ADEN, – Waddah al-Adeni was born and raised in Aden and knows the coastal city’s streets like the back of his hand. But as a member of Yemen’s Black minority, he has little hope of ever being able to live beyond its slums.
“You’re born there and you never leave,” said Adeni, one of Yemen’s roughly 3 million “muhamasheen”, who rights advocates say occupy the lowest rung of a de facto caste system that keeps Black Yemenis on the margins.
“They just look at my face and that’s it,” said the 39-year-old, whose slum is plagued by rampant power cuts, a lack of clean water and an absence of formal rental agreements.
The origins of the muhamasheen, an Arabic word meaning marginalised, are disputed. Some accounts trace them to Abyssinian soldiers who occupied Yemen hundreds of years ago, others to Yemen’s Red Sea plain.
“I’d love to have nice clothes one day. Shave my beard. Have a car. Smell nice, go into a hotel. To just feel happy and be a part of society,” said Adeni.
While Yemeni law does not discriminate on the basis of skin colour, society is partly stratified by tribe, meaning those with dark skin or unrecognised lineage have faced discrimination for centuries, campaigners say.
That leads to the exclusion of the country’s Black population – which also includes about 35,000 African migrants – from schools, formal jobs and decent housing, they say.
Many even struggle to register their newborns, with only 9% holding birth certificates, according to a survey by the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Access to other government documents, as well as jobs and services, is often hampered as a result.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Salah Dabwan, a lawyer and longtime muhamasheen activist.
Following widespread popular protests in 2011, the body tasked with shaping Yemen’s new constitution proposed a 10% quota for muhamasheen in public sector jobs, and access to leadership positions.
But the draft constitution ultimately left out the quota, and the outbreak of war in 2015 and Yemen’s subsequent economic decline left the muhamasheen more vulnerable than ever.
Raheel Sami was born a year before Adeni, thousands of miles away in Haramaya, Ethiopia – but their fates have overlapped since she arrived in Yemen 15 years ago. Like Adeni, she now lives on the edge of Aden in precarious conditions.
Thousands of Ethiopians and Somalis make the dangerous journey every year to flee persecution and violence or seek work in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, but often get stuck in Yemen, where the war has worsened their situation, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“We beg from restaurants, and some Yemenis sometimes bring us food,” Sami said in the makeshift coastal camp where she lives in a tent made of tattered tarpaulin and garbage bags.
“It’s because of the colour of our skin.”
Sami has spent most of her years in Yemen as a U.N.-registered refugee in the northern city of Sanaa, which was taken over by the Houthi armed movement in 2015.
A year ago, she joined protests by fellow migrants and refugees after scores of migrants were killed in a fire in a detention camp run by the Houthis in Sanaa, where inhabitants reported being subject to racial slurs, HRW said.
Many of the protesters were rounded up by Houthi security forces, put onto trucks and deported to the country’s south, which is held by the internationally recognised government.
Sami was separated from her 13-year-old daughter and twin adolescent sons during the expulsion. They remain stranded alone in Sanaa.
Fellow camp residents were pessimistic about their prospects, with many blaming the same discrimination experienced by the muhamasheen.
“It’s absolutely no use being Black here. We’re only allowed to work in garbage, or cleaning,” said one Ethiopian man who had also been kicked out of Sanaa, asking not to give his name.
‘MODERN DAY SLAVERY’
The few Ethiopian migrants in Aden with jobs said they earned at most $50 a month as cleaners and trash collectors, while their children spend the day begging.
Parents desperate to keep food on the table are more likely to pull their children out of school to work – closing the door on education as a pathway to a better life.
According to UNICEF, only half of school-age muhamasheen are enrolled in classes, and just one in five over-15s can read or write.
“This isn’t modern-day slavery – this is just slavery, period,” said Dabwan.
Adeni himself dropped out of school when he was eight to begin working but, like other muhamasheen, was only hired for informal, low-paid work – and had no recourse when his employer withheld his pay or fired him suddenly.
He described being repeatedly accosted in the streets by security forces, or kicked out of public parks.
“Every time you feel like you’re okay and starting to be integrated, that you’re part of this city, something reminds you that you’re not.”
Many of the technologies and tactics to avert the worst impacts of climate change exist today. While still a major challenge, what’s missing mostly is the political and financial will to wield them at full force.
So says the latest major report from the world’s foremost scientific body on climate change. The report, focusing on mitigation efforts to limit rising temperatures, and with it the fallout from increasing heat, was issued Monday, April 4, by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The report reiterated that immediate, rapid and massive societal shifts this decade are required to meet the world’s goal under the Paris Agreement to limit average global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius — a threshold that climate scientists say will expose millions of people to increasing droughts, heatwaves and extreme storms, and with it, result in greater rates of poverty, migration and health issues, all consequences expected to harm already vulnerable communities the most.
At current emissions rates, the world will burn through its remaining carbon budget to meet the 1.5 C target within approximately eight years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Catholic development groups operating across the world said the latest IPCC report was “a clarion call” and made clear that countries must focus on “transformative solutions” with no time to waste.
“Its message is crystal clear: we need climate action now in the form of deep and urgent emissions reductions, and well before 2030, to stay below 1.5°C,” said CIDSE, a network of Catholic international justice organizations, in a statement. “As Catholic Development agencies, we are inspired by Pope Francis to call for urgent action on the climate emergency.”
Salesian Fr. Joshtrom Kureethadam, coordinator of the ecology and creation sector of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, told EarthBeat that the IPCC report makes clear that the time to act is now, and the next few years are “crucial” in shaping a habitable world for people today and generations to come. He said it was encouraging that the report documented signs of a renewable energy transition, including renewable energy making up the vast majority of new energy sources in recent years.
“All this is doable if we are willing to change our behavior, if our political leadership is able to step in. But we don’t want to wait for others to lead. We think we should be leading our communities,” he said.
“We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future,” Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC, said in a statement. “We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming.”
In a joint statement, U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa and Alok Sharma and Sameh Shoukry, the heads of the COP26 and upcoming COP27 U.N. climate conferences, respectively, said the latest IPCC report “makes it clearer than ever that the window of opportunity to achieve [the 1.5 C goal] is rapidly closing.”
“Despite the urgency of our task, there is hope. The window for action has not yet closed. … There is also clear evidence that — with timely and at scale cuts to emissions — countries can pursue a mitigation pathway consistent with limiting global warming” to 1.5 C, they said.
The new mitigation report concluded that the decade from 2010-2019 saw the highest average annual greenhouse gas emissions on record, and were 54% higher than 1990 levels. The carbon emissions released from 2010-2019 accounted for 17% of historical emissions since 1850. While overall emissions dropped slightly in 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, they rebounded by year’s end. And since 2010, global emissions have increased across all major sectors.
“Human-induced climate change is a consequence of more than a century of net GHG emissions from unsustainable energy use, land-use and land use change, lifestyle and patterns of consumption and production,” the IPCC report authors wrote. “Without urgent, effective and equitable mitigation actions, climate change increasingly threatens the health and livelihoods of people around the globe, ecosystem health and biodiversity.”
The report reinforced that the release of emissions is uneven. Developed countries are responsible for 57% of historical carbon emissions, compared to .4% from the world’s least developed nations, and the richest 10% of households account for between 36% and 45% of emissions.
“Richer countries must urgently kick their addiction to fossil fuels and mass consumption,” said Alistair Dutton, director of Scotland Catholic International Aid Fund. “This is the only way to stop the world overheating and leaving a planet that is habitable for future generations. If we don’t, our children and grandchildren will never forgive us.”
Global temperatures have risen an average of 1.1 C since the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 18th century. Countries under the 2015 Paris accord agreed to work to hold temperature rise “well below” 2 C and to strive to limit it to 1.5 C.
So far, the national climate pledges countries issued ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, held in November, would result in 3.2 C warming, according to the IPCC, or well short of both Paris Agreement targets. At the end of COP26, countries agreed to reassess and submit new climate targets before COP27 later this year in Egypt.
The urgency of climate change has yet to be matched by an equivalent political response. For decades, the fossil fuel industry and its political allies have sowed doubt about the science and sought to delay attempts to phase out the use of coal, oil and gas. And recent global events, from Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. to the coronavirus pandemic to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have drained momentum and drawn political attention away from the global threat posed by climate change and the need to transition away from fossil fuels.
Despite that, the IPCC report stressed that a pathway to 1.5 still exists.
It pointed to positive signs, such as the rapidly declining costs of solar and wind energy, along with lithium-ion batteries, and the rapid expansion of solar energy and electric vehicles. As of 2020, more than 20% of global emissions fell under carbon taxes or emissions trading systems, and 56 countries representing 53% of emissions had passed climate laws to slash greenhouse gases.
But it’s also not enough.
The IPCC said that global emissions have to peak no later than 2025 to keep 1.5 C in range, and emissions need to be cut nearly in half by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. Even then, the report estimates that average temperature rise will likely overshoot 1.5 C temporarily.
Limiting warming to 1.5 C or 2 C will “involve rapid and deep and in most cases immediate GHG emissions reductions in all sectors,” the report stated.
Models in the report achieving the 1.5 target show the world rapidly transitioning from fossil fuels to low- or zero-carbon energy sources. Nearly all electricity would need to come from such sources by midcentury, while the use of coal would fall to near zero, and oil and gas slashed dramatically, with up to $4 trillion in stranded fossil fuel infrastructure. Further rollout of energy efficiency, especially in buildings, and conservation efforts, through reforestation and ecosystem restoration, are also key facets to cutting emissions, as is designing cities in ways that encourage public transit, reduce energy demand and enhance access to green spaces.
The IPCC said that taking such steps can have co-benefits, including reducing exposure to pollution, improved health and less congestion, and that mitigation tactics are “a necessary part of development,” including meeting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. It added that “individual behavioral change is insufficient for climate change mitigation unless embedded in structural and cultural change.”
Susan Gunn, director, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, said that each of those strategies are “essential for a global just transition” to a world powered by renewable and emissions-free energy.
One area the Catholic organizations disagreed with the report was on the use of carbon capture and storage technologies to pull emissions from the atmosphere, which the IPCC said would be necessary to offset emissions from hard-to-decarbonize sectors. The technology’s inclusion was part of debates that delayed the report’s release by several hours.
CIDSE and its members called carbon capture and other negative emissions technologies “false solutions.” They have joined environmental groups in saying fossil fuel companies will seek to use those technologies as a means to continue burning more coal, oil and gas. Instead, they have advocated expansive rollouts of renewable energy and agroecology, and for ending all government subsidies for fossil fuels.
“It is never a solution to rely on risky technologies that have not yet developed or proven effective, nor is it a solution to continue accepting more risks already posed to the environment and people because of following mitigation models that rely on such technologies,” CIDSE said in its statement.
Another major area for increased activity is investments. Currently, public and private investments for fossil fuels continue to outpace those for climate mitigation and adaptation measures. The report said that financing for clean energy will need to increase 3 to 6 times over current levels.
The good news, the IPCC report said, is that “there is sufficient global capital” to close the investment gaps. The bad news? There are barriers to doing so, such as inadequate assessments of climate-related risks and investment opportunities. The IPCC said that governments can help alleviate risk concerns through “clear signaling” they are aligning state funding with strong climate policies.
The IPCC report said that while the costs of addressing climate change appear high — roughly 2.6%-4.2% losses in global GDP, and in the electricity sector alone, an estimated $2.3 trillion annually between 2023 and 2052 — inaction will cost far more, both monetarily and the toll of human and other life. “The economic benefits on human health from air quality improvement arising from mitigation action can be of the same order of magnitude as mitigation costs, and potentially even larger,” the report said.
In its statement, CIDSE said it was encouraging that the IPCC report highlighted how investor-state dispute settlements can hinder more ambitious climate action by governments over fears that corporations or investors could sue over the impacts on their businesses.
Josianne Gauthier, CIDSE secretary general, said that “corporate power is hindering climate justice” and that a full response to climate change must involve addressing current economic systems.
“As Pope Francis has said, we cannot live within an economy based on insatiable and irresponsible growth. We are motivated to challenge the system based on the direct experiences of people at the forefront of climate change, who need mitigation urgently,” she said.
Kureethadam told EarthBeat it’s understandable if people find climate reports like the latest from the IPCC disturbing, because it’s from that point that they can become aware and mobilized to act. He said that people can also draw hope through the actions that are happening, including through the Vatican’s Laudato Si’ Action Platform that Francis has invited Catholics across the world to join as a way to embrace sustainability and an ecological conversion.
“People are coming together, so I see that as an element of hope. We don’t need to get discouraged,” Kureethadam said. “It’s urgent, so we cannot afford to postpone. That time is over. The report is so clear.”
Student climate activists at Marquette University celebrated after the Jesuit school in Milwaukee moved last week to prohibit direct investments in fossil fuels through its $929 million endowment.
Marquette announced an update March 24 to its university investment policy that bars investments in public securities whose primary business involves the exploration and extraction of coal, oil and gas. The move was approved by its board of trustees.
In addition, the new policy formalizes measures the endowment office has been practicing for several years, including monitoring funds for indirect exposure to fossil fuels and moving to “wind down” other private investments in fossil fuel-related holdings “in accordance with the terms of the partnership agreements.” A spokeswoman told EarthBeat the university retains the ability to maintain fossil fuel exposure “on a case-by-case basis,” particularly with companies adapting their business models toward solutions to climate change.
In a statement, Marquette president Michael Lovell connected the new policy to Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” and the Society of Jesus’ four universal apostolic preferences, which also includes “care of our common home.”
“Our Catholic, Jesuit mission calls on us as an institution to invest in our students’ futures in ways that are positive for our world. By prohibiting direct investments in fossil fuels and following best practices in responsible investment, Marquette is heeding Pope Francis’ call to ‘reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals,’ ” Lovell said, adding “I am proud that Marquette University is taking this important stance.”
Maddie Kuehn, a junior and member of Fossil Free Marquette that pushed for divestment, told EarthBeat the move was “really exciting” and an “incredible first step.”
“I personally was really surprised. We had no idea that this was even on Marquette’s radar or something that they were even talking about,” she said.
In 2019, the Society of Jesus adopted four universal apostolic preferences for the next decade. On “caring for our common home,” the Jesuits called for ecological conversion in the face of today’s environmental crisis that particularly harms poor and vulnerable people, and they directed their educational institutions to raise awareness and identify ways to act.
The emissions released from the burning of coal, oil and gas are the primary driver of global climate change. Along with that, excavation of fossil fuels often destroys ecosystems and threatens the lives of communities and creatures native to the land.
A report from the International Energy Agency stated that for the world to meet the Paris Agreement goals of max 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise and net-zero emissions by 2050 there cannot be any new oil, gas and coal development.
“There is no need to invest in oil, gas or coal. The existing [power plants] are enough to meet the declining demand for these fossil fuels. There is no need for that,” Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, said in an August webinar hosted by the Laudato Si’ Movement.
In its press release, Marquette stated that its current investment portfolio is free of direct public investments in fossil fuels.
Roughly a year ago, the university told EarthBeat it estimated direct investments in oil and gas amounted to 1% to 2% of its total endowment, at the time roughly $693 million in market value.
In April 2021, students passed a nonbinding resolution with 87% of voters in support of the university implementing a five-year fossil fuel divestment plan. The vote came after a series of meetings between student group Fossil Free Marquette, Lovell and chief investment officer Sean Gissal.
Several months after the vote, Fossil Free Marquette presented a complaint letter in October to Lovell and the board of trustees alleging that the board was violating its fiduciary responsibility by investing in fossil fuels. The students pointed to Wisconsin law that stipulates nonprofit organizations must consider its “charitable purposes” in its investment decisions.
“As a Catholic and Jesuit institution, Marquette commits itself to upholding and promoting the Catholic Church’s teachings on and guidelines for care of the environment,” the student letter read. But despite repeated calls from Francis for the world to rapidly move awayfrom fossil fuels, “the Trustees have remained steadfast in their support of an industry whose business model is based on environmental destruction and social injustice,” the letter stated.
Lynn Griffith, university spokesperson, told EarthBeat “there was zero attention given” to the allegations of violations of the board’s fiduciary duties, and that the updated policy “reflects investment practices that have been in place for several years.” That includes partnering with investment managers who follow the Principles of Responsible Investment and engage in impact investing.
While Fossil Free Marquette celebrated their school’s divestment decision, they hope to see more transparency about how the endowment is invested. That’s especially important, Kuehn said, for private schools where information about investments is not public and harder to access.
“We would like to see the university engage in discussions with students and have opportunities for them to ask questions about this issue, because I know that a lot of people care about it,” she said.
Campaigns to cut financial ties with the fossil fuel industry have been ongoing within faith communities for over a decade, and they represent the largest sector within the wider movement. While the vast majority of Catholic institutions have not divested, attention to the idea has gained traction in the wake of the release of Laudato Si’. The Vatican Bank has stated it does not hold investments in fossil fuels, and the Vatican, through messages, documents and initiatives, including the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, has increasingly recommended divestment as a viable option and “moral imperative” for Catholic institutions.
At their November meeting, the U.S. bishops approved new socially responsible investment guidelines. The revised guidelines, which many Catholic institutions in the country utilize, include an expanded section on environmental concerns, with more than a half-dozen citations of Pope Francis.
On divestment, the new guidelines say the U.S. bishops’ conference will consider that option with companies that consistently fail to initiate policies intended to achieve the Paris Agreement goals, and points to a footnote citing the Vatican’s 2020 Laudato Si’ implementation guidelines that recommend “evaluating progressive disinvestment from the fossil-fuel sector.”
For the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Aberdeen, South Dakota, the prairie has been home since 1880.
They were invited from Dublin by Bishop Martin Marty of St. Cloud, Minnesota, to what was then the Dakota Territory to teach the children of the Lakota people and French settlers.
Since those early days, the order has developed an “inner awareness that we depend on the land and we’re saved by the land,” Presentation Sister Pegge Boehm told Catholic News Service.
“We’re formed by the prairie. We know that the prairie land is fragile and we’ve come to know it’s a fragile ecosystem,” said Sister Boehm, socially responsible investment coordinator for the congregation.
That connection to the prairie is guiding an effort by the sisters to encourage one of the world’s largest corporations, Amazon.com Inc., to become more transparent in its lobbying efforts in regard to climate change and adherence to the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
The sisters have joined Seattle-based Newground Social Investment as lead filers of a shareholder resolution ahead of Amazon’s annual corporate general meeting that asks the firm to report if and how its lobbying aligns with the landmark 2015 accord’s goal of limiting average global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels.
The filing was meant to help shareholders better understand how Amazon is in “right relationship or not in right relationship with the land and its people,” Sister Boehm explained.
“Once we identify maybe where there’s not a right ordering, we are to be the moral voice to bring to their awareness that somebody out there is watching them and make them accountable,” she said.
The resolution seeks more information than what Amazon already provides annually about its contributions of $10,000 or more to political candidates, trade associations, social welfare organizations and nonprofit groups.
“The report should address direct and indirect lobbying … and what actions Amazon has or will take to mitigate the risks associated with misalignments that may be found,” the resolution said.
A spokeswoman for Amazon declined to specifically address the Presentation sisters’ resolution.
She pointed, instead to “sustainability activities” that support the Paris agreement. Among them are investments in wind and solar farms and more efficient machinery; plans to power all operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025; a commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040; and ordering more than 100,000 fully electric delivery vehicles.
Amazon is among dozens of companies at which Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility members have filed climate- and environment-related resolutions. ICCR said there were 103 such filings by Feb. 16.
Oblate Father Seamus Finn, director of the Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation for his order and former ICCR board chairman, said that shareholders in many companies see an urgent need for corporate leaders to more rapidly adopt practices that mitigate climate change, leading to more resolutions being filed this year.
Shareholders are learning from failed attempts in years past and now are fine-tuning resolutions to address specific, rather than broad, concerns, he explained.
It’s expected that some of the resolutions will be withdrawn as conversations begin between activist investors and corporate representatives, but many will be debated during the annual meetings in the weeks ahead.
ICCR reported during a webinar in February introducing its 2022 Proxy Resolutions and Voting Guide that a record 436 resolutions at 246 companies have been filed. In 2021, 244 shareholder resolutions were filed.
Last year also saw a record number of ICCR member resolutions — 23 — gaining majority support from shareholders. And in a move that sent shockwaves through corporate boardrooms, other activist investors elected three of their own to oil giant Exxon Mobil’s board of directors in the hope of quickening the pace of the company’s response to climate change.
That success has raised hope among investors such as religious congregations, labor unions and progressive asset management firms for more of the same this spring.
The South Dakota congregation’s resolution is just one of 17 filed with Amazon by ICCR members. Other resolutions address such concerns as employee rights, racial and gender pay gaps, surveillance technology and tax transparency.
Similar issues have been raised with other companies as shareholders seek greater accountability and actions that promote justice.
Still, concerns about climate change top the list this season. Overall, 20 resolutions have been filed on Paris-aligned climate lobbying. Other environment-related concerns include disclosure about greenhouse gas emissions and financing for fossil fuel development.
Mary Minette, director of shareholder advocacy at Mercy Investment Services, credited women religious for staying the course on the environment for years, long before many investors recognized the growing threats to people and creation.
“The sense of urgency is growing. We keep hearing reports and reports and reports and reports that our time is getting shorter to act,” Minette said.
The Benedictine Sisters of Boerne, Texas, were among the co-filers of a resolution with San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp. seeking disclosure of near- and long-term greenhouse gas reduction targets. It said the company’s exposure to climate risks can endanger its business and thus negatively impact investors.
Benedictine Sister Susan Mika, director of the Benedictine Coalition for Responsible Investment, told CNS the resolution is the latest in a yearslong campaign to engage the company’s leaders about environmental issues.
“We are concerned about climate change and everything happening to Earth. These are some of the reasons we would be filing with any of the oil and gas companies and refineries,” Sister Mika said.
Conversations can get technical, especially when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in drilling operations, but Sister Mika said she and other shareholder institutions want to continue to engage with corporate officials to protect the planet.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” she said.
ICCR was buoyed for greater success this year, especially after the Securities and Exchange Commission March 21 proposed a rule to enhance climate-related disclosures to investors.
The landmark rule, which will go out for public comment in the coming weeks, would require companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and the risks they face from climate change.
In a statement, Christina Herman, program director for climate and environmental justice at ICCR, welcomed the rule, which will standardize for the first time how companies report emissions.
The proposal “will be critical in setting a floor to ensure that investors of all sizes will have access to data about corporate and portfolio-level climate risk, vital to making investment decisions as the economy pivots to a clean energy future,” Herman said.
The rule, which is not expected to take effect until December once it is finalized, does not affect this year’s shareholder actions, but it will go a long way to address investors’ environment-related concerns into the future.
Buenos Aires, Argentina — At 35 years old, Gaby* is a mother of 13, a grandmother, and a runaway convict.
Of her 13 children, eight have been put into foster homes over the years as a result of her and her partner’s drug dealing, for which they were ultimately imprisoned several years ago. After she got pregnant while detained, she negotiated a brief release in November 2020 to give birth while under house arrest and leave her baby at home in her Buenos Aires villa, or urban shantytown.
But while she was out of prison, Gaby destroyed her ankle monitor, opting to live like a fugitive and gamble life behind bars if she’s found.
For the Passionist Sisters who regularly meet women like Gaby in Villa Hidalgo, navigating the art of accompaniment can feel like a minefield, learning through trial and error how to initiate meaningful conversations that eventually yield trusting relationships.
“In other villas, the abuse a woman suffers is more visible” in the form of bruises from domestic violence, Sr. Florencia Buruchaga said. “But in Villa Hidalgo, their suffering is more private, more invisible.”
The trust between Sr. María Angélica Algorta and Buruchaga and the residents of the villa began as most Argentine relationships do: chatting while drinking mate, a traditional herbal tea.
Entering the villas of Buenos Aires as an unaccompanied outsider is commonly discouraged; for most of the population, driving past the stack of tin houses peeping above the highway is the closest they may ever get.
The ticket into Villa Hidalgo for Algorta and Buruchaga (who live in the suburb of San Martín, a five-minute drive from the villa) was a young woman who sought their help: Her cousin was about to attempt suicide by throwing herself onto the nearby train tracks, and she wanted the sisters to counsel her. Since that incident, the sisters continued returning to the villa with the woman, walking the unpaved roads together and stopping for conversations as they slowly became familiar faces.
While Buruchaga and Algorta are the only two ministering in Villa Hidalgo, their fellow sisters throughout the city carry on similar work in their nearby villas.
“We are Passionist because we accompany the passion of men and women, especially the most neglected,” Buruchaga said.
“We believe that, today, the most neglected are the women of the villa.”
A space just for villa women
The sisters find inspiration in Fr. José María di Paola, a friend of Pope Francis who’s known as “Padre Pepe” throughout Argentina, and his ministry, the Homes of Christ. Padre Pepe and his team have established spaces throughout the country over the last 20 years with a focus on addiction or those affected by it. The ministry welcomes young people from the streets with hopes of helping them address their issues, usually related to abuse, drugs or crime, and “preparing them to return to the streets — that is, their environment — and hopefully transform their families, too,” Buruchaga said.
But of Argentina’s roughly 150 Homes of Christ, few, if any, are dedicated solely to women.
“Behind a woman, there is always a child,” and therefore women are more “complex” to help, Buruchaga said. “She never moves alone, whereas when a man wants to do a treatment, he can just go and do it. But the woman doesn’t have that possibility because she has to take care of the children, the school, the house, the husband. She’s relegated.”
In February 2021, the sisters, linked with Padre Pepe’s team and resources, aimed to create a space similar to a Home of Christ for the women of the villa: Project Dignity. They would need help from local women to get started.
When they knocked on the door of the villa‘s Caacupé Chapel, the eventual site of their community space, the sisters met Olga Barreto. They asked her if she and the women needed help and accompaniment.
“Sí, mucho,” Barreto remembers telling them.
Barreto moved to Buenos Aires from Asuncíón, Paraguay, in 1999 “with only the clothes on my back,” she said, along with her then-toddler daughter and her partner at the time. “We were looking for a better life. There just wasn’t work [in Paraguay], no way to advance.”
Barreto is the emblem of a villa woman: The Paraguayan immigrant works as a domestic maid, is married to a builder and lives with two of her three children (ages 12, 14 and 24) in a small house.
“The villa needs a lot of companionship because so many women live badly, both economically and emotionally from abuse and violence,” she said, adding that local children also become victims of violence, drugs and alcohol.
Three days a week, Barreto volunteers with two other women in the backroom of the chapel to hand out food and snacks to the children of Hidalgo and nearby villas, creating a space where kids can play, draw, sing and pray.
“Here, they have food and milk, but they also find peace where they know they’ll be cared for,” she said.
Before the sisters appeared at the chapel door to ask how they could help, “we felt very alone,” Barreto said. “Now, we’re supported in every sense”: The sisters help them acquire food, offer spiritual sustenance, and oversee the construction of the chapel’s communal space.
“The women now realize they’re not alone, that there are people who are invested in their well-being, that someone is interested in what happens to them, that they’re not invisible, that there are people who are aware of what’s going on in their lives,” Barreto said. “It gives them hope.”
‘This system does not allow one to grow as a person’
Though engaging with individuals is important in renewing the women’s sense of dignity, the Passionist Sisters say the issue is systemic, as Argentina’s welfare system has perpetuated generational poverty by not giving people who live in poverty any incentive to work.
Buruchaga and Algorta said those in the villas tend to fall in one of two categories: immigrants from Paraguay or Bolivia, most of whom arrive motivated to find work and pay, and Argentine families who have lived in poverty for multiple generations, many of whom have never known a family member to hold a job because they have long depended on substantial government checks.
“If you talk to some people in confidence and ask them how much they earn with all their welfare checks, they earn much more than a person who works an official job eight hours a day,” Buruchaga said, noting that this also creates resentment among the struggling middle class. “Federal assistance essentially deteriorates motivation to work.”
That mentality is cyclical, the sisters said, and therein lies the injustice.
“This system does not allow one to grow as a person,” Algorta said. “It doesn’t respect their dignity because a system that respects a person’s dignity would provide education, decent work.” Instead, children from the villa‘s elementary schools can barely read, and high school graduates achieve elementary standards, in some cases “not even enough education to become a cashier.”
The sisters, therefore, were intentional in not making their presence about handouts; rather, through the process of conversation, those they minister to come to appreciate the dignity of work on their own.
Then there’s the pervasiveness of drugs: Algorta and Buruchaga estimate that for every 10 houses in Villa Hidalgo, eight sell drugs: crack, cocaine, nevado (marijuana laced with cocaine), and paco (a combination of crack residue, baking soda, and sometimes glass and rat poison).
“Here, drugs are a given,” Buruchaga said.
But most resort to dealing drugs “because it’s easy money, and they have no other option,” she said. “They don’t realize how hard it is to get out, that there’s always a cost to getting involved.”
Barreto agreed, saying most people “get involved in drugs out of necessity and from a place of pain.”
One of Project Dignity’s increasingly popular resources is Susana Orlandi, a clinical psychologist with experience working in prisons. The sisters recruited her to make weekly trips to the villa, where she hosts individual 30-minute sessions pro bono in the chapel’s backroom.
Domestic violence, sexual abuse, malnutrition, and other conflicts in the home are typically the issues Orlandi hears from the women, she said.
“They’ve opened up a lot over time,” Orlandi said, so much so that she recently increased her visits to twice a week so she can see more women, who learn about her through word of mouth.
“One of my ideas [for Project Dignity] is to create a women’s group so they can support and listen to each other in group therapy,” Orlandi said. Though the women come to her with different problems, “feeling alone” is at the heart of their concerns, she said.
“The differences I do notice with my private patients are the resources and tools they lack to advance their life and better themselves,” Orlandi said, citing their economic dependence, the culture, and lack of education. “The problems may be the same, but the solutions are harder to come by.”
Still, just having a space where they can feel heard is invaluable, she said. Working with women, “the effects are like a waterfall on their children and grandchildren.”
Barreto said she dreams of greater outreach in the community and hopes they can “build a bigger team” to be able to do more throughout the villa, especially for the children who lack good role models.
“To change the lives [of those in the villa] — especially in just a year — is hard,” Barreto said. “It takes time, work, therapy. They need help to learn, to feel that they’re capable. But if there’s accompaniment and interest in them, then little by little, they can achieve more. It’s hard to solve everything at once, but we can make their load lighter.”
For their part, the sisters hope to one day sell their home in neighboring San Martín and move to the villa to be closer with the poor “not just economically,” Buruchaga said. “But poor in dignity.”
A Ukrainian Catholic priest, who is married and a father of seven, recently accompanied one of his parishioners on a journey to Ukraine, where they rescued 22 orphans.
Father Jason Charron is pastor of Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Ukrainian Catholic Church in Wheeling, West Virginia. Several weeks prior to the start of the conflict in Ukraine, he had helped a couple from his parish, Alan and Anita Sherwood, adopt a daughter from Ukraine.
In an interview with EWTN News Nightly Charron explained, “My wife knows people back in Ukraine. So we put them in touch with some people back in the homeland, so to speak.”
They eventually brought a little girl over for a home visit. Charron said, “She stole not only their hearts, but the hearts of everyone in my parish.”
“After about four or five weeks of the visit, at the end of it, Alan said to this beautiful little angel, ‘If anything bad ever happens, if you’re ever in danger, I’ll come and I’ll rescue you,’” he related.
Little did he know that weeks later Ukrainians would be fleeing the country as Russian forces invaded. The same day the conflict began, Alan rushed to the church to tell Charron that he had to go to Ukraine. The two flew to Poland, where a taxi drove them to the border.
“As you get close to the border, you’re walking across, you see this sea of humanity, just as far as the eye can see, of people lining up to get out,” Charron detailed. “You kind of get that feeling in your stomach, like, ‘how am I ever going to get out of here?’ Once I cross this border I don’t know what awaits me.’”
After crossing the border, the two made their way to the orphanage and were able to get the orphans to safety in Lithuania.
Charron added how fortunate Ukraine is to have Poland as a neighboring country. “Catholic Poland is alive right now,” he said. “The meter of that activity in fervor is the way they treat their widows and orphans. We see that in the first chapter of James. That’s the measure of true religion. If you take care of widows and orphans.”