CARTAGENA, Colombia – Girls of African descent will host Pope Francis next Sunday when he visits a poor Cartagena neighborhood that is the home of Talitha Qum, a program that seeks by means of religious faith to save little girls from the surrounding dangers of violence, prostitution and drugs.
Talitha Qum, a Biblical phrase that in Aramaic means “I am speaking to you, little girl, rise up,” got started about four years ago in the patio of a priest’s house in the San Francisco neighborhood, a slum long the scene of street-gang riots and where a 2011 earthquake obliterated the homes of some 600 families.
A dusty street cut off by a metal fence that separates the neighborhood from Rafael Nuńez International Airport, the daily destination of planeloads of tourists, is where the Talitha Qum institution welcomes girls between ages 9-17, and where among billboards and graffiti they are heard laughing out loud, singing songs and having fun.
This “is a prevention program for little girls and teenagers at high risk of sexual exploitation, human trafficking, family and neighborhood violence and using mind-altering drugs,” Sister Blanca Nubia Lopez, the nun who has become the soul of this program, told EFE
Medellin-born Sister Blanca has even battled with her own religious order to remain in Cartagena and carry on the work of helping these girls, who besides their studies receive daily counseling and a review of their development.
“It’s helping me get ahead with what I want to do in life” and “not let people mistreat me for the color of my skin, and so I know how to defend myself,” said Dayanis Paola Zabaleta, a 15-year-old girl with a grown-up way of talking who joined this project three years ago.
The girl, the eldest of three siblings and the daughter of a single mom, dreams of studying Hotel Administration, while admitting that before Talitha Qum she “lived on the street.”
The program “has also helped me forgive my dad,” because “he hasn’t been the best man in the world, but I love him,” Dayanis said, dropping her gaze as she recalled that she hasn’t ever lived with her dad and he didn’t even show up for her 15th birthday.
The teen acknowledged that in Talitha Qum she learned to value the color of her skin and not let herself be discriminated against in a city of “contrasts,” where, as Sister Blanca Nubia says, there still exist “invisible barriers.”
And about the pope, for whose arrival in this Colombian city the Talitha Qum girls are practicing their songs – a little nervously, perhaps – and wondering what it will be like to greet their august visitor, Sister Blanca considered it something “very great for us and in a very special way for the program.”
When the pope lands next Sunday in this Caribbean city, he wil be hosted by 70 happy girls benefiting from this mission that now has a second center in the La Maria neighborhood, aided by 25 people between staff workers and volunteers, who lend a hand so that, as the Bible says, the girls can rise up.