SANTO DOMINGO – As if they were on pastures, a herd of cattle feeds on waste at the Rafey landfill dump in the Dominican city of Santiago, but now they no longer see the hundreds of children who, just a few years ago, would be searching for their families’ next meal among the garbage.
That scene belongs to the past – there are no minors sunk in the rubbish anymore to take home something to eat or some junk to sell. Not since the Cometas de Esperanza (Comets of Hope) Foundation brought them out of their misery.
The Spaniard Oscar Faes launched the NGO almost 14 years ago when he was shocked to see the terrible conditions of subsistence that, besides causing multiple diseases and accidents, left at least six youngsters dead.
Andres Cordero was one of those “young divers,” so-called because they lived submerged in trash to find something edible or of value.
He joined the Comets of Hope when he was almost 13, and now at age 23 combines his university studies with volunteer work with the foundation, located in the La Mosca neighborhood.
“It was Oscar who approached my mom and told her that if I wanted to study, I would have open doors here,” Cordero told Efe.
It was a chance he could take advantage of because it meant no expense for his family. Classes, meals, school materials, clothes and pay to compensate for the money he no longer earned at the city dump: all that was provided by the NGO financed almost entirely by the Spanish Barcelo Foundation.
Getting out of the dump to begin a new life, to meet other people and experience other ways of living...things I never even knew existed, it was tremendous. It changed my life,” Cordero said.
In the old days, he said he thought the city dump “was my life, imagine that, and that was because I didn’t know anything else.” His routine was made up of long days amid the putrefaction and under the merciless Caribbean sun.
“I had two choices: stay home and not get anything, or stay at the landfill dump and eat the garbage, drink the water there and be able to make some money. It was a constant struggle. I had to work with others to support my family,” he added.
Cordero is fortunate: he never pricked himself with a syringe, and though he got burned by the hot soil, which was fiery due to the combustion of organic refuse – he was not marked for life like some of his colleagues.
One of his co-workers died. After eating something from the garbage that had just fallen off a truck, he lay down among the trash and covered himself with cardboard,” then briefly spoke in a way that was “totally confused.”
Despite the hard life, for some parents it was “difficult” to accept that their youngsters would leave their work in the dump. But that was not the case with his mother – an unemployed widow with nine children – who accepted the idea immediately.
“If I didn’t take home food or money, how were we going to eat?” he said about the struggle he faced.
Faes said he found himself witnessing the “Dantesque” scene of the 600,000-sq. meter (718,000-sq. yard) landfill almost by chance.
Before sending the kids to school, he had to rehabilitate them in terms of their health and nutrition. They had digestive problems due to their diet of garbage, plus impaired vision because of their constant exposure to the sun. Added to that were the frequent fractures, cuts and burns.
As for their schools, they have been enlarged over the years and currently teach 417 youngsters between ages four and 15, and are officially recognized as educational centers.
Today, Comets of Hope, which has been rewarded for its labors, is preparing to transform part of the city dump into an ecological park with a green space, recreation areas and a tribute to the kids who died trying to make a life amid the garbage.