Jessica Feiwus helps build a home for a Uruguayan family. Photo courtesy Jessica Feiwus
April 24, 2008
I recently returned from Montevideo, Uruguay, after spending a week traveling with Hillel students from Yale University, University of Illinois, and the University of Massachusetts. Through Hillel Uruguay, we participated in an alternative spring break trip that included an array of activities, discussions, and projects. My experience was truly rewarding and eye-opening.
The main project that we were involved with was Un Techo Para Mi Pais (A Roof for My Country). This mission’s objective is to bring impoverished families support, help, and hopefully to raise them out of their current situation, living under the poverty line. We spent two days just outside of Montevideo in a barrio where many live in small shacks, tents, or even just a few pieces of tin nailed together. There, we broke up into groups to build four new temporary homes.
My group was assigned to build a home for a couple, Pepe and Vanessa, and their three-year-old son, Eric, all whom have respiratory problems from the wind, dust, and their awful housing situation. During our two days, we bonded with the family, their neighbors, and many of the neighborhood children as we began and finished building the house.
With her tired face and gray hair, Vanessa looked years older than her actual age of 24. She seemed so stressed, but was simply yearning for a change in her life. Her husband, Pepe, a few years older than she, had a small job working for a T-shirt cleaning service. Thanks to some Spanish speakers in the group, I was able to hear more about Vanessa and her transition to living in this barrio. When her family moved in, she was constantly cleaning her son. However, she was barely able to keep him clean for more than half an hour. She didn’t want him to think it was alright to constantly run around in the dirt. She was also afraid hew would grow up as many do, roaming the neighborhood with other kids until three in the morning. She was hoping to instill her son with some solid values as he grows up.
The children throughout the neighborhood were eager for attention, fun to play with, and only wanted to help dig, hammer, and build a house for their neighbor or family. They were extremely skinny, and their clothes were pocked with holes.
Upon finishing the house, which was merely one room approximately the size of a college dorm room, we celebrated with the family and bid farewell. Un Techo Para Mi Pais will continue to work with these families to complete a three-step process. After the house goes up, the family members are taught skills that will help them find a job. The third step is to help the family progress to a more desirable home, perhaps in the city, where the houses are larger and there is running water.
We also spent a lot of time interacting with Montevideo’s Jewish community. Much of the Jewish community in Uruguay and South America, in general, comes from Europe, fleeing the same pogroms that pushed Jewish immigrants to North America. The connection to Israel is tight, and it is not unusual for many Jewish Uruguayans to spend a year in Israel after they graduate high school.
Fortunately, our week occurred during Purim, and we were able to experience the celebration there. We attended a community-wide Purim service and continued our party at the Chabad. We danced to a live band and enjoyed an Uruguayan barbecue. The next day, after a service project and learning about Jewish youth programming in Uruguay, we delivered mishloah manot to senior citizens, spoke to them, and heard the Megillat once more.
We attended Shabbat services at the local Masorti congregation, which is a large community. The Jewish community was very welcoming, as evidenced by my invitation to four Shabbat dinners. After services, we joined the Uruguay Hillel community in a festive Shabbat meal, filled with singing and more.
Overall, I had an incredible experience and I’m thankful that I’ve had this opportunity. Not only was I able to bond with a Jewish community in another part of the world, but also I was able to give a poor family some hope, some happiness, and maybe the chance for a new start in life.
Jessica Feiwus of West Caldwell is a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She last wrote about her return trip to Poland in December.
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