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Amid Devastation and Hardship, Love and Faith Bind Us All

From Guatemala's coast to the Jersey Shore, we all must overcome devastation

Going from an orphanage in a developing country to a natural disaster is not ideal. In fact, it's overwhelming.

Arriving in Guatemala City three weeks ago on a mission trip with St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, I didn’t know what to expect. When we exited the airport, we were greeted by dozens of Guatemalans waiting to welcome their loved ones.

Our group of five piled into a big white van with tinted windows so dark it would be illegal in New Jersey. We traveled through the bleak streets of Guatemala City to our destination, Hogar Rafael Ayau, an orphanage run by three Orthodox nuns.

The orphanage is surrounded by tall cement walls to protect the children from the outside world — broken homes, crime, unemployment, prostitution, poverty, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse — all reasons why the children are there to begin with. We were required to stay within the confines of the orphanage because it would be too dangerous to leave.

We saw the children for the first time at lunch. Sitting at separate tables, the children stared with curiosity. Next, was church. The children chanting the hymns by heart was divine.

When we weren’t offering our assistance to the orphanage by working on their grounds and when the children weren’t in school, we played — basketball; soccer; duck, duck, goose; on the playground.

The children were beyond sweet. Edgar, a 3-year-old boy, instantly was drawn to us, always hugging and wanting to be held. He had been left at the doorstep of the orphanage, is deaf and cannot yet speak. While in church, he would grab hold of our hands and give them a kiss.

The reality is, although these children were placed at the orphanage under sad circumstances, they are the lucky ones. At night, you hear the music of clubs and bars, gunshots, screaming and crying. For the time being, they’ve escaped the dangers of the real world and are given a chance.

On our final day, the children lined up to send us off. Giving us drawings, hugs and struggling to let go.

I arrived in Newark to a text from my brother, “Start writing articles about Hurricane Sandy. Could make landfall in New Jersey.”

I thought it would be no big deal, but also started mentally preparing myself to work around the clock. I never expected the storm to bring such devastation, as most didn’t.

My family and I were blessed. The storm left our property and us unscathed — for the most part.

But seeing the world in so many different states of struggle in such a short time has been taxing — to no degree of those who have lost everything.

As a reporter, the scenes I have seen and stories — both disheartening and uplifting — I have heard are incredible.

But just 10 days after Hurricane Sandy, a natural disaster hit Guatemala too. A 7.5 magnitude earthquake shook the country.

I instantly contacted someone at the orphanage to ensure everyone was OK. The quake was the country’s strongest in 36 years, leaving thousands without homes, electricity and water and fortunately killing only 52. (I know, it’s seemingly a contradiction to use fortunately and death in the same sentence but the last earthquake of this magnitude in Guatemala killed more than 20,000).

Yesterday, a 6.5-magnitude earthquake hit the region again — the strongest aftershock since. The extent of damage was unknown at the time of this story.

Despite the cultural and language barrier, the Guatemalans are facing similar struggles, which is comforting in a troubling sort of way.

From poverty to natural disasters, it’s a shame to see people tussle through such trying times. While people along the Jersey Shore and elsewhere lost everything, from what I saw, many Guatemalans have nothing to lose.

Although the children at the orphanage live a simple life and have very little material possessions, I wonder if they really have more. Some may wrestle with the past but they seem genuinely happy with their faith, dreams and love for one another.

We are the lucky ones. Or are we?

nancy cagno November 14, 2012 at 01:02 PM
great story elaine! glad you and your folks were ok thru the storm!
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