I am walking down the streets of Soacha, a town of 500,000 that surrounds Bogotá. The neighborhood is called “San Nicolas,” a poor sector with two-story houses made from brick. Above the rooftops hang electric cables.
Shoes are draped over the cables, hanging from their laces. They seem to me to be part of the decoration. But later someone explains to me that gangs put them there to mark their territory.
This is a typical day in October, with sun in the morning and rain in the afternoon.
I keep walking under the sun through the streets searching for the student center, and I find all kinds of small businesses along the way, such as small stores where women can buy food to make their daily meals and a few Internet cafes with video games.
Children are visiting the stores. A few minutes later, I cross by a street seller of fresh fish, as a couple of street dogs search around him for food.
Behind the moving people and buses, I spot the student center. I arrive at the same time that Michael and Jeferson do.
We start talking about soccer, the favorite subject of 11-year-old Jeferson, and also talk about video games, the favorite subject of 9-year-old Michael.They tell me that the neighborhood has gangs who rob the people after 10 p.m. A month ago they helped the police to catch a thief.
As we walk to their house, they assure me that one can know who is a gang member and who is not. They say that the six youths there on the street are, who are painting signs on the ground and asking the bus drivers for coins.
They belong to a band of robbers in the night. I believe that. They tell me that the smell in the air is the smell of marijuana; Jefferson explains that the smell is like burned grass.
When we arrive at their house, I meet their mother, Paola, a lady whose face reflects more than her 29 years. The house smells of smoke, and she tells me with shame that she has not been able to quit cigarettes. I meet Lorena, her 5-year-old daughter from her second husband.
Paola lived only six months with her first husband, Nelson, father of Michael and Jefferson. She became pregnant when she was 17 years old. Under the influence of her friends, she wanted to abort the child and took beer boiled with aspirin, but it did not succeed.
Seven years ago she met her second husband, who is Lorena´s father, but they did not live together for very long time. Paola says that the two men were irresponsible, and they had other women. That is why she decided to live alone with her kids.
Paola is working temporarily in cafeterias, selling lottery tickets, selling shoes so she can earn about 50 cents to 3 dollars per day.
Because of all this, Paoloa appreciates very much the student center, because they care for her children when she is working. Because in the streets there is much danger. But the student center is a refuge for them.
It was four years ago that a neighbor invited her to enroll the children in the program. When Jeferson arrived, he was very rebellious. He was not doing well in school. He had low scores, and he did not eat lunch at the center.
One day at the main door of the student center, he threatened the teachers that he would not return ever again. Daisy, the supervisor of the tutors, began to pray for him with the staff and make visits to his house.
One day on his birthday, the student center celebrated Jeferson’s birthday. Then Jeferson began to change. Now instead of hitting his younger brother and sister like he used to, he cares for them. He even washes both of their school uniforms.
Just like many mothers in Bogotá, Paola says that thanks to God the student center exists and that she can work confident that her children are safe and on the right path.
When I asked Jeferson and Michael what they are going to be when they grow up, without any hesitation and with confidence they said they want to be policemen.
Jeferson and Michael say that if there are more police, they would not have so many gangs and drug dealers in the corners and the lives of children would be better in their neighborhood.