Photographers' Blog

Rehabilitating each other

September 5, 2011

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The day William decided to change his life was when he woke up on the street soaked in gasoline and engulfed in flames. I met him at the Nosotros Unidos (Us United) Christian shelter in Caracas a year later. William, 39, doesn’t remember how many years he lived on the streets, stealing to feed his drug habit. He also doesn’t know who set him on fire. But he does remember the year he spent in a hospital recovering from the burns.

Surrounded by one of the biggest slums of one of the world’s most violent cities, the walls of Nosotros Unidos have, over the past 15 years, sheltered more than 20,000 people in search of a way out of the self-destructive cycle of drugs. With high ceilings and little light, and rows of bunk beds occupied by people whose worldly possessions fit into a small locker, the center run by a Protestant church offers free rehabilitation to people with problems of drug abuse and indigence.

The main therapy to those who enter the program is religion through prayer.

Douglas is on his third and longest stay in the center. Among the several violent incidents in his street existence was the time someone shot him with a homemade shotgun that used screws and nails as ammunition. His abdomen still retains the deep gouges from the blast. Inside the shelter it’s impossible for him to hide his joy when his mother and 15-year-old daughter come to visit him. He admits they are the only motivation he has to find a way out of the world in which he was immersed.

The rehabilitation puts them all into a routine. Every afternoon there is a group therapy session in which they read the Bible for over an hour. Three mornings a week they arise at 4 a.m., fast for two hours, and pray. Wednesdays and Sundays they put on their best clothes and attend a church service. At mealtimes they march into the dining room according to their room number, and stand in rows to say grace before filing past the pots to receive their portions. They eat in near silence seated at long tables.

The head of the kitchen is Jose, 33. Until four months ago Jose was a member of a criminal band. Today, he is responsible for all that is eaten inside the shelter, using very few utensils apart from a set of giant pots that show their heavy use.

The self-discipline with which those 250 men, aged 18-80 and of complicated backgrounds, behaved, was impressive from the moment I began accompanying them. Cooking, hygiene, security, and guidance for the new arrivals, as well as assistance for the oldest and most helpless, are all provided by the participants themselves.

The ways they find to help each other provoked in me everything from surprise to astonishment. One morning I found Jesus proudly admiring his teeth in a mirror, showing everyone one incisor in particular that was sitting in his mouth where there was only a space the day before. One of his companions had hand-carved the tooth from a beef bone salvaged from the previous day’s lunch, especially for him.

I couldn’t think of a better gift.

(View a slideshow here).

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