A little boy sits in his usual spot on a bustling city street in Belgrade, Serbia. His hands outstretched and his voice droning a repetitious pleading tune, he waits for the occasional coin a passerby may reluctantly offer him.
This is no life for a child---especially not a deaf and mentally challenged child---who also happens to be Roma. Harassed and physically harmed by one of the men in the neighborhood where he usually sat, the young boy would return to his temporary home each night bruised and scared. He endured these attacks for weeks on end.
Until one day a volunteer from the Center for Youth Integration (CYI) named Marko found him. Marko is a handsome young man in his 20s with a heart for street children. Having grown up in Belgrade where there is a large Roma community, street children were not an uncommon sight for him. He now serves as the Outreach Coordinator for CYI, spending a majority of his time in the field identifying and reaching out to Roma children. In 2010, after much struggle and advocacy, the city authorities finally offered CYI a tiny space in New Belgrade. Remarkably resourceful, CYI transformed the space into a Drop-In Center for street children and youth. The very first week it opened 70 children came. According to Marko, street children have such strong survival skills and social networks among themselves that word traveled incredibly fast. “Kids on the streets always share with one another; they look out for each other.”
The Drop-In Center now sees literally hundreds of children and youth every single day. Each child is known by name. Each child has his or her own shelf; his or her own little space in the world. They draw, paint, learn to read and write, play educational and recreational games, receive a snack, and find mentors who believe in them and encourage them. When asked what else would make the Drop-In Center feel more “like home” to them, many of the kids exclaimed, “A washing machine!”
A washing machine, to do their laundry. To wash the few clothes they own. It became clear to me the longer I spent with the bright-eyed kids at the Center that the washing machine meant more to them than just fresh, clean clothes. It meant dignity.
Even for a deaf, mentally challenged boy begging on the streets of a struggling Serbia. By the grace of God, Marko found the boy on one of his visits in the field, combing the streets to identify potential beneficiaries of CYI. After discovering that the little boy had been repeatedly harassed by a man in the neighborhood, Marko solicited the help of the police. When the policeman arrived, he took one quick look at the boy and said, “One Roma child, one deaf, mentally challenged child…? We don’t have time for that.”
Your gifts to Week of Compassion have been ensuring, for the past two years, that the Center for Youth Integration, through the partnership of Church World Service, has been able not only to make time for these children but also to dignify them.
They are our children. They are the children of God. And children cannot wait. As Jesus’ parable reminds us, “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’” (Luke 15: 5-6)
Your gifts have saved the lives of lost children. They have turned sadness into joy, illiteracy into education, and despair into dignity. And they have guaranteed that Week of Compassion always makes time for even that one. That is cause for celebration, indeed.
This Week's Responses
Virginia, tornado clean-up and recovery