Sunday, February 21, 2010


Imagine 2,000 destitute people living on less than $2 per day, crammed into a dusty patch of scrub the size of five city blocks, in the middle of San Salvador.

A classic con man sold property rights he didn't actually have to the residents, draining them of their life savings and leaving them with nothing. They're squatters in the truest sense of the word. The government has turned a blind eye knowing there's no where else for them to go.

They've slapped together makeshift homes out of sheets of remnant plastic, vinyl, cardboard and corrugated tin. There's no running water and only the odd home with electricity but only because it's been illegally pirated from a neighbouring hydro pole. A dusty network of trails, pathways and crude roads connect these dwellers with each other and the city outside. There are no services and no support from a world that shuns this unfortunate community of survivors.

This is Somalia. It's not a place you want to be when the sun goes down. It's home to violent gangs, unspeakable living conditions, crime and poverty. But it's also home to hundreds of families, people with legitimate but low paying work and committed citizens trying to make their community even barely liveable in the absence of any viable alternative. These are the people we came to see. And with the help of their own community organization and enhanced security, we set up our clinic in the heart of Somalia on Saturday. And what a day it was.

There are no schools here so we were offered small plots of land in front of residents' shacks where we set up the Medical and Pharmacy stations. Dental was given the Community Center, which took the form of a concrete floor beneath a tin roof and no walls. Distribution was positioned inside one section of a resident's home.

Somalia, knowing we were coming, played a large role in planning the logistics and met us with a force of committed volunteers who worked tirelessly with us throughout the day. Clearly, this is not your average slum. These people have nothing, yet continue to push on trying to make the best of their lives. And, shocking though it may seem, amid these tragic conditions, the malnutrition and the hopelessness they face every day, the residents of Somalia were patient, gracious, thankful and, in fact, seemed happy.

The children of Somalia are, for the most part, ill-fed, lice-infested and dirty. But they are beautiful, smiling, fun-loving, well-behaved kids who left us marvelling at their spirit and strength. They lined up, some with their families, some alone, and patiently waited for their turn with the Medical team.

In the Medical tent, Dr. Chunny excised a cancerous basal cell growth on a woman's face and a large cyst on the forehead of another. Elizabeth removed a piece of metal from the forearm of a young man. There was some speculation that it was a bullet - but we'll never know. Lexi, one of our paramedics, diagnosed a critical staph infection in a 17 year-old boy who had spilled boiling cooking oil on his leg just a week ago. Untreated, the infection would have become systemic and life-threatening.

Over in Dental, the team saw 137 patients - remarkable - more than the last time FTC was here. Fillings, root canals, extractions and restorative work were conducted all day without a break. This team of dentists and dental assistants is simply incredible.

Distribution passed out food, Crocs, toys and clothing all day - the lines were long and the work hard. But the contributions of this key team will last far beyond today and will really make a difference in the lives of people who have so little.

The longest line was at Pharmacy. The team was beefed up with more support and, one by one, patients received the medications and vitamins prescribed. By the end of the day, over 840 people passed through the Pharmacy tent.

All in all, it was a hot, exhausting but exhilarating day. What a way to end this powerful week of FTC Medical/Dental Clinics.

We begin packing and getting ready to board the plane for home. There are no words to describe what we've seen here, nor explain how we've been affected by the people of El Salvador. Nine days ago, we met at the Toronto airport, many of us not knowing each other and nervous about the week ahead. It's hard to explain how people bond when thrown together in stressful situations. This team is amazing. We cried, laughed, marvelled, admired and, above all, worked hard to help those in need. And we did it together while growing close in ways that only an experience like this can deliver. Thanks to them and thanks to all who followed this extraordinary journey on the blog. Stay tuned - there's much more to come.

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