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A Place for 'Displaced' Children : Frenchwoman Helps Guatemalan Youth Build New Lives

December 06, 1987|DIANA CUSHING | Cushing is a free-lance writer who lives in Beverly Hills.

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — " Abuela , Abuela ": The cry echoed through the heart of Zone 1, this troubled city's inner slum, as at least 10 children ran from different directions to greet the small woman in the gray four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Their eyes lit up as the woman they call "Grandmother" talked to them in Spanish laced with a thick French accent, joked with them and showered them with love.

The children were just a handful of the hundreds who were dirty and ragged, most of them infected with body lice and intestinal parasites. Their frail bodies were racked with chronic coughing--symptoms of respiratory disease--and all held in their hand the ubiquitous and familiar handkerchief doused in paint thinner, the cheapest local drug used to alleviate the pain of coldness, hunger and solitude.

For Yvette Pierpaoli, 49, who arrived in the streets of this capital city two years ago, the scene is familiar. This native of France, who spent part of her adolescent years on the streets of Paris, cut her teeth, so to speak, among the "displaced" families not in France, but in Cambodia, where she helped those fleeing to the city from the war-torn countryside.

City's Own Problem

During the past two years she has helped Guatemala City residents wake up to their own serious social problem, in a country already torn by civil unrest, by aiding the forgotten children.

These homeless and sometimes belligerent children come from different parts of this sprawling country to congregate in the city, where they form tightknit gangs and groups to protect--or exploit--one another.

All have been abandoned by--or have themselves abandoned--their parents and families. They live on the streets, beg from the gutters and eat from the garbage dumps. They sleep in doorways and alleys, usually entangled together to ward off the dark and the cold, because the city is not located in the hot jungle but in the colder mountains, where the vast majority of Guatemalans live.

Pierpaoli began her work in Phnom Penh during the '70s, when U.S. bombs ravishing the Cambodian countryside sent into Phnom thousands of refugees, including hundreds of children who lost their families in the chaos.

'Like a Transit Center'

"That was how the whole story began," Pierpaoli said. "My house in Cambodia was like a transit center, with 22 to 25 lost or orphaned children there at all times."

Her heart drawn to them, she tried as best she could to reunite the young ones with their families or find them new homes.

After the fall of Phnom Penh, Pierpaoli went to Bangkok, Thailand, where she ran a thriving import-export business while continuing her mercy work. Priests and missionaries living in the refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border brought her many of the abandoned children they found in the camps.

In 1985, as the situation eased, Pierpaoli decided to leave Bangkok and devote herself full time to aiding abandoned children. She went to Paris and set up Project Tomorrow, her own relief organization.

But where to start?

"I could not make up my mind where to go," Pierpaoli said. "One day it is the famine in Ethiopia, the next the Tamils, the next the kids who were being tortured in India. I wanted to help everything at the same time."

To sort this out, Pierpaoli went on retreat in a French convent to wait for some sign as to the direction of her future. After three days of deep thought, she still had no inkling. Then the nuns brought a man to lunch with her--a man whom they had met on the convent grounds.

Visiting Missionary

"At first I was furious at the thought of an intruder," she said. "But soon after he arrived, I forgot my distress and I decided to concentrate on a good lunch."

And hours of talk.

The man, a missionary working in the highlands of Guatemala, "told me about all the suffering from the civil war there. There were 100,000 orphans and not enough relief organizations to help them," Pierpaoli said. "I decided right away that that was my 'sign,' so I told him that I was going to Guatemala to start a project for children. He said that it must have been God that sent me because he had been praying all night that someone would go and help those children."

Within 24 hours, Pierpaoli was on her way. She arrived in Guatemala City almost as empty-handed as the children she was there to help.

Although there were no statistics to confirm it, her initial finding, she said, showed that there were at least 500 children in the inner city either partially or completely abandoned. There were a few private and government homes for abandoned children, but none had the capacity to take in any large percentage of all those living in the street.

Fear of Institutions

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