21 Sep 2012
Article published in the Yo Dona El Mundo supplement
It has been clear for a long time that Spanish children are not born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Now they suffer the injustice of being born into a world made up of social, medical, educational and salary cutbacks and unemployment affecting more than four and a half million people.
It is hard to accept that there are 2,200,000 children under the age of 18 in Spain who, according to UNICEF, live below the poverty line. A harsh reality, children with names and surnames and in circumstances they should never have to face, such as the daily worry of their parents as to how they are going to make the money to feed them, pay for school supplies or the rent... The most worrying thing is the quality and quantity of food these little ones eat, high in calories with virtually no vitamins, minerals and proteins; this could have a negative effect on their future development. The study on Pediatric Hospital Malnutrition which was carried out in 2010 by the Hero Baby Institute of Child Nutrition together with the Spanish Pediatrics Association is decisive: 5% of our children suffer from malnutrition and nearly 30% is at risk of suffering from it. The investigation, carried out in more than 60 hospitals, considers a child to be undernourished when their normal development slows down and they do not put on weight over a four week period. According to nutrition specialist Luisa Ayala, the health consequences, particularly in the first two years of life, are terrible: «When children use up more nutrients than they take in, their growth is affected along with the functioning of organs and tissues and there is more danger of them developing infectious illnesses and suffering from reduced intellectual performance and physical ability». The key to detecting childhood anemia lies in regular check-ups of the Primary Care Childhood Health Programme, which include weight and height control and talks about a healthy diet.
The pediatrics nurse María Dolores Aguiló, with more than 35 years of experience in pediatrics, the head area nurse of the medical centre in Sa Pobla, a Mallorcan agricultural town with 13.000 inhabitants, used to assist families whose children showed signs of malnutrition. She would stress the importance of a healthy diet but she also understood the situations the families were in. «You can give the parents advice on how to enrich baby foods but if they don’t have the money to buy the ingredients, what can they do?», she says. María Dolores began to observe a familiar situation at the homes of her small patients around the beginning of this year. The parents – a few Spanish, the large majority immigrants from the Maghreb and some from Senegal – shared the same profile: they were unemployed, they had no or very low income and gave their children meals based on pasta, bread and potatoes, no fruit, meat, fish or dairy products. A monotonous, cheap but filling diet. «One day the mother of an eight month old baby came to see me. Her husband had been unemployed for three years, she couldn’t pay the rent and had to manage with just 425 euros to feed her five children. 'Where am I going to get the chicken from to make my son’s baby puree?', she asked me».
Aguiló began to check the heights and weights of the children and soon put two and two together. Along with her pediatrics and nursing colleagues they counted 29 children in the town who were malnourished or at risk of becoming so. By April the number had risen to 117, by May 193, and by July, 310. Just one of the cases involves a three year old boy with anemia who fights with his sister for the biscuits we give them and then chucks the little pieces away because «I don’t like those bits». His mother, S.M.A, a Moroccan immigrant with no papers, is pregnant and looks for food in the rubbish bins because her husband is out of work and they don’t receive any benefits. When she is told about the possibility of her children having to go into a foster home she categorically refuses. «If they take them away, my life won’t be worth living», she says, crying.
It is difficult to imagine such a cruel reality, such extreme contrast, hunger and misery on an island associated with luxury lifestyles, idyllic beaches and glamorous celebrities. María Dolores told the social services of the town council about the problems and spoke to the leaders of the main local association, Pa i Mel, which for the past 15 years has been providing training courses to immigrants, giving out food and looking after their children during the school holidays. She also had an interview with the leaders of Cáritas, who in addition to the monthly distribution of food to the poorest families, provide clothing at 50 cents per garment. She witnessed first hand the donations of spices between some of the families and realised that more fresh products and non-perishable foods were required. With the lack of funds from the local council and huge cuts in social expenditure, it was clear that she was going to have to look elsewhere for support. «I contacted the Balearic NGO Mediterránea, I had heard about them and knew that they provided aid to the neediest people in Mallorca as well as their international programmes for educating and feeding children in Ethiopia, with schools and orphanages, including for disabled and blind children.» The founders of Mediterránea, Doctor Michael Stoma and his wife, Doctor Victoria Baldó, both specialists in family medicine, like to refer to the programme which helps people who are unemployed, excluded from society and have no health care as the Fourth World. People who, once upon a time, inhabited our First World and worked their fingers to the bone cultivating the land and building our houses. «We were horrified by the situation that María Dolores described to us», assures Doctor Stoma. «I realised that those children in Sa Pobla were getting less milk than what we give to the children in Ethiopia. The youngest children need animal protein for growth and muscle development, along with fruit and vegetables. So we started to help right away.»
Every month Fernanda Canoura, the coordinator of the Fourth World Programme, hands over 2,000 Euros to Maria Dolores for her to buy food and other basic items. Fruit and vegetables are provided by another association, the Calvia Lions Club, thanks to donations from a number of supermarkets. Pure solidarity. From Caritas too, which has let them use part of its premises to make up the food parcels they distribute once a month, pending the provision of a room and refrigerator by the local council. 95 families depend on these deliveries of 800 litres of milk, 100 chickens, 300 kilos of biscuits, 1,550 kilos of vegetables, 10 tubs of mother’s milk powder and 10 tubs of baby cereal, as well as fruit, which cannot be distributed at the moment because of the heat. Other local associations provide further contributions. However, as Llucia Segura, a social worker with Pa i Mel, remarks “without institutional subsidies it will be difficult for us to survive”. It was precisely because NGO Mediterránea does not depend on such help that it has been able to keep its head above water during the crisis, which they cope with by avoiding unnecessary costs and by investing the money contributed by their 300 members in direct aid to the needy.
Yet, in spite of all the good intentions of various parties and the involvement of professional doctors and nurses way beyond their normal working hours, there are cases where little can be done, such as that of the little girl being hugged by nurse Maria Dolores. Vomiting and running a high temperature the little girl pushes aside the water she is offered and asks tearfully for a yoghourt…but there aren’t any in the fridge and they can’t afford them. As of tomorrow there’ll be even more of them to share out her parents’ meager supplies. Her uncle, who suffers from squizophrenia, together with her aunt and their three small children have been evicted for not paying the rent and are seeking refuge with the rest of the family, who can’t really say no. Also living with them is Laila, a friend who arrived in Mallorca two years ago hoping to find the promised land and instead finding hell, ironing clothes for four Euros an hour, with no papers and pregnant by a man who will recognize the baby but won’t marry her - a family dishonour unpardonable in Morocco.
Maria Dolores and her colleagues felt they had to react to situations like this. After all, these children were born in Spain and have the same rights as the children of R.M., a forty year-old from Seville, divorced for eight years without any maintenance payments and abused by her ex-partner. The 699 Euros she earns per month as a waitress is barely enough to pay the rent for the garage where they live and the baby-sitter who looks after her two children while she works until midnight. Her eyes are like fountains, she can’t stop crying as she smoothes out her sodden handkerchief between her worn fingers, the skin cracked from too much washing by hand. “I’m grateful for the help given by the Social Services and Mediterránea, but what they give me doesn’t go very far. I need a job - any job - for the mornings. If you know of anything…”, she asks with a sigh.
These and more dramatic stories come to life when you enter these houses, as broken and damp as the eyes of their adult inhabitants, unable and unwilling to return to a country or city where their children would be immigrants just as much as they are here. Jasmine has no tears left to cry; her husband left her a few months ago leaving her on her own with four daughters, blaming her for not being able to give her a boy. Now they live at her brother’s place. He earns 1,200 Euros a month and has nine children, three of whom- seriously mentally-handicapped- he is trying to get into a home. And what will happen to them when she loses her 426 Euros a month allowance in a year’s time? For her it doesn’t bear thinking about. As we talk, nurse Maria Dolores is sitting on the floor playing and singing with the children; there are so many of them that it seems like a nursery. When we leave they fight with each other to give her a package, a piece of home-made sponge cake, a present from those who share the little they have.
TOGETHER WE CAN
A few kilos of fruit, meat or fish make the difference between a child growing normally or not. More and more families in need are turning to NGO Mediterránea to feed their children. Increasing the number of volunteers helping to deliver food parcels and make home visits is one of its priorities. Any help is welcome. The NGO is also appealing to the general public (those who can afford to) to donate non-perishable food and also to the spirit of solidarity of those in charge of supermarkets and large stores in Mallorca, calling on them not to throw away products that can still be put to good use. More info.: www.ongmediterranea.com
Tel. 971 67 63 34.
To make a donation: 0075 6893 29 0600289658; Banco de Crédito Balear.