Who could have imagined this?

Voices from St Columban's parish, Chile, during Covid-19 - unemployment, hunger, migrants and the parish responses.

Photos: Fr Dan Harding SSC

Luisa Muñoz, parish volunteer, preparing take away salad dishes to accompany the main meal at San Columbano Parish Soup Kitchen. Photos: Fr Dan Harding SSC

During the month of May one of Santiago’s tallest skyscrapers, the Telefonica Building, became lit up, all down one side in light blue lights, with the single word – Hunger! Who could have imagined this just six months ago?

Like in many countries around the world, the number of persons in Chile contracting COVID-19, and the number of deaths resulting from it, continues to rise. With the nation already unsettled from the 2019 widespread protests seeking a more egalitarian and just society, the arrival of COVID-19 has brought widespread unemployment, an increase in the crime rate and hunger to millions.

How have our Columban parishes in Chile responded to this new developing reality? Here are some voices from St Columban’s parish in Santiago.

Columban Fr Martin Koroiciri

Not long after my priestly ordination in my home nation of Fiji, I returned around mid-2019 to Chile, where I had previously spent two years as a seminarian having a missionary experience before ordination.

There is now so much unemployment in the parish. With donations from the parishioners and support from the Columbans, and a special police pass during lockdown, we have been able to deliver nearly 100 food and clothing parcels to needy families.

The Santiago winter is very cold. It breaks my heart to see small children with not enough warm clothing because their unemployed parents cannot afford them.

One time we went to deliver food to a family in need and soon found out there were many other families in need in that building. This included a two-month-old baby with no winter clothes and other young children in need of milk.

Photos: Fr Dan Harding SSC

Masked while preparing meals at the Parish Soup Kitchen, Columban Fr Martin Koroiciri on the left and Social Worker, Luis Montoya, on the right. Photos: Fr Dan Harding SSC

We are able to get a special pass during lockdown and we go to a nearby farm to buy milk. Five of the families we are supporting are COVID-19 positive and are in lockdown in their homes. We leave the food parcels at their doors.

Javier Núñez, Coordinator of St Columban’s Parish Migrant House of Hospitality

We are most grateful to St Columban’s parish and the Columbans for setting up the Migrant House of Hospitality. There are currently eight of us living here, six Venezuelans including myself, one Haitian and one Chilean. Our ages range from 20 to 34. Only two of us have part time work, which is very precarious, and the rest of us are unemployed. During this time of COVID-19, without this house, we would be all living on the street, homeless. We rely on donations from the parish to be able to eat. We also make and sell Chilean and Venezuelan pies and pastries, which we try to deliver to homes. We get a special police pass to be able to do this. With this money, we try to cover our light, water and gas bills.

Some of us were homeless before coming to the Migrant House of Hospitality. Miguel, 22, from Venezuela, lost his job and was evicted from the room he rented. He was sleeping on a park bench when a woman approached him, spoke with him, gave him food to eat and helped make contact with our Migrant House of Hospitality. He has now settled in well.

Previously, we had a young Colombian man stay a short while. He had been sleeping on a park bench in a plaza not far from our Migrant House of Hospitality. He had been homeless and was offered work and accommodation by the owner of our local fruit and vegetable market. This man then tried to sexually assault him and beat him up when he refused. That is how he ended up sleeping in the plaza where local thugs also beat him up. He stayed with us for a while recovering his health before finding accommodation with some acquaintances.

All of us migrants including myself, from Venezuela, are traumatized by leaving our families and countries and then trying to settle into another country, to find work and accommodation. Now with COVID-19, the situation is much worse. Because of this, we try to make our Migrant House of Hospitality a real home, a place of friendship and support and an opportunity for inner healing and peace. It is a place to receive God’s grace in our lives.

Carlos Sepulveda

My wife, two-year-old baby daughter and I are refugees from Venezuela. My wife and I are accountants. We had good work, but due to the economic downturn of COVID-19, we lost our jobs. We could not pay our rent and were soon turned out onto the street.

We are so grateful to our parish, St Columban’s, which has taken us in and given us one of the meeting rooms to live in.

Marcela Oyarzun, Parish council coordinator, wife, mother of 3 daughters, Parish Soup Kitchen coordinator

There is a lot of unemployment and hunger in the parish. One hears parents saying that they try to put their children to bed as early as possible so they will not be asking for bread. Small children cannot understand why there is no bread and why they have to go to bed hungry.

Photos: Fr Dan Harding SSC

At the San Columbano Parish Soup Kitchen, parishioner and trainee mid-wife, Valentina Oyarzun, hands out a meal of beans and spaghetti to unemployed residents of the area. Photos: Fr Dan Harding SSC

Our Parish Soup kitchen was set up recently, offering up to 120 meals each day. The Health Department of the local City Council approved the Parish Soup Kitchen and regularly inspects it. We are a group of five volunteers with a special pass from the police to be able to go out, look for donations and prepare and serve the meals during lockdown. We survive on donations from the parish, from the local fruit and vegetable market and from our families, friends and neighbours. Moreover, we survive on God’s providence and bounty to keep the Parish Soup Kitchen going.

Columban Fr Daniel Harding is the parish priest of San Columbano parish, Santiago, Chile.

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