Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 24, 2003
From trash to treasure . . .
Sisters help Asian scavengers discover, develop their independence
By BYRON PRICE
Special to the WCR
Two hundred garbage trucks rumble their way from Manila to a dumpsite at Payatas in the Philippines.
It may be a dumpsite for most, but for too many Philippine families it is a fetid place of business as they pick through the refuse scavenging for recyclable and sellable materials.
"You can't smell the toxic smells, see the flies or experience the dust without being here," said Sister Veronika Schreiner.
Bujong Silangon, where the dump is situated, is a place where 500 squatter families live on little patches of land in the hope they will receive legal title to their 32 square metres of dirt.
Stealing from the poor
"The people make their home here to be closer to the job market of Manila," explains Schreiner. But it is also a place where injustices to the poor are a daily occurrence.
"Entrepreneurs may set up a factory for a few months and people have work and then, without warning, the factory picks up and moves on," said the sister. "They do this so that they do not have to pay benefits or adequate wages. This is why many end up working on the dumpsite to glean what they can to earn enough money to survive."
It is a harsh and unhealthy environment. On New Year's Day 2000 the Philippines authority began a periodic dumpsite burn. The resultant toxic gases made it almost impossible to see for two weeks and fumes from the burning plastic caused skin diseases.
So how did the sisters end up here? Schreiner, a Faithful Companion of Jesus (FCJ) sister was a teacher for a number of years.
"Asia is the future and that is the reason I and other sisters went to Asia some 10 years ago to explore different possibilities for ministry that would fit with the charism of our order."
After much discussion they decided on the Philippines.
"The need was great, the language was English and a large number of the population is Catholic experiencing the growth of a vibrant young Church. The possibilities seem endless to assist with education and future religious vocations from this area of the world.
The FCJs began by assessing the needs that were not being met by other groups. The two goals that came out of FCJ research were: first, the need to address the physical and spiritual well being of the women and second, the development of livelihood programs which would benefit the women economically. In the developing world it is the women who bear most of the burden in the survival and care of a family. The FCJs goal was to support the women wherever they could.
"We chose to start this project in Bujohn Silangon near the dump where so many worked. This is also the area we chose to have our centre. The house and garden are multifaceted and operate as a meeting place, a place of prayer and a location for programs that bring hope for tomorrow.
The sisters' assistance is wonderfully pragmatic and designed to give the people independence.
Schreiner explained: "Bujong Silangon is a place where people keep their head just above water every day financially. We began a micro lending program called Savings and Loan Co-op for 75 women.
"The women come to the co-op with a business idea the co-op lends them $100 to start their business. They pay back the co-op 50 cents a week. All this money goes into a pot and the people who are part of it share in the interest earned which is tied to their savings at the end of each year.
"The women are very good at paying their required money back to the co-op each week. The creativity of these women is inspirational. One lady started a junk business from buying articles from people who work on the dump and started a junk shop."
Schreiner also wanted to respond to poverty's psychological and social problems by having the FCJs open a tea house.
"When we in the West say we make tremendous sacrifices for our children I can assure you this is true with the people I work with in Bujong Silangon. These women need a safe place where their children are read stories and they have a chance to tell their stories," said the sister. "They come on different days according to their schedules. These women work so hard all the time so this hour or so at the tea house is very important to them. I remember one woman saying 'This is the only place that I can come and have some free time for myself. Here I can be me.' "
The FCJs also handled another basic - sanitation.
"We have supplied 120 septic tanks and toilets," said Schreiner. "The people who receive these must do all the labour including going to the dump or other places to get wood or tin to block in their toilet."
Drawing on their history and understanding of education, Schreiner said her order is aware of the power of the Internet.
"We have a small computer lab at our centre. At present we have an instructor, five computers and 70 students. We target college students, high school students, and those who need skills to enter the work force. We teach the most sought after software courses that will assist in education or the job market.
"I am amazed at the seriousness of the students in their computer training. They are so disciplined."
Schreiner gives credit to God for all that she and the FCJs have done in two years: "When people say, 'What difference can the FCJs make in such poverty?' I tell them, 'You may have a point, but we are talking about God's love for the Philippine people.'
"When one of these women or young persons is seen as beating the odds and getting beyond their economic poverty, that is the material good stories are made of and that influences thousands - even on the garbage dump."