I saw this baby in Cambodia once. We were walking through a neighborhood visiting a property where a not for profit wanted to do something, I’m not sure exactly what anymore. I had seen other slums and dilapidated housing before, but this neighborhood was one of the worst because there was an extraordinary amount of trash everywhere. This baby was crawling in the “yard” in front of their house, without a diaper, on top of a mound of trash.
The apartment building in the background was falling apart. Rafters were exposed and balconies crumbled without railings on occupied units. It was so heartbreaking to see this child crawling in filth, naked from the waist down. I couldn’t help but be horrified and sad and angry all at the same time, that there was not a safer place for them to live or play. I felt hopeless that there was very little I could do to help them.
Although I remember vividly how this made me feel, I had forgotten about it until seeing this picture again recently. I had just been in Thailand, where I visited a refugee camp the week before. And I was overwhelmed by 3-4 other Non Government Organizations I had visited in between, which housed and cared for women with HIV/AIDS, their orphaned children, and rehabilitated victims of childhood prostitution. We had also just visited the “killing school” turned S-21 Prison, where genocide was committed by the Khmer Rouge, now the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide in Phnom Penh. It was an incredibly hard week for this intuitive empath, and I was only 20 years old. It was the summer between my Sophomore and Junior year of college.
I’m grateful that someone snuck this picture nonchalantly, to remind me of this day. We had been warned that this was a dangerous area of town, and photography was not encouraged. It can seem cringe-worthy when people post about charity work or pictures with poor children they are helping in other countries. But it’s more cringe-y to me that so little attention is paid to the fact that waste management, clean water, and safe housing should be universal human rights. And that commercials have desensitized us from pictures like this, while so many children all over the world are born into similar situations. I wish there was more that caring individuals could do to help, and I will not tithe to a single church until the money goes directly to providing these universal human rights to the poorest among us. It’s extremely disappointing to me that churches of all denominations and religions do not collaborate with each other and the governmental organizations and policy institutes that recommend best practices for poverty alleviation.
It’s amazing what purchasing power parity can do for a person. Based on where you are born, your wages can afford you products based on the same denomination in which you are paid. Or they can afford you products from other countries that are denominated in US dollars. If you are from Zimbabwe, for example, which recently achieved the worst currency deflation in modern history, you need thousands of dollars to pay for something very basic that would only cost a few dollars in its origin country. I lived in Belize at one point, and my $3.50 / hour wages would have required me to spend a lifetime saving up for a plane ticket. Even though they have a 2:1 currency exchange ratio.
On the flip side, giving money to people in other countries, when you are from the United States spending USD, gives you the ability to affect lives and create change in other countries. Even small donations can make a world of difference for people in Africa or India, as the success of the Grameen Bank Foundation has demonstrated through micro financing. Our advantage in purchasing power parity can be used to change lives at little cost to a middle class American family, especially considering the amounts we spend on gifts and parties around the holidays.
I was recently blessed by an opportunity to house 2 ladies in Uganda since Covid started. Thanks to a friend in the not for profit world, who reached out to me to tell me the stories of these ladies, I was able to request funding through gifts and Christmas presents that will fund a new house for a lady named Sharon who lost her arm in a factory accident. On gifted property, this house will cost only $3,000 to build. For such a small amount of money, we were able to change her life and the lives of her young daughters, who were insecurely housed in their temporary housing solution. Whereas, a house in the United States would cost at least ten times as much to build. Sharon had been collecting bricks, with her one good arm, to build her own house on her property. Now she can afford a house built with new bricks by hired laborers, and live safely ever after with her children.
We really are so lucky, in the United States, to have purchasing power parity on our sides. “Purchasing power parity (PPP) is an economic theory that allows the comparison of the purchasing power of various world currencies to one another. It is a theoretical exchange rate that allows you to buy the same amount of goods and services in every country.” Without it, life would be so much more of a struggle to provide for our families, like Sharon, and another lady whose lives I hope to blog about soon in Uganda. With it, we are able to work less and afford more, struggle less to afford basic needs, and bless others in different countries where your donations can go a log way to help people. That’s not to say that your donations aren’t needed in the United States, where the high cost of healthcare, lack of affordable housing, and lack of access to opportunities through quality education; can be a very harsh reality for many. But there is a lot that individuals and not for profits can do to help the needy at home and abroad, at a small cost to a working professional without children or other obligations. It’s what the church would have intended to do with our tithes to begin with, and part of the reason why I tithe to charities instead of churches now that I’m older. Since people in Uganda don’t have access to half of the credit or opportunities that people in the United States can access, it feels really nice to enable people who are dedicating their lives to helping people like Sharon. Message me if you want to help too!
This paper is about dry stack unit masonry systems. It discusses the history of this product’s use throughout the career of Frank Lloyd Wright, in what he referred to as the “Textile Block System” that he used for his Usonian Automatic homes. Research is presented based on modern building materials that use these systems, and the need for technology in manufacturing to improve the use of this material is discussed. Although Frank Lloyd Wright had posited that this style of home building could be used to solve the Middle Income Housing problem in his time, this is not the most economical or wise use of land resources at this time. Instead, multifamily housing units are needed for hundreds of thousands of households that need affordable rental housing that is not currently available in metropolitan areas. This housing style would however, be a viable building solution for places where plenty of land is available, or where architecture aficionados or small scale developers want to build their own structures for the “Missing Middle.” Technology and further research to incorporate green windows, doors, and infrastructure could also make this building style particularly “green” and useful in this day and age, if blocks were manufactured and demand made dry stack unit masonry efficient and worth-wile to create via economies of scale. Renovating old hotels and motels is a much more affordable and necessary endeavor to truly solve the Affordable Housing Crisis that is ongoing in the United States today. ——————————————————————————————————————————————————————-
Dry-stacked cast masonry units are a less common form of Concrete Masonry Unit (CMU) wall construction that is mentioned in the textbook as a system that “at least one manufacturer” is developing. They can be internally reinforced or surface bonded, pre-stressed, or post-tensioned. The beauty of this system is that it requires less skilled labor, can be constructed more efficiently, and the units can be fabricated with architectural quality faces that do not require additional finishes (Allen & Iano, 377). Frank Lloyd Wright even developed a “Usonian Automatic” house with a dry-stack system that could be assembled by the buyer themselves, to provide middle income housing. Technology today could make dry-stacked cast masonry construction an economically viable building solution for single family residential or low-rise affordable housing, if economies of scale allow multiple units to be built or if these units were commonly manufactured as a standard block design. However, the more relevant predicament seems to be that it might not be a truly affordable or “green” solution to build single family housing of this sort to supply to those who actually need it. If one truly intended to build affordable housing for the working poor, the 45% of households in Florida who are struggling to pay rent, larger multi-family housing projects would be needed to provide as many units as possible.
Dry stack cast masonry units seem to be closely associated with surface finished masonry, so most of the studies found during research will also refer to these systems. This paper also assumes that dry-stacked cast masonry units are the same as what Frank Lloyd Wright referred to as a “Textile Block” system that he developed to be used in his Usonian Automatic homes. The first time Wright built a textile block house was the Storer House in Hollywood, California in 1923:
“According to the original specifications, the blocks were to be made from one part Portland cement to four parts sand or decom-posed granite. Consistency was to be such that the mixture would hold its shape when squeezed by hand, and it was to be used within a half hour. Blocks were to be formed on site by pressing the stiff mixture into machined metal molds. A freshly formed block was to be removed immediately from the mold and kept moist for at least 10 days. The module for the Storer House was 16 in. (406 mm) and the actual block dimensions were exactly 16 x 16 in. with no tolerance. There was no mortar joint between the blocks—a formed reveal was used to give the appearance of a tooled joint—so precision-machined molds were required.”
Figure 1 – The Ennis House in Las Angeles. Decorative Textile Block System inspired by Mayan ruins.
The wall system consisted of a double-wythe precast block wall with an air gap between the outer and inner wythes. The blocks were stacked and reinforced horizontally and vertically with a “fabric” or mesh of grouted reinforcing bars, 16 in. on center (Losch, 46).
Wright’s son was the supervisor on site as this house was built, and Wright went on to build at least one more textile block house before he was approached with the riddle that is middle income housing. He was commissioned to build a house at a modest budget by The Freemans, and cost over runs for the manufacture of the block ran over by as much as 100% due to not having a concrete mixer on site. His next commission was the Ennis House, whereby he gained the experience in creating a decorative block textile block system that resembles a Brutalist Mayan ruin. He went on to use this experience with decorative masonry units for his consultation at the Arizona Biltmore and eventually on the campus at Florida Southern University. Here, he designed buildings with his dry stack / textile block system and the students assembled the chapel and other buildings on campus.
Wright went on to design his famous Usonian Automatics homes with the “Automatic” in this name referring to the intention that Owners could participate in the construction of the blocks or make the blocks themselves. Just like dry-stacked cast masonry units, these have tongue and groove edges that allow the blocks to interlock as they are stacked; and because they are aligned on a pre-assembled reinforced cage, they require less skilled labor than traditional concrete masonry unit construction. Grout fills the voids to strengthen the courses, giving the wall added strength. However, the problem with this system was the costliness of manufacturing the blocks, which required dimensional uniformity. Without machine-manufacturing of the blocks, they could not be economical enough to be picked up at a local supply store or manufacturer by middle-income households hoping to build their own homes in the first form of “sweat equity” (Losch, 52).
Table 1 – Comparison of Output from “Laboratory-Based Productivity Study on Alternative Masonry Systems” (Anand). This shows the results of the study, with productivity enhancements for dry-stacked and thin-jointed unit masonry systems.
Time is money. Especially in the construction industry where Subcontractors are inundated with invitations to bid on a daily basis, any techniques that can save time can save money. And with 40 – 60 % of the cost of construction services estimated as the cost of labor, anything that increases the efficiency of construction is a “win” if it can maintain durability while decreasing man hours required to build it. This makes dry stack cast masonry especially valuable, as one manufacturer claims that it accelerates the construction of masonry block wall construction from “200 8-in. blocks a day by a mason and a tender to about the same number in one hour” (NCMA). And one laboratory base study concluded that “[p]roductivity enhancement of 80–120% was observed for dry-stacked masonry and 60–90% more for thin-jointed and mortar-bedded interlocking-block masonry than that of conventional masonry” (Anand).
With trends in construction and other industries leaning toward efficiency by means of Lean, Six Sigma and the Toyota method, it seems like efficiency could make dry stack cast masonry units a viable solution for low rise multifamily and single-family residential housing. However, durability is also a concern that must be addressed because leaking concrete masonry unit structures are already a huge concern for Architect’s, with the majority of legal cases against them disputing waterproofing issues in these types of buildings. All types of masonry and grout are porous to some extent, so it makes sense that studies have been conducted on the water permeability of the various types of dry-stacked cast and interlocking masonry units.
One study found that a dry-stacked system performed better in terms of dampness, compared to thin-jointed and mortar-based systems. This was true across the board, when tested with or without surface finishes. However, thin-jointed masonry units performed better in preventing leakage with surfaces finished. Across the board, water-permeability decreased the most with the use of a plaster surface finish rather than stucco. When tested under pressure to simulate the effects of wind velocity, plastering was effective in lessening dampness and leakage for all three types of masonry (Anand, 55).
Although the methods for this study were not addressed, modern technology for windows and doors could be incorporated into an assembly to also test for moisture protection. The findings for another study could test for a more “green” building solution with potentially low energy calculations. A properly designed roof assembly would also be key. Solar, wind, water and other organic sources could be used to power a block house structure, which could be designed to fit these elements in particular.
Wright had always said that he had the desire to build two things before he died – a full scale performing arts theater and a solution for the middle-income housing problem. Wright eventually designed a single-family Usonian house for Florida Southern University, but “the school’s application for an FHA loan was denied—the design was apparently too radical, and the house was never constructed” (Losch, 60). For a middle income architecture afficianado, it seems like Wright’s textile block system could be improved and even used to make multiple units or entire neighborhoods in locations where the home Owners can afford to buy property. However, the current reality check is not in the radical nature of the design – it’s not too far-fetched with technological advances and so many other alternative designs to choose. Site selection is a much bigger issue that makes this an unaffordable form of single or lowrise multi-family housing for the “Missing Middle.” For this reason, it would still not be economical for families to depend on this solution as a viable abode for the households that need it most.
Today, the “Middle Income Housing Problem” has deteriorated from bad to worse. There is currently an Affordable Housing Crisis in the United States with a deficit of affordable housing that leaves more than 10 million families either stranded or teetering on the edge of homelessness. This is particularly common in Florida, where only 22 units of affordable housing are available per 100 extremely low income families (NLIHC). “Affordable housing” is defined as housing that costs 30% or less of a person’s monthly income. A household that spends more than 30% of their income on housing and utility costs is considered “housing burdened” and at risk of becoming homeless. HUD Secretary Julian Castro states that “there is a shortage of 7.2 million affordable housing units for the nation’s more than 10 million extremely low income families” (Out of Reach).
Figure 2 – Graphical depiction of the GAP between Affordable Rent and Actual Rent. AMI means Area Median Income, and FRM means Fair Market Rent.
The direct result of this deficit of affordable housing is that 75% of these extremely low -income families are forced to pay over 50% of their wages on rent, making them severely cost burdened. In order to solve this social problem, we will need to build housing for low income and extremely low income families in mind, understanding that the rent cannot exceed 30% of their incomes. If one intended to apply for FHA funding to house low income families nowadays, it makes much more sense economically and due to the limited space for site development, to build multifamily housing units. Examples of new construction with LEED Platinum ratings have a successful test case in places like Houston, Texas. However, my favorite housing solution for the homeless is the model they use in Utah, where old motels have been renovated to provide housing for individuals and families alike. With affordable rent, onsite childcare facilities, job training programs, and caseworkers onsite; facilities like Salt Lake City’s Palmer Court have provided a place where formerly homeless residents can get back on their feet. Because they used an old Holiday Inn, and renovated the rooms instead of developing a green field site, they saved considerably in the cost of construction compared to Houston’s multi-million dollar price tag for site development and new building construction, costing $150,00 + per unit of single room occupancy housing. Renovating these rooms also allowed Palmer Court to create 2 bedroom / 2 bathroom units with kitchens to house families in the same building where single room occupancy studios provided housing for individuals.
There are so many old hotels and motels in Florida, and many extremely low income families already live in them paying week to week or month to month because they may have one eviction on their record and cannot get into any apartment complexes. Building one new dry stack masonry unit
Figure 3 – The movie “The Florida Project” is an insight into the lives of children who are growing up in motels in Florida near Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The motels along I-92 have many families living in these conditions, and I have surveyed them door to door.
cottage for each of these families would simply not be possible, although I think that Wright’s heart was in the correct place when he attempted to solve the problem of middle-income housing. His design could be used for what some call the “Missing Middle” of garden style apartment buildings, or two story walk ups. However, it is not necessarily the best use of Federal Housing Authority funding as this program is currently intended to function in the United States. Dry Stack Unit Masonry is still a great idea for other countries though, where land resources are more abundant. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Faith In Action Ministries build concrete masonry unit block houses for inadequately housed families all the time. I have been to Guatemala, and seen how people live in dwellings made of only a few large sticks and a piece of tin for the roof. It would be a welcomed solution, to develop a textile block system that was easier, more affordable, and water-proofed well enough to provide single unit housing in rural areas in countries like this. It might also make sense to do the same for low income families in the United States living in rural areas where land is not yet over-developed and natural resources depleted. Another way to make dry stack unit masonry truly a “green” building solution would be by creating a mix-design for the concrete that allowed the blocks to be manufactured using locally sourced resources, or upcycling crushed concrete and other debris found in construction waste.
Although Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Block homes never really caught on as a building technique that could have solved the Middle Income Housing problem, it could still be used to build structures that fans of Incremental Development and New Urbanism refer to as “The Missing Middle.”
Figure 4 – The missing middle is a range of small scale development that is no longer commonly created. This is due to the majority of housing developers focusing on either single family homes or large-scale multi-family developments that produce more ROI.
This style of building development would allow small scale developers to build in places where they can afford to buy property, and gain return on investment over the life cycle of their buildings. The rise in mixed use development in particular makes this a particularly viable solution for providing another building product that can be built easily and provide more than one unit of housing per building. Two-story walk up apartments with retail space on the ground floor are another way to do this with a construction loan, where rent from tenant spaces pay for the mortgage. However, site work is typically very expensive, so re-using existing infrastructure would again be better than new green field construction. And since the Middle Income Housing Problem that Wright referred to in the 1920s has deteriorated into an all-out Affordable Housing Crisis in the United States 100 years later, larger multi-family housing projects would be needed to provide as many units as possible for low income renters.
Anand KB, Ramamurthy K. Laboratory-Based Productivity Study on Alternative Masonry Systems. Journal of Construction Engineering & Management. 2003;129(3):237-242.doi:10.1061/(ASCE)0733-9364(2003)129:3(237) .
“DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION OF DRY-STACK MASONRY WALLS.” NCMA, National Concrete Masonry Association, 1 July 2019, ncma.org/resource/design-and-construction-of-dry-stack-masonry-walls/.
Keep Austin Weird. That’s the tagline for the Capitol of Texas, which happens to be one of the trendiest places to live according to the mass movement of techies and young urban professionals from basically everywhere. This culture is reflected in the city’s bars and nightlife; incorporating open air patios, food trucks, roof tops bars and live music into many public spaces. Everything from the breweries, to the gastropubs, to the graffiti art on the walls simply beams with authenticity. It is no surprise that this city has a unique and authentic way of taking care of its homeless residents as well.
Community First! Village is a community of affordable tiny houses for chronically homeless, disabled residents in East Austin. It is managed by the non for profit food truck ministry Mobile Loaves & Fishes that collaborated with businesses, non profits and foundations to provide this space for the most vulnerable members of their community. Amenities include outdoor kitchen spaces, public restrooms, laundry facility, a community market, open air cinema, workshop, tool bank and art gallery. A community works program provides micro-enterprise opportunities; and sustainability projects include community gardens (including permaculture), a chicken operation, bee hives producing fresh honey, and aquaponics. Public transportation provides access to the city via a bus route that stops on property.
A medical facility provides onsite care for physical health screenings as well as case management through Austin Travis County Integral Care for residents affected by behavioral health and developmental and/or intellectual challenges. This is key to making this development successful as a permanent supportive housing community for chronically homeless individuals. It is also the feature that distinguishes Community First! Village as a Permanent Supportive Housing community, as opposed to self governing shanty towns such as Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon. Austin has definitely thought this through in a way that fills in all of the gaps left by Portland’s project, yet maintains the character and authenticity of the community. It is so inspiring to see how this community cared enough to come together to build a community that is safe and affordable for those who need it most. I can’t help but think what we could do for homeless families and the working poor, with just a little more forethought.
Seventy-five percent of extremely low income families cannot find affordable rental housing, but it’s not for lack of effort (iii). Rather, a deficit of affordable housing leaves more than 10 million U.S. families either stranded or teetering on the edge of homelessness. This is particularly common in Florida, where only 22 units of affordable housing are available per 100 extremely low income families (6). Regardless of political affiliations, we can all agree that increasing the inventory of affordable rental housing is a prerequisite for ending homelessness and giving hope to America’s refugees – extremely low income families making less than 30% of the average median income (1).
Eventually, this burden will catch up with them. A missed paycheck or medical emergency might be the the straw that breaks the camels back, as these families are forced to make hard choices and compromises to make ends meet. Necessary medications are foregone, payday loans taken out, or credit cards maxed out with unsustainable debt. The consequences of these choices inevitably lead to a Catch 22 with no way out besides shelters, doubling up, living in motel rooms, sleeping in cars, or worse – becoming homeless. And in Central Florida, one in every 50 families and one in every 17 children will experience homelessness in the course of a year (45).
These extremely low income families are the working poor. They are the subject of the Heart of Florida United Way’s A.L.I.C.E. (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) Report, which details the struggles of Floridians trying to survive with only the most basic necessities. According to this report, the Household Survival Budget for a family with 2 children is $47,484; which only includes Housing, Child care, Food, Transportation, Health Care, and 10% Miscellaneous (i.e. cell phone expenses). However, the median family income is estimated to receive only $45,040 per year. It is statistically undeniable that 3.2 million households, or 45% of total households in Florida, are struggling to afford these necessities (4).
Add to this equation wage stagnation and the fact that only 22 units of affordable housing exist per 100 extremely low income families; it’s no wonder that nearly 70,000 homeless youth were enrolled in Florida’s schools in 2013. That is, 18 % of the Nation’s homeless school-aged children live in Florida (7). The psychological, nutritional and academic consequences for these students abound; concomitantly increasing the costs of public education, social services, and future prison expenses in the worst case scenarios. But most importantly, even the brightest children may be robbed of the chance to go on to lead healthy, balanced, and productive lives. Whether your political affiliations would have you fix this by increasing the minimum wage or not, we can all agree that there is a deficit of equal housing that is both affordable and available. Increasing this inventory is a public good and worthwhile investment in preventing family homelessness.
Imagine what it’s like to raise your family in a motel. The academic, nutritional and social consequences for children abound. It’s only a step above homelessness, but so many are cycling through seedy motel rooms because of the lack of affordable housing in Central Florida… Yesterday, my friend Jen and I volunteered to survey the occupants of some of these motels. We met both families and individuals with interesting stories of how they ended up in this situation, and most interestingly – they were all employed. I’ll share a few of their stories here.
First we met Mr. Ulrie, who was a Vietnam war Veteran that had worked for the IRS for fifteen years before moving to Central Florida. He now works full-time at a popular hotel chain, but has lived in the motel where we met him for the past 3 years. He swore to us that he was not on drugs. He had just returned from his shift and was sipping a Bud Light. “This is my only drug,” he said as he tapped the can. Because of health problems, he hadn’t been able to work for a month and that’s how he ended up in a motel. He’s been on a waiting list for an apartment complex down the street, but they won’t call because he has an eviction on his record.
Next, we met Lexi who was living in a motel room with 4 children and her significant other. Her one year old little boy chased an inflatable ball outside the room as we asked her a few questions “to help us do a better job with programs and services for people without stable, permanent housing.” She was so grateful – you could see it in her eyes as she said it was a “really good thing that y’all are doing.” She was 20 years old with two small children, and raising her boyfriend’s teenage sons as well. She worked part time as a waitress, and she guessed that they had lived in 20 different motels in the area, also because of past evictions. She was still so young herself, but as a product of the Department of Children & Families, she had no other family or support system to rely on.
Similarly, Chayew did not have any family to rely on either. All of his relatives had died from alcoholism, but he said he had been sober for 20 years. He was a Native American from the Seminole tribe, and he didn’t even want to talk to us because he was used to the government wasting his time. After a bit of coaxing, he opened the door and came out to share his story. He was a product of the Government Boarding Schools Program, and he said he had lived in every motel along the I92 corridor where we were surveying. He called his motel room his “kingdom” then pointed to an old van in the parking lot, which also sometimes served as his “kingdom.” He had been working as a plasterer at a local theme park, but was suddenly out of work. He might end up sleeping in his van or in the woods nearby soon.
We met another man named James, who also worked full time in construction and didn’t make enough money to afford a security deposit, on top of first and last month’s rent at an apartment. This was typical of most. Someone even stated that the price of renting was so high that you might as well buy a house. While unemployment is at an all-time low in Florida, the median price of housing is rising; and this leaves many of the working poor with few options other than to throw away the little money they have on rent, or live in these motels. In the worst case scenario, families end up living in their cars or even in the woods.
In the best cases, they end up in these shady motels, where their children might witness some of the most hopeless forms of human activity from a young age. And as Lexi’s case shows, placing these children in DCF might only perpetuate this cycle. The amount of strain that living in these close quarters can put on a relationship or family dynamic is bad enough on its own. And the degree that this kind of environment can set back a school-aged child is catastrophic to their future development. Something needs to be done. Giving these families affordable housing options is the only way to give their children the equal opportunity that they deserve to go on to live happy, healthy and productive lives. Whether privately or publicly funded, they need affordable housing now.
This morning I couldn’t sleep, so I went to take breakfast to my favorite crew on a job site. As I was making the rounds with the site superintendent, one of our team members mentioned that he hadn’t gotten much sleep either because his sister’s home had been shot up in Eatonville. His nieces were there with his nephew, who almost got hit by one of six bullets that hit the front of their house. When the mother went outside, she saw a person dead with his brains “hanging out” on the sidewalk. Her family had gone to stay with her brother, who was standing with me on this job site at 6 am. Understandably, he couldn’t sleep much last night either.
Last week, I heard of two gang related shootings in West Orlando in one day. A friend of mine who teaches at The Human Experience, a private school that supports at-risk children from some of the worst areas of town, posted this picture on Facebook with two separate stories of gang violence that had impacted his life in twenty-four hours.
One was a student who texted him from his home in Parramore, scared because his street was blocked off and his mother couldn’t return home to him. Their neighborhood was on lockdown from a shooting with six victims. At least one dead. The other was one of the school’s “most intelligent, creative, sweet, and promising former students” who “had to witness her mother being shot.”
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” – Emma Lazarus
In 2008, I had a life-changing experience in Thailand while visiting an NGO that serves Burmese refugee children who are at-risk of becoming victims of human trafficking. I was in town called Mae Sot, where many Karen Burmese had emigrated to escape civil war and ethnic cleansing in Burma. It was just after cyclone Nargis had decimated Burma’s delta region, and the Burmese army was using intimidation tactics to remove the Karen from the most fertile region in the country. Many had emigrated across the border to Mae Sot to avoid violence from the conflict that is the ‘longest civil war in the world.’
One day, we visited a Burmese refugee camp near the border, a few hours from town. Nearly 50,000 Karen Burmese lived in this camp in houses made of leaves with bamboo stilts that elevated them above the ground. The structures dotted the side of a hill next to a mountain range that acted as the geographic boundary between Thailand and Burma. If I didn’t know we were in a refugee camp, I would have thought we were in a scene from a movie. I quickly returned to reality when someone mentioned that there was still fighting occasionally, just on the other side of the mountain.
We climbed down a hill and thorugh a winding path to get to an orphanage in the camp, where an ex-military general and his wife cared for children whose parents had died in the war. We were treated as honored guests and given delicious food. Although we knew they did not have much to spare (the purpose of the trip had been to bring them food – illegally), it would have been rude for us to refuse their hospitality.
The children sang for us, as we sat Indian-style on the bamboo floor, and I learned that their parents had died in the civil war while fighting to give them a place to live. Now they were stuck in limbo in this refugee camp, unable to be adopted because they did not have documentation from Burma or from Thailand. I learned that the Karen Burmese were being ethnically cleansed because of territorial disputes between their tribe and the Burmans, who controlled the national government and the army at the end of World War II. The Karen leaders had been promised self-determination while they fought alongside the British against the Japanese; but wartime promises meant nothing after the troops went home.
When I went back to school after that summer, I changed my major from Health Science to undecided because I wanted to do something that would help refugees or alleviate the hardships that they faced. Eventually, I chose Political Science so that I could focus on International Relations. The following three years, I studied genocide and ethnic cleansing in Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, and the United States. I also focused on War & Peace in World Politics, Security Studies, and International Political Economy. I still think about these children, their stories, and my experiences in Thailand all the time.
In May 2008, I visited an NGO in Guatemala and witnessed the most extreme poverty I have ever seen, in the 3rd most malnourished country in the world. The stories of preventable disease, death, despair, and sheer desperation were some of the worst I have ever heard. This is a long story, so I will split it up into two parts: Mayan Village and Mountain Village. I won’t use names because I don’t have permission, but feel free to contact me if you would like to know how you can support this mission work.
We drove through the desert of Guatemala to Zacapa, and up a mountain ridge to a village called Pinalito. The only way to reach the village was through a dried up river bed. My hosts worried that we might not be able to make it, since we could get stuck if it started raining. Luckily, the rain held up, and we made it to the mission at the peak of the mountain in Pinalito.
I can honestly say that I have never seen such abject poverty in my entire life as I did in Pinalito. Like in Castulo, the residents of Pinalito eat primarily corn tortillas, which leaves them malnourished. Their children die of malnutrition, usually at a very young age. Maternal mortality in labor is also common, and the closest hospital is at the base of the mountain in Zacapa. The rough terrain on the mountain side, along with the subsistence-agriculture living of Pinalito’s residents, places each family at a fair distance from its closest neighbor.
The mission began as a clinic and school for the children of Pinalito, and children walk from all over the mountain, bare-footed through the jungle, to get an education in exchange for food. The feeding program rewards students for their school attendance each month with beans, rice, and sugar; or else they might not be allowed to attend. The clinic is equipped to provide basic medical attention (stitches, broken bones, etc.), give vitamins to new mothers/children, and distribute clothes to whomever needs them. Occasionally doctors or dentists visit with teams from the states, and volunteer their services in the clinic. Some teams of volunteers help with construction projects.
The missionaries teach the farmers new techniques to generate revenue for the village. They have learned how to grow completely organic coffee (using soapy water instead of insecticides to kill bugs.) There is a factory where they collectively roast the coffee. The missionaries use their network to connect the producers with buyers in the states, without collecting a profit. Macadamia nut trees shade the coffee plants, and will eventually be another cash crop for sale. While we were there, the mission hosted a session on how to graft citrus plants. They recently started to use earth worm composting, which I thought was great. The mission itself was solar and gas powered, since there is no electricity on the mountain. In general, it was very sustainable.
I woke up the next day at the mission house and walked into the kitchen to be greeted with “Hola!” by adorable little children with their faces pressed against the bars on the windows. Later, I met 2 little girls that were playing in the school yard. Their mom had died giving birth to their youngest sister. They were so tiny. The older one was 9, and she had to take care of her 3 younger siblings, including her new-born sister after her mom died. Their dad was an alcoholic. When their mom died, he went on a drinking binge and abandoned them without any resources at all. Now he is back and still spends all of their money on alcohol. We bribed her and her 5 year-old little sister with new clothes, so that they would take showers. They were filthy from walking barefoot on the muddy mountain paths. They ate candy and chattered happily while I brushed their hair. We sent them home with soap, shampoo, and underwear that they would most likely sell to buy food, unless their dad spent the money on alcohol.
My hosts and I hiked 30 minutes through the rain forest to visit two of the poorest families on the mountain. The first family we met was a young girl with 4 kids. She used to be the smartest student at the mission’s school, but her parents married her off to a man in the village when she was 14. Her first son lost his eye due to malnutrition. We gave her food and some toiletries, along with vitamins. The one thing that struck me while we were at their house was the dogs. A mother dog had 4 puppies and the family could hardly afford to feed themselves, much less the dogs. The bitch was bloated from starvation and her nipples were sagging from nursing her puppies, which were so skinny that I could see their ribs and bones.
The next family was probably the poorest family on the entire mountain. A single mother and her 3 sons lived in a 15’ x 10’ hut made out of sticks and a tin roof. She didn’t have a husband, and her oldest son left the mountain to find migrant work when he was just 14. I was told that when the missionaries first visited the family’s home, they only had 10 sticks for “walls” and half a tin roof. During the rainy season, their house was washed down the side of the hill, and they would have to rebuild every time it rained. They weren’t home, but we hid a bag of food and other things under their (only) blanket in the tiny shanty.
It started pouring down rain as soon as we returned to the mission, and we had to leave immediately. The stream in the previously dried up river bed quickly turned into a creek, but we were still able to drive through it. We thought we might have to hike down the mountain, but we made it down only having to walk a little while. The rest of the trip was a blur. I got home on a Sunday, and started summer classes the next day. I learned about “Culture & World Politics,” and wondered how many more mountains existed with villages like Pinalito sitting on top of them – in the U.S. and all over the world. How many of them were lucky enough to have a mission? And how many more did not?