Staff members with some of the children assisted by the Obra Ecuménica. Photo: Frederique Seidel/World Council of Churches

Staff members with some of the children assisted by the Obra Ecuménica. Photo: Frederique Seidel/World Council of Churches

“What?! You are going to the Barrio Borro? Sorry, I can’t drive you there, and no other taxi driver will do that for you.

“It is too dangerous to go there.

These were the reactions Frederique Seidel heard when she revealed her intention to visit the Obra Ecuménica Barrio Borro, or Ecumenical Support Project (Borro District) in Uruguay.

As World Council of Churches special adviser on Child Rights, Seidel traveled on 7 August to a community rife with drugs fights and despair. She visited with Lucia Barros, director of the project, and her deputy Katarina Lopetegui.

Barros, from the Methodist Church in Uruguay, is a social worker, and Lopetegui is a teacher from the Waldensian Church of Rio de la Plata.

After the heavy morning traffic of Montevideo, Barros drives to a wide but empty road lined with run-down huts and mud lanes. “This is the line which separates Barrio Borro from the rest of the city, she explains. “Only those who live in the slum cross it; even police officers refuse to enter the district because so many people get killed here every day. This district is the place where the waste of town is deposited.”

Most residents here make a living from classifying waste, then selling the plastic and paper. Eighty percent of the 85,000 people living in Barrio Borro do not have water, sanitation, or electricity in their houses.

The Obra Ecuménica Center - an educational center for children and adolescents created by the Methodist Church, Valdensian Church and German Church 45 years ago - was able to install toilets two years ago.

Today the center receives 300 children and adolescents daily for classes, vocational training, counselling, creative workshops and training in nonviolent communication. Barros and Lopetegui work with a team of 40 employees and many volunteers to offer and coordinate a large variety of activities for children who dropped out of the formal school system.

“Most of those who come to the center are deeply affected by violence in their families, others do not have a family and live in gangs,”  Lopetegui explains. “As most of them did not succeed in the formal school system, our first priority in the workshops is to help them develop the taste for learning and progressing again.”

Professional psychologists, educators and social workers accompany each of them in their journey, and help them develop a vision for their future that breaks the cycle of violence and drug wars which characterize this district.

Twenty percent of the children who come to the center are in conflict with the law; others are victims of human trafficking.

In front of a small old building with an “oikoumene”  logo, children of all ages play in front of a wall where doves and other peace symbols are painted. The smell of warm cookies wafts through the center. “The cooking class is ongoing right now,” explains Barros. “It is one of the many vocational trainings provided by the center to teenagers who dropped out of school.”

A teenage boy, Franco, explains how he sells food as a home delivery service and for events. “Here in our neighborhood we constantly live in fear,” he says.

All of the children have at least one person in their family who was killed in shootings, or someone who is in prison. “When we are in the Obra Ecuménica we feel safe, and we learn things which can help us to find a better future,” Franco says. He has come to the center for the last five years.

The Obra Ecuménica also has a special programme for children with disabilities, of which there are many in this district, a much higher percentage than in the rest of Uruguay.

“Most of the children with disabilities, enrolled in our class called ‘Paprika, have never been in any school or activity; many of them do not have a birth certificate,” Barros explains.

Another section of the centre is focused on environmental education. A high level of lead poisoning has been detected among children in the Barrio Borro. Juan, the educator responsible for the workshops related to environmental protection, describes the challenge: “There is little awareness among the population in Uruguay in general about ways to protect the environment, so I do my best to teach children from early on how the planet can become a better place if all of us respect creation.”

He teaches the children to garden and grow fresh vegetables. The team of educators also distributes seeds to families and teaches them basic skills for organic gardening, including how to set up their own compost.

In the midst of fear, violence and killings between gangs, the “Obra Ecuménica Barrio Borro” is an island of peace and hope for children and teenagers.

Learn more about WCC’s engagement for children