Uruguay Visit Puts Faces to Numbers

People can hear about the economic crisis that has affected South America in the news. People can read about poverty in newspapers, but 22 Jewish and non-Jewish USC students, along with Rabbi Jonathan Klein, USC Hillel director, spent eight days during an alternative spring break trip to Uruguay experiencing firsthand these lives in times of crisis.

We spent our first day at the Jewish Home for the Elderly, where we met Ashkenazi Jews who had immigrated to Uruguay during World War II. Our volunteer work consisted of planting a vegetable garden and painting walls for a project called Kaleidoscope: Colors of Our Grandparents.

Then we volunteered at the neighborhood of El Tobogán in the community of El Cerro, which we later learned had an 80 percent unemployment rate.

Children at El Tobogán had no underwear, and were running shirtless and barefoot amid the spiders and red ants. But the children were no different from other children around the world. They were energetic, happy and innocent.

Community members helped us dig a 5-foot hole for a bathroom, mix the cement for a kitchen and twist wires for floor bases.

The high level of poverty can be traced back to when Uruguay went through the crisis of foot-and-mouth disease in 1998, which did not help the beef export to the United States and Europe. Uruguay’s neighbor, Argentina, one of the top buyers of Uruguayan beef, could not buy anymore after the crisis, said Fernando Filgueira, sociology professor from the Universidad Católica del Uruguay.

He said that the paradox was that while the GDP and social expenditure were growing, poverty was increasing due to lack of employment. Inequality increased. Moreover, the poverty concentrated on children.

For a country that boasts of a 97 percent literacy rate, these statistics are paradoxical.

But then, infant mortality rate is about 14 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to the CIA World Factbook (2002).

Our visit to the Kehila Jewish Community Center was even more discouraging. The Jewish community, which has been middle class, is no longer considered middle class but the “new poor.”

The new poor have homes and cars, but there’s nothing inside their refrigerators, said Becky Stolovich, social worker at Kehila.

“You can’t sell or eat a car,” she said.

The new-poor families experience depression, which leads to family conflicts, divorce and troubled children.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Stolovich said.

Every day we studied the texts of tzedakah, which provided context to our work of social justice.

The Uruguayan Jewish community is small and people know each other, so they feel ashamed to ask for assistance, said Silvana Pedrowicz, director Tzedek Hillel in Montevideo.

Uruguay is suffering from the economic crisis of its neighbor Argentina. About 20 percent of the population has employment problems, according to Hillel Uruguay. There has been closure of industries and businesses of Jewish owners.

Five times more Uruguayan Jews made aliyah in 2002 than in 2001. About 8 percent emigrated because of the economic situation. Half of the émigrés went to Israel.

About 40 percent of Uruguayan Jewish homes under the poverty line in 2001 were receiving food, clothing, medicine and social assistance from local Jewish communities.

Childhood poverty is such a large national issue that the Research Program on Social Integration, Poverty and Exclusion of the department of social sciences and communication was created by the Catholic University to advocate for children’s welfare.

The program was motivated by the finding that infant poverty has reached 48 percent in children between 5 years old and under, and 42 percent among those 6 to 13.

One in every three Jews in Montevideo is living in economic vulnerability, poverty or indigence. One in every two Jewish children is living in poverty.

So after I returned from my alternative spring break trip, read the statistics and heard about them in the news, I can see they are not just numbers — they have faces — and I have seen them.

For information on Tzedek programs in Uruguay, contact
tzedek@hillel.org.uy .

Seung Hwa Hong is a student at USC majoring in print journalism and comparative literature. She can be reached at isabelhong@hotmail.com.