Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Looking for a volunteer opportunity in Buenos Aires, I Googled "volunteer Buenos Aires," and one of the first things I found was the Conviven blog. I had never taught children before, but it seemed like a nice way to try something new and develop my own Spanish. I talked to Tez, the Volunteer Coordinator, by email, and three weeks later I arrived for my first day at Conviven.
I was given two classes, one "intermediate" class of six ten year-olds and another class of teenagers and adults. (There was only one class for students this old, and it was structured a little bit differently because it was an outgrowth of an individual homework tutoring program.) We were given weekly themes to teach, along with ideas for what to include in each theme. For example, the theme of one of the weeks was "professions." Suggested words to teach included "painter," "doctor", and "firefighter" and suggested activities included making posters about what the kids wanted to be when they grew up. Other than that, we could design our classes and lesson plans in any way that we wanted.
This freedom was both exciting and somewhat stressful. It took about a month of experimentation for me to develop a teaching pattern that seemed to work. Another challenge for me at first was maintaining classroom order. The kids were very sweet, and there were no serious behavior problems, but, like all ten-year-olds, they often preferred to talk and play with each other instead of to listen to their teacher. My first approach was to try to win them over by being laid-back, nice, and appealing to their reason (which was hard given my limited fluency in Spanish.) This didn't work. With the help of Bella, an experienced teacher and leader at Conviven, I eventually realized that it was important to enforce structure and be strict, even about small things. This actually improved the atmosphere in the classroom quite a bit, and I could tell that the students were having a better time.
By the end of my three months, I was very happy that I had the opportunity to work at Conviven. It was heartwarming to see the kids enthusiastically run into class and get genuinely excited about doing vocabulary practice worksheets. And I was just as excited to come to class myself. The hour-long commute was tiring sometimes, but every hour I spent teaching the kids was a joy. Although the kids exhibited no obvious signs of being poor, I knew that they faced significant challenges outside Conviven, and I was happy to provide a positive, if small influence on their lives.
A surprising development of my time at Conviven is that I learned that I liked to teach kids and have begun to consider changing my career to include this. After leaving Conviven, I believe very strongly in its mission, both that of the center as a whole and that of the after-school English program in particular. I strongly encourage anyone to give it a try.
-Ben B. Seattle, USA.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
It's hard to know that the children I taught come from some of the world's poorest neighborhoods, away from the eyes of visitors and the majority of people who live north of Avenida Rivadavia. As an American student studying abroad in Buenos Aires, I had no idea before I came to Argentina about the social injustices and poverty that many people who live there face. Our programs don’t tell us about these things; they put us up in rich neighborhoods and universities in the north of the city, away from the harsh reality of everyday life for so many people. Most visitors never know about that side of life in Buenos Aires, and for that matter most “Porteños.” The wall around la Ciudad Oculta is more than just a physical barrier; it separates the people within as an undesirable “Other.” When I told my host family I’d be volunteering down near Villa 15, they were horrified, assuring me I’d be robbed, probably raped, and definitely would get lice and illnesses from the “Negros.” This classist, elitist attitude shocked me; how could supposedly educated and “liberal” people have constructed these barriers of discrimination and prejudice and fear? And how could they live in such denial? And more importantly, why weren’t they doing anything to help relieve the suffering, or demanding basic human rights for those who have no voice? And at the same time I wondered what I would find, and how I could make a change. Who was I, to come to Argentina and think I knew better, that I was free of these same prejudices and fears? I thought I knew what it was like, and that I wasn't sheltered. I'd seen pictures and done lots of research and I spent my Wednesdays and Thursdays teaching just a few blocks away, but nothing could have prepared me for actually being inside the villas, an experience that almost tore me apart. To be completely honest, I too was afraid.
Despite everything that I knew, a sense of panic overcame me like a cold punch in the stomach that day when I'd realized I'd missed my bus stop and was passing through the villas: one side of the street the soulless gray monoliths of the Eva Perón Transitory Living Nucleus and the other familiar stacks of cheap materials that formed an endless shantytown. Nearly in tears, I had no choice but to get off and take the bus back. Terrified, I crossed the street and walked a few blocks and tried not to look conspicuous. And then I waited. Looking around at the ugly appearance of the buildings and the dirty streets and stray dogs, the pit in my stomach grew as I took in the sight of the poverty and apparent human misery. The second I saw another bus approaching the stop I jumped on, thinking this was my escape, until I realized the bus was headed the wrong way, deeper into the villas. Already late for class, I called Carmen at the Centro explaining that I was lost and scared to get off the bus and I was sorry I was late. She told me it was ok, but the kids were waiting for me. I burst into tears.
After hanging up everyone around me started asking where I was trying to go and patting my back and repeating "Tranquila.” On the bus back, the driver stopped at a corner and pointed down a street towards Eva Peron. I had no choice. I exited, and took a look at the shantytown around me. And then I started to run away from that place, and away from reality—that ugly monster of poverty and all the things I thought I had no power to change. I ran past stacked shacks and leering men and dingy shops and shoeless children and garbage and the whole miserable scene. I wanted out. I must have ran 10 blocks, I don't know, but when I realized that I was around the corner from the Centro relief flooded over me. Carmen was waiting for me outside, and I couldn't help but run into her arms and cry on her shoulder. She said nothing for a minute, because she knew where I’d been and what I’d seen. The kids were waiting inside for me, working on homework together but with anxious faces. When I walked in they crowded around, giving me hugs and kisses and yelling "Seño! Te perdiste? Sos loca!" and then hugged me some more and asked if it was tea time yet.
They also knew what I'd seen, and that I'd been afraid, that I couldn’t walk through those slums with my head held high, ignoring the ugly surroundings without fear. I was scared of their reality. I wasn’t brave enough to walk the same streets my students did, and they knew that too. But after that ordeal that invisible wall came down; we had an understanding and there was nothing more to be said about it. Life went on, and I continued, in my own small way, trying to give these kids something better. Was I loca? Maybe so, for believing that I could help them, and they could escape that misery like I had. Someone has to stand up against the prejudices and fear and injustices that the people in the villas face. And sometimes, reality has to slap you in the face to make you realize that there is hope; that the walls of oppression will come down. You have to believe this, or what hope is there at all?
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Acá quiero ser honesta sobre mi experiencia como voluntaria con Conviven.
La verdad es que me equivoqué de lo que era. Cuando decidí a quedarme en Buenos Aires, tenía planeado participar en algún proyecto así, pero se me complicó mucho: encontré tantas organizaciones que quería dar una experiencia turística o explotar el deseo de ayudar para fines capitalistas. Después de haber pasado mucho tiempo buscando y buscando una organización buena me di por vencida. No debería haberlo hecho. Lo peor es que en algún momento, había entrado en la página de web de Conviven, pero lo rechace cuando vi que era una organización religiosa. Al ver eso pensé “eso no, no quiero participar en un proyecto que explota la debilidad de la gente para imponer ciertos valores.” A partir de ese momento me dediqué a mis estudios, y lo pasé muy bien. Sin embargo, me sentía vacía de una manera. Un Sábado en Mayo, leí un artículo sobre el trabajo que hacen los de Conviven en la ciudad oculta. Esa gente me pareció tan dedicada a ayudar a esa gente perjudicada que decidí dejar mis perjuicios a un lado y acercarme al centro. No eché ningún vistazo para atrás.
Mis experiencias trabajando con Conviven, aunque era durante solo un tiempo cortito, forman mis recuerdos más impactantes de todo el tiempo que pasé en Argentina. En primer lugar, esa experiencia hizo que se me fuera para siempre la idea de que Argentina no era un país tan pobre. Lo es. Puede que la pobreza no sea tan obvia como en Bolivia, Guatemala o Paraguay. Pero pobreza oculta es pobreza aunque sea. Además, me di cuenta que un individuo sí puede tener un impacto verdadero en la vida de otro ser humano. No hay que solo hablar de cambiar el sistema – son los pasos pequeños que también ayudan. Los chicos con que trabajaba eran tan buenos, y tenían tantas ganas de aprender y yo me sentía muy privilegiada a ayudar a sacar su gran potencial. Finalmente, la experiencia me inspiró. Yo soy una estudiante de derecho y siempre quería trabajar con derechos humanos. Sin embargo, por la primera vez me doy cuenta de que puedo usar los conocimientos que ya tengo para ayudar ahora, no tengo que esperar hasta que me licencie. Por eso, les estoy ofreciendo mis servicios gratis a centros acá en Australia que le ofrecen asesoramientos jurídicos a gente marginada.
Recomiendo que cualquiera que encuentre este proyecto se acerque a ayudar. Y quiero que Conviven tenga todo el suerte del mundo.