Suddenly Paqui began to sing. The room fell silent, and even the aggressive guy in the corner, who had been talking to himself and shouting randomly, looked up and listened quietly as she sang a saeta. It was Mercedes’ birthday and twenty of us gathered to celebrate with her. She received her gifts with gratitude as enormous as her smile, and she closed her eyes tightly to make a wish as she blew out the candles. People laughing and chatting – smiles that could light up the darkest of spaces, the darkest of lives. Paqui finished her song and received applause, shouts of “¡Óle!” and a hug from Mercedes.
Nothing unusual there. There were hugs and kisses all round, happy faces, and food on the table. Just a normal birthday party, yes? Yes. And no. Not entirely. Apart from the aggressive guy in the corner, there were other small differences. The cheapest potato snacks on plastic plates. A small cake from a supermarket freezer, carefully cut into 20 tiny slices. Gifts were gracefully accepted and were appreciated for their usefulness and simplicity. A second-hand t-shirt. Half a packet of cigarettes. A small bag of sweets, or a bar of soap. A home-made hair decoration. Generous gifts, when you know that nobody here has either money or a home.
In a building which is little more than a big Portakabin, the staff and volunteers of this charity-run Málaga day centre do their best to give back respect and dignity to the residents of the town hall’s emergency hostel, and to those who are sleeping in parks and in porches. More important than the workshops and classes, and more important than the shelter from the rain or the sun, is that here everyone is valued as an individual, everyone is listened to, and nobody is put in a category, side-lined, ignored, or treated disrespectfully.
Five or six come each week to my English class. We don’t get much done. As the Director said to me, the workshops are largely an excuse – an opportunity to listen to people, get to know them, look for something they might find interesting, respect their dignity, their humanity, their individuality. My group has wildly varying levels of English, so we play the numbers game with cards, going up to seven figures for those who can, stopping at two figures for others. An attempt to practise talking about “things we like to eat” succeeded for a while, with most of them chanting aloud “I like prouns” (the nearest to “prawns” that we were going to get). Moving less successfully on to “things we like in Málaga”, the conversation descended rapidly into Spanish. Three of the five women were from Madrid, and spoke with warmth about their home city. One told me about her two children, both successful professionals in Madrid, and about her grandchildren. The week before she had managed to tell me in English that she had two sons; now, in rapid Spanish, it became clear that one was a daughter. I don’t know why she is in Málaga, nor why she cannot live with any of her family. Their stories are often complex and multi-layered, and I mostly wait till information is proffered naturally as we slowly get to know each other better.
Twice in March we walked into Málaga city from the day centre. It’s a great opportunity to chat and find out more. We’re not there to fix their problems (those who have places at the city-run hostel have social workers), our most important role is just to be there, listen, chat, and keep any promises we make. On International Women’s Day we joined a hundred other women to listen to the City Councillor for Equality and to watch six short films made by women. Then last week we walked in to visit the Alcazaba, the ruined Moorish fortress palace and gardens. The excursions are important – it reminds the people that they are a part of the community, not separate from it, and it breaks a pattern that is always a risk, that they simply go from hostel to day centre and back, shrinking their world, shrinking their vistas.
Time after time I catch myself still making assumptions, still forgetting to grant to this group of people the full, rounded histories that they do in fact have. In the Alcazaba Juan-Carlos was running his fingers along the Moorish tiling, admiring the colours and the craftwork. Turns out he was an architect with a particular interest in historical architectural restoration. It surprised me. It shouldn’t have. But I learn a bit more, every Tuesday when I jump on one of the free Málaga Bicis to cycle to my shift at the day centre.
There was an English woman in the hostel, with not a word of Spanish. She felt desperately isolated in there, so was delighted to find an English volunteer. I promised her some books and magazines, and the following week took her a bagful, which she devoured and passed on to other homeless British people. Like a complete idiot, I had been surprised to find a British resident in the hostel too. She wasn’t treated well – others seemed to think she should not be there, that she should “go back home”. Words that should never be used – not to anyone.
The Foundation that runs the centre is well-run (though permanently under-resourced). They have proper procedures in place, they have volunteer policies that make my heart sing, given my background working with UK charities, often in the field of volunteer management. The small grants from central government are shared amongst the dozen or so similar day centres around Spain, and an even smaller grant from the Junta de Andalucía means there is a tiny pot of project money from which the tickets for the Alcazaba, the plates of potato snacks and the supermarket birthday cake could be bought.
Her 34th birthday. Mercedes has an enormous smile, and happily gazes round at the people who have gathered to wish her well. There’s nobody there from her family. There’s nobody there who knew her a year ago on her 33rd birthday. It’s not the party she might have dreamed of, in a homelessness day centre, raising a toast with pineapple juice in plastic cups. But we are there for her and there is warmth and love in waves from the people around her. Paqui’s song, as is traditional, had words especially written for the occasion. On top of the bar of English Galaxy chocolate I gave her, as she blew out the candles I silently gave her my fervent wish that she is not still with us for her 35th birthday.
© Tamara Essex 2016 http://www.twocampos.com