Solánge Bezerra: Help for Brazilian street children

In the Brazilian coastal city of Recife, hundreds of children are forced to live on the streets. They get little sleep and live among the dirt and the vermin. They are constantly on the run from paramilitary groups who harass the children or brutally murder them. Solánge Bezerra and her aid organization, "Grupo Ruas e Praças", want to give the children a place to rest, recover and play.

The children of Recife would sleep in a soft bed if they could. They would close their eyes without a care in the world and dream peacefully until morning came, when it was time to go to school. But the street children here have no soft beds, they have no homes. Instead, they are up all night. They run around the streets of the Brazilian city of Recife. They cower among the garbage and doze off time and again. They seldom fall into a deep sleep. As street children, they always have to be ready to run away if danger comes calling. Most of the children sniff glue or take drugs to get them through the day. It’s a long time since they’ve been to school.

Recife is home to some 1,200 street children. Solánge Bezerra tries to give them a brief respite from their tough life on the streets. Bezerra is a retired teacher. She set up the aid organization “Grupo Ruas e Praças” (which translates as “Streets and Squares”). That was in 1987 at a time when the city was closing aid organizations left, right and center owing to the political change taking place. Bezerra could not sit by and let that happen.

Filthy and exhausted with a glassy expression

In their bright yellow T-shirts, the street workers from “Grupo Ruas e Praças” walk the streets of the city. They go into Recife’s backstreets. The kinds of places where carpenters and craftspeople have their workshops is where you find good conditions for street children. It’s chaotic and dirty there, trash bags and cardboard boxes lie all over the place, there’s a smell of glue. The street children can easily hide among the trash. The workshops are where they get hold of the glue many of them are addicted to.

The street workers speak to every waif and stray they find. They’re often to be found sitting on the curbstone with a glassy expression, filthy and totally exhausted. “They’re all scared children, they have a very short attention span, they’re extremely nervous,” says Ana Maria Salas Liegchilina. The young German is currently in Brazil doing practical work experience with “Grupo Ruas e Praças”. She gently asks the children if they need help. If they want, she takes them to the headquarters of “Grupo Ruas e Praças”.

Solánge Bezerra, the organization’s founder, is a neatly dressed old lady. She may no longer work actively in “Grupo Ruas e Praças” but she still comes to the head office almost every day to see if everything is in order. This is where she has created a place for the street children to come and get cleaned up and have something to eat. Many of the children play soccer, have a go at playing the drums, sing in the choir or do some acting. But many of them just want to lie down and sleep. The “Grupo Ruas e Praças” house is a place where street children can be children.

Most of the young people here come from unstable backgrounds. They tell of mothers who drank and fathers who hit them, of drug addictions and mental illness. Many of them have seen terrible things: theft, crime and even murder. Some of the children have no parents. Some have been abandoned. And some of the boys and girls have run away from home because they couldn’t stand it anymore.

Manhunt for street children

But the streets are a dangerous place for them to be. The storekeepers and residents of Recife don’t want the street children hanging around outside their homes and in their doorways. They try to stop them from begging in the streets, from collecting trash or stealing. Believing that the police are not cracking down on the homeless waifs hard enough, the local people engage paramilitaries, groups of former or active police officers, to do the job. The paramilitary groups are on a kind of manhunt for street children. There is no end to their brutality. Children are decapitated as a deterrent to others, they are beaten to death with stones or covered in gasoline and set alight.

Every one of the street children has heard tell of these barbaric methods. Living in fear of falling victim to such treatment themselves, they do not sleep a wink at night. It’s only when the “Grupo Ruas e Praças” house opens its doors in the morning that they can feel safe and protected. For Solánge Bezerra, this is an important goal that she feels she has achieved. She knows she cannot put an end to the misery of the street children with the small budget and limited space available to her. “Grupo Ruas e Praças” does not even have enough money to keep the house open at night. But she is proud of the fact that, for a few hours a day, she can give the children the peace and the time to play and to express their creativity. Since the organization’s inception it has helped more than 6,000 children. Some of them have been influenced by the street workers from “Grupo Ruas e Praças”. They’ve stopped sniffing glue or taking drugs and they’ve started a new life. For many of the children, it’s only when they come to “Grupo Ruas e Praças” that they discover their passion for sports, singing or acting. The street workers have talked more than 700 street children into going back to school, says Solánge Bezerra. And that, she thinks, is already a step forward.

Photo: Gustavo Gomez CC BY-NC 2.0

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