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FIRST IMPRESSIONS

July 11, 2007

Sam is teaching a digital photography program in the barrio with our kids this summer. We will bring you her impressions, stories and experiences throughout the summer.

I went into the barrio with Kathy for the first time today. It was a hot and humid day. I thought I drank enough water, but regardless of how much I’m drinking, I would feel lightheaded every time I try to get up and walk. I felt as if sweat was pouring out of every pore in my body. So when Kathy asked if I wanted to sit down and rest while she looks through some letters, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. About ten mosquito bites later, we started to head out towards the neighborhood where the kids live.

As a foreigner, the site I saw before my eyes was really heartbreaking. What I saw were homes that were assembled together with a combination of cardboard boxes, tarps, wood, and plastic pieces for their walls, topped with tin roofs, while the more well to do families have homes within the same row, but are made with concrete and tiled roofs. A tiny stream of waste water runs through both sides of the road. The kids play by the water and some even splashed their feet in it. They seem to be doing everything outside. They cook outside, they wash themselves outside, they iron outside, and they socialize outside. The neighborhood smelled of smoke because just about everyone burns their garbage by their homes. Each house we walked by, there’s usually a small pile of burning garbage at the corner somewhere.

As poor as they may seem to me though, one thing I noticed in particular is how their smile never seems to fade and how close they are together as a family. As we walked through the neighborhood, the people that know Kathy would greet us with an “adios” while hanging out in their yard with members of their family.

One family that really stuck out for me was a family of six where the mom serves as one of the parent board members for Empowerment International. The little girl’s face and huge, beautiful, brown eyes were unforgettable. While I was photographing her, she looked so shy and so sweet while hanging behind the barbed wire that holds the wood pieces together to form a fence. Fortunately Kathy knew the family so we were invited to go in and hang out with them.

While Kathy and I were walking through the gate, the mother swept away piles of leaves and sticks from the dirt floor and had her kids brought us chairs to sit on. The rusted iron chair that I sat on looked as if it would break if I put anymore weight on it, but I sat down anyways. The mother then must’ve sent her older son to buy Coke to serve us because 10 min. later, he came back riding his bike with a liter of Coke in a plastic bag. The small gesture of kindness was really touching because I know that it’s not something they can afford to do on a regular basis. The kids were so well behaved and so sweet.

As we started talking, I asked the kids what their names were. Their names were so different from the names of my Spanish students in the States. And because I’m a visual learner I asked the older boy, the one that purchased the Coke from the store to write his name for me so I can remember it. He came back with his full name neatly written on a little scrap of note book paper. The mother then had all of her four kids brought out their books and folders included what looks like all their graded tests and homework during the academic year to show to us. Just the way their faces beamed with smiles and how neatly they kept their work, I can tell that the mother and the kids were proud of their accomplishments. The older brother showed me grades and all his tests and homework, including drawings that he’s done. I asked him to read for me from one of his composition notebooks. He was more than happy to show me what he can do.

I was so absorbed into the older brother’s reading, that flies were swarming all over my plastic cup of Coke that’s been sitting on the ground. From the corners of my eye, I saw his younger brother sitting down on the ground beside my chair and started shooing away the flies. Eventually he came back with another plastic cup to cover my drink for me. I love hearing them speak because it sounded like Spanish mixed with the softness of Brazilian Portuguese.

I looked inside their home from the doorway and all I saw was a dirt floor with two rooms separated by wall made from cardboard boxes and another door parallel to the one I was looking through. Inside was just as austere as the outside of their home. There doesn’t seem to be much of anything in it. I wonder how the kids slept and what their beds must’ve looked like? Kathy showed me pictures of some of the other children’s beds earlier that morning and I just couldn’t believe that anyone would sleep in them.

I’m excited about working with these kids. In the midst of what seemed to me, one of the dirtiest places to live in, I saw people of great beauty, integrity, and with a heart to match their outer beauty.

~ by Sam (Somphonh) Oulavong

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