, half the battle was bringing bulky supplies up a mudded embankment between two homes.
When it comes to race these campamentos don’t discriminate – we met people from all ethnic backgrounds who’d ended up there. One point worth noting was the different attitudes held by Chilean people and immigrants once they arrived in the campamentos. The Chilean people tend to build less permanent or grand houses, as their hope is that they will only be living there short-term, whereas the immigrants in the campamentos build larger fixed settlements as they expect to be living there for life.
These campamentos are very tough places to live, but it must be said that not all of Chile, or at least Santiago, is that bad. The capital city is relatively modern, with decent infrastructure including a metro system. The one standout feature would be the graffiti plastered over every available surface. This was a stark reminder of the overall feeling of discontent among the people; no one we spoke to was happy with the current political climate there, even those outside of the campamentos. These problems with the government came to light in 2019 when the student protests against the metro prices began and have snowballed from there into demonstrations against the cost of living, the privatisation of public assets and the general inequality in the country.
To broadly answer the question ‘what causes these problems in Chile?’ (and similar problems globally) I would say a lack of understanding – on many frontiers.
At the lowest level, the people living in the campamentos don’t understand the steps they can take to begin to improve their situation. This is through absolutely no fault of their own and by no means am I victim-blaming, this information is kept from them, and they don’t know any differently. In terms of social housing the Techo volunteers explained to us that the application process is needlessly complex. There are all sorts of different forms that one has to fill out depending on one’s situation and completing and submitting them is no easy task without competent legal advice.
In terms of education, many people leave school early to work or to help out at home, not understanding that education is the single greatest equaliser. With this one to be fair there are equally as many young people who would love to continue their studies but are unable to due to financial or family pressure – in lots of cases the true value of education is perfectly understood. It helps not only for employment later in life but also for getting a better view of the world around us and a better view of our own problems.
Most attempts from the government to provide aid are well-intentioned but misguided. We were told of a story where the local housing authority in one rough area built around a hundred social houses for those previously living in campamentos. When the lead architect was asked about the quality of these houses, he said he wouldn’t stay in one. The authorities overseeing the project didn’t realise that proper homes were needed, not poorly designed structures that ticked a box on their end – fulfilling their quota – that were of no use to real families.
The attitudes of the Chilean people play a role in the problem as well, to a certain extent at least. One of the volunteers we met told us a story of some of her privileged family members not wanting to look at a makeshift hut that had been set up in the middle of an intersection because it made them feel uncomfortable. Subconsciously they knew that something wasn’t right there, that something needed to be done, but they didn’t understand that this is what caused their discomfort. Furthermore, Chilean people living outside of the campamentos don’t understand that once you’re in there, it’s next to impossible to leave. Without an address it can be very difficult to get official recognition from the government or to get a job – similar problems are seen in Dublin. People don’t understand this, they think one remains in a campamento out of laziness, an unwillingness to work.
These factors that cause this poverty can all be traced back to a lack of understanding. The policy makers don’t understand the needs of someone with potentially limited literacy skills attempting to apply for housing. The architects don’t understand the needs of a poverty-stricken family of four trying to stay dry and warm in the depths of winter. Those stuck in these desperate situations don’t understand the barriers in place keeping them there, like a lack of education. The government doesn’t understand the struggles of a broke student faced with increased transport costs. The general public don’t understand that no one lives in a campamento by choice.
If we accept that the above is the cause of the problem, then the obvious solution is to improve communication between the different socio-economical groups in society. While this doesn’t lead directly to understanding overnight, it’s a start. I think more groups need to take the approach that Techo takes, where the first thing they do before trying to help is to ask exactly what the problem is and then work with those affected (not for them) to create a solution. This prevents ineffective half fixes for problems that don’t address the real issue. When we apply this approach to a nation-wide scale it might take the form of a more representative government, that includes people from all walks of life and as such will be better equipped to serve all citizens of a country.
What’s done wrong, what’s done right
I’ve touched on what I believe is done wrongly, the aid that is given from the state (when it is even given) isn’t planned out very well, and perhaps similarly the hoops that people have to jump through to apply for this aid would definitely be another thing that could be done better.
In terms of doing the right thing, it sounds like Techo have it mostly figured out. It might seem obvious that I would say that after seeing Chile from the perspective of a Techo volunteer, but we maintained a critical, objective view and didn’t take anything at face value. Techo have a unique approach to social work where they ask the community to come up with exactly what they need instead of just throwing money or volunteers at the problem and then they work together with the community to implement these user-focused solutions. I think this approach works because it sees those in need for what they are – humans first and not just some problem that needs fixing.
What struck me
What struck me wasn’t the depths of poverty or the problems in Chilean society. I had been expecting this and was somewhat prepared for it. What struck me was the desire of the people there to help others. In some cases, ‘desire’ even feels like the wrong word, I suppose responsibility is more accurate. I have a huge amount of respect for the commitment the Techo volunteers put in day in and day out, travelling for hours on buses every weekend to sacrifice their time and effort for those in need. They selflessly give of themselves, and not for thanks or for glory, but to simply help others, as in their words “if we don’t do it, who will?” This was seen clearly at the meeting of the Techo regional volunteer leads. This group of young people have the weight of the world on their shoulders in terms of responsibility, yet they bear this mantle with ease, balancing college, part-time jobs, volunteering, and a social life. They are no superheroes; they are ordinary people, they’re doing things that anyone could do, yet very few actually have the drive and determination to do. They go about their work in such a matter-of-fact way, as if to say, “well of course we’re going to spend our weekend building houses, they have to get built, don’t they?”
What affirmed me
What affirmed me was the joy the kids in the campamentos seemed to get from us playing around and acting stupid with them. This was one of the more rewarding parts of the trip. Seeing that we could make some tiny positive impact, even for just that moment was a huge boost to our morale. Whatever they had going on in the rest of their lives, when we were playing football with those kids in ‘La Cancha’ all that mattered was winning the match and having fun. Another moment that affirmed me was seeing Ignatia’s (the girl whose family we built the house for) reaction to their new home. She was overjoyed with her new room which was really lovely to see. I was also encouraged when Assai and Nori, two of the kids we’d grown close with showed up to the site where we were building the house late into the second day, it definitely gave everyone a much-needed boost.
Would I recommend Techo? Would I go again?
I will 100% encourage others to go on a Techo experience should they be given the chance and I would consider myself lucky to be given the chance to help them raise funds or support the organisation in any way. I have been thinking since we came back and have a few people in mind that I believe would be great on a trip like this should Techo ever ask us for volunteers. I myself would also jump at the chance to go again, regardless of where the project is taking place.
The spiritual and developmental gains of this trip were immense. My first learning is how to see myself as a part of the systems in place around me, and how not to see myself as the centre of my own world. Techo showed us so many different angles of the problem of poverty in Santiago: the rehabilitation centres trying to help drug-users before they end up on the streets, those forced to live in slums because they have no options left, those trying to help at a high-level by working with NGOs and coordinating international aid, those working on a local level to solve day-to-day problems, we really got a broad view of things. Seeing a problem with this new holistic lens made me think of how narrow a perspective on my place in the world I’d had before. I can now try to see myself as an interconnected part of organisations working around me and not just an isolated individual whose actions have no consequences on others.
Another learning I picked up was how to connect with people better. As Irish people we’re famously bad at expressing our emotions, so it was a shock to see Latin-American people being very open and outward with their thoughts and feelings. They were more intimate with their friends, always hugging and kissing each other on the cheek when saying hello or goodbye. I think to a certain extent this is a good thing as they form closer bonds with the people around them and make it known that they appreciate their loved ones.
One final insight I gleaned was my preferred reason for why people do the right thing. In the early days of the trip, I grilled the lads on why they felt it was important to do the right thing. We all usually know what the right path is, we have just an innate sort of feeling of what we should do. I wanted to know why this means that we should take this path, surely there’s a more detailed answer than, ‘because it feels right’. Some light was shed on the subject by the eternally calm Jesuit priest Benjamin. He told us that what he feels makes Techo stand out from other charities is their human touch, or Techo’s ‘Heart’ – their philosophy of seeing the humans behind a problem first and working directly with them. This struck a chord with me as it was a lot easier to imagine Techo having a positive impact when we viewed it as one human helping another as opposed to a faceless organisation trying to deal with real people impacted by these issues. This answered my earlier question of why we should do the right thing, because we are humans and that is what it means to be a human, to perpetually try to do the right thing.
Other reflections by Belvedere College SJ alumni