© Meiko Herrmann

Camp of good hope

  • TEXT TIM CAPPELMANN
  • PHOTOS MEIKO HERRMANN

Drug cartels have a stranglehold on Honduras and San Pedro Sula is one of the world’s most dangerous cities. Thanks to a Lufthansa help alliance project, street kids now have a chance of a better future there.

He repaired the old iron himself. Yester is now using it to press the final creases out of his school shirt. It looks good, his new life. The ceiling fan vainly attempts to banish the sultry, 37-degree air. Latino hip-hop, Bad Bunny and Nicky Jam pound from computer speakers. Due to a sick teacher, today’s exam was postponed. Yester is a student at one of the best schools for electrotechnology in Honduras. That’s quite unusual for a street kid like him, a half-orphan whose worldly belongings fit into a small locker.

José Yester Orellana Gomez, 21, is a slight, but muscular young man with intelligent eyes. He grew up fatherless in Barrio Armenta, one of the poorest slums in San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in Honduras and one of the most dangerous in the world. San Pedro Sula is the stronghold of the mara, Central America’s most brutal gang. Yester was three when his brother was born, but his mother, poor and desperate, gave the baby to another family. As soon as he could walk, little Yester helped his mother in the fields, where she worked as a day laborer. But she beat him anyway. Once, after beating his head bloody, she even poured kerosene into the wound and tried to set him alight. The scar still shimmers through his short black hair. Yester’s inner wounds are invisible. He fled to his impoverished grandparents, lived on the streets in the center of San Pedro Sula for a few months, sold CDs, repaired shoes. He learned to be alone. Later, he often wondered why his mother didn’t love him.

 

 

Mother to 70 boys: Cristina Addison from Uruguay works as a volunteer on the AHLE project.

© Meiko Herrmann

Yester learned how it felt to be hugged at the children’s village

Death and violence are a routine part of life in Honduras. Armenta is controlled by the MS-13, one of the mara gangs that have the country in a stranglehold. Their name derives from marabunta, “army ant” in Spanish. Army ants suddenly fall upon and invade new areas, destroying everything around them. Weapons, drug and human trafficking, contract killings, kidnapping, prostitution, extortion (in the form of a “war tax”) all pour millions of dollars into the gang leaders’ coffers. The battle for money and power is bitter, and rival gangs terrorize the neighborhoods. Maras generally die before reaching the age of 30 – with a bullet to the head. “Eres. O no eres” – in Armenta you are mara, or you are not, but then it’s better to go and live elsewhere. Everyone knows someone who was murdered. Yester, too.

One night, they hanged his friend Manuelito from a tree. Manuelito was just 15 and a banderín, not a fully fledged member of the mara, just a minder and dealer. He hadn’t yet undergone the initiation rites – a 13-second beating from every member of the gang and stabbing a random outsider to death. Manuelito wanted out. “They had been watching us for days,” Yester recalls. He was scared he would be next. A street vendor told him about a children’s home, and it gave him shelter and sent him to the Acción Humana de la Luz Eterna (AHLE) organization in San Francisco de Yojoa, an hour’s drive away.

 

AHLE organization

© Meiko Herrmann

AHLE was set up in 1994 by the Hamburg lawyer Alexander Valentin as a private foundation to help street kids in Honduras. In 2000, it began to build a children’s village for boys, where they could be safe. In 2012, after meeting Valentin, Lufthansa Captain Michael Langer began to champion the project. In 2015, he applied to the Lufthansa charity help alliance for funding. Langer is also the coordinator between help alliance and the project. The village was where Yester met his new family and learned how it felt to be hugged. “AHLE was the best thing that ever happened to me. Without it, I might not be dead, but I would be very poor and I would have no future.”

Marvin López, 42, was a street kid himself. Now he runs the foundation.

© Meiko Herrmann

 “What hope is there for children who have no parents? For those whose mothers were shot dead before their very eyes, who fight in the streets? We want them to learn to trust again, we want them to be able to be children again,” says AHLE director Marvin Javier López, 42. The social worker, teacher, manager, leader, and father is the person who keeps everything going. He’s fearless where his children are concerned, and respected by everyone. He is the person a neighbor will call in the middle of the night because her husband is drunk again and brawling: He will drive over and settle things. If a grandmother on her deathbed in the hospital in San Pedro Sula wants to go home, he will take her to her family. López once confronted a member of the mara who had just given an AHLE youngster an expensive smartphone so that he could warn him if the police turned up. That’s the first step to becoming a banderín. López pushed the phone right back into the gangster’s hand in a gesture that said: Stay away from these children.

Marvin López was once a street kid himself. When he talks to his 70 boys, they believe what he says because he is one of them. They trust him, too. “Still, I can never be sure. Some kids live here for years and I think I know them. Then one morning, I find they have vanished, have returned to the mara, are gone.” His eyes betray how much that hurts. For him, the job is about prevention. If a boy is already a full member of the mara, López won’t take him in. Around one third of the boys living in the village are former banderíns. López sees organized crime and corruption as the country’s biggest challenge. Without him, life in San Francisco de Yojoa would be worse in very many ways.

 

The children’s home is like a peaceful island in an ocean of despair. Palms line the path. On the right, an American flag is flying, a Honduran flag droops with heat beside it and the children are raising a German flag after having turned it right side up. The sound of cheering carries across from the sports ground along with music from the gym. There’s a pool and a small auto repair garage. On a plot of earth, the older boys are growing bananas, yucca and oranges. The rabbits have given birth, their young are tiny bundles of fur in the children’s hands. The dogs Maggie and Max are being given a bubble bath. Pool? Gym? What sounds like luxury is also an attempt to become less dependent on donations. The village gates are open during the day and local farmers dry their chicory crop on the hot concrete of the sports ground. The pool is rented out for weddings, and people from the neighborhood use gym. Yucca roots are sold and surplus food is distributed. Close ties exist between the foundation and the village community. Each helps the other.

Sitting on the bottom bunk in his room, Yester is studying. When new children move in, they often sleep on the ground at first. Like all the older kids, Yester has a “little brother” he’s
responsible for. The AHLE residents are ages six to 21. Along with a team of 20 supervisors, they take care of the chores. The day in the mini-village begins at five a.m. Yester will soon
be a qualified electrician. Next year, he would like to work on a cruise ship, see the world, save up some money and come back to Honduras to buy some land, build a house and install his own electricity. He would like to keep chickens and pigs, grow coffee and fruit, work as an electrician, marry and have two children. It’s years now since he had any contact with the brother that his mother gave away; he is a banderín. “It’s safer for me this way,” he says. But Yester has two younger brothers, 9 and 13, and he wants to help them later on. “Most of all, I want them to learn a trade,” he says, so that they can follow his example. Yester, the former street kid, isn’t scared anymore. And he’s no longer alone.

 

CHRISTIAN JAFETH, 8
When Jafeth and his brother Cristofer were not yet four, they were sold for 20 dollars by their coke-addicted father. Their grandparents bought them back again.

© Meiko Herrmann

When Cristofer and Jafeth arrived at the camp, they were inseparable. They slept in one bed, cried often and hardly ever laughed. Today, it's the other way around.

© Meiko Herrmann

WILMER ALEXI, 10
Being tossed into the garbage as a newborn probably saved young Wilmer's life. Fire fighters in Tegucigalpa found him, and some nuns took him in. Having grown up with several mothers, he arrived at AHLE a happy child, quite unlike his friends. Wilmer barely remembers anything of his early childhood, but he does know what he would like to be when he grows up: a fire fighter.

© Meiko Herrmann

 

Closer to the world. Closer to its people.

help alliance is the aid organization of the Lufthansa Group and its employees, and the mainstay of the airline’s social commitment. A limited liability non-profit company formed in 1999 by 13 Lufthansa employees, help alliance runs some 30 projects across the world, most of them designed to provide young people with job training and a chance for a better life. Every cent donated goes straight to the projects.