In the US, many of us see the New Year as a time for making resolutions, a time to take stock of our lives and make plans to achieve new goals. It’s a time for fresh starts. In the garbage dump communities though, those fresh starts are rare. This New Year brought more adversity to those struggling families in January as a massive fire tore through a landfill in Guatemala City, displacing families who lived at the edge of the landfill and endangering many more people.
It’s believed that the fire was started in part by fireworks found amongst the garbage. Fire fighters used more than 60,000 gallons of water to contain the blaze, stopping it from reaching a nearby cemetery. The cloud of smoke from the huge blaze, containing many toxic chemicals from the burning debris, spread for several kilometers, and there is concern among environmental experts that the pollution may cause further illness among those forced to breath the smoke.
A volunteer group from John Carroll University happened to be visiting during the blaze, and one reported that some residents of the garbage dump communities, who make their very meager living sorting through the waste, continued to do so during the blaze rather than evacuate so as not to risk losing out on any opportunity to work. Elliott Schermerhorn, a JCU student volunteer, was very moved by what he witnessed that day. When asked how the fire seemed to affect the people living in the community, he said,

Dump workers continued picking through the trash, their only means of income and sometimes food, until they were forced to evacuate.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.’ The garbage dump. A fire blazing. People scrambling up the mounds of trash. Seeing the aforementioned event leaves one speechless. Trying to convey what I saw by mere words would not only be a drastic understatement, but also an injustice to the people who live day by day on nothing but a sheer will – their will to live. …I would rather show how these individuals are the epitome of how strong the human will is.”
Indeed, as we think of our own resolutions and fresh starts, let us remember those who have so little that they’ll risk their lives for a scrap of metal to sell to feed their families, and of those families, who are starting over with literally nothing.
Sadly, even with the fire out and working conditions back to the norm for this community, it is still an incredibly dangerous area. The dump has threats such as large trucks harming adults and children alike, and the garbage itself is ridden with disease. Unfortunately, the community is often so desperate for food and resources that they are willing to risk their health to consume and use these waste products in the small shelters they call home.