A bean-harvesting country boy, Javier Morán, once left behind a life on the farm for the dazzling lights of the big city.
The bright-eyed 23-year-old from Los Chiles, in the Northern Zone, would try his luck in La Carpio, the sprawling two-decade-old squatter shantytown tucked away on a crag in western San José.
Or rather, his luck would try him.
“We were young when we came. In those days, the city was a good time. It was something pretty,” he said.
That was six years ago.
“Now, I don’t like the city. I was wrong. It’s more complicated,” he said.
It’s been two years since he was injured in the leg by a stray bullet in this crime-ridden neighborhood, and nearly two years since his wound was infected with a flesh-eating disease in MéxicoHospital that prevented him from leaving the west San José hospital for nearly a year.
A casualty of Costa Rica’s rising tide of crime and overloaded hospitals, Morán is also a casualty of poverty in a country that is becoming increasingly urban. But despite his story of bullets, disease and struggle with necessity, he has maintained a positive attitude.
He limps around his new donated home with a smile on his face.
“It’s been difficult, but I’ve got to keep trying,” he said.
After all, he has had some luck. The stray bullet didn’t kill him, as another from the same shootout killed a 10-year-old boy nearby.
And now, he has received the blessing of an independent humanitarian aid project.
Before and immediately after the accident, Morán lived in La Carpio with his wife Jackie and their three children in a dark, dingy rented room barely big enough for one.He and his children, Sharlin, 8,Michele, 7, and Brandon, 2, slept and ate on the floor.
“It wasn’t a house, it was a closet. They lived in a closet. I was so shocked when we saw that place, it was awful,” said Gail Nystrom, director of the Humanitarian Foundation, the volunteer organization that took Morán and his family under its wing.
It was two years ago when the bus pulled up at the stop near his house on a narrow street in La Carpio. The slum sits on a crag, its makeshift houses and shanties isolated from the surrounding Central Valley.
When he got off the bus, there was a fight. Bullets flew. One stray bullet shot and killed a small boy. Another pierced Javier’s right leg just above his knee. He was shuttled off to nearby MéxicoHospital, a public hospital run by the Social Security System (Caja) in La Uruca. They cleaned his wound, but gave him no antibiotics, he said. He lay for two weeks without further attention.
His leg became infected with a flesh-eating bacteria known here as the comecarne, or “flesh eater.” He said they’re not exactly sure where it came from, perhaps a truck driver who had arrived in the hospital before him.
He spent the next year in a quarantine room with six other men. Five of them ended up having to be amputated.Morán and another man were spared.
Morán’s wife, Jackie Urbina, showed up at a clinic run by the Humanitarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has been doing community projects in La Carpio for 15 years.
“I have a lot of women who look for me when they need help,” said founder and director Gail Nystrom. Her foundation started with youth workshops but has expanded to include helping maintain a local health clinic, elementary school and nursery, as well as programs to help street children and combat child prostitution.
Urbina started helping Nystrom maintain the clinic, and in return she was given basic food baskets containing rice and beans and other staple foods that can feed a family for up to a week.
After a year in the hospital, when Morán was released, he couldn’t keep working in construction.
He couldn’t provide for his family.
“I worked all my life. So I felt like a child, someone who couldn’t do anything. The accident was hard for me, but it was harder for my family,” he said.
Nystrom’s foundation, which receives private donations from volunteers, expatriates and donors in North America and Europe, was able to get together $5,600 to buy Morán and his wife a new home in La Carpio.
“They are wonderful, loving, hard-working people who have been struggling economically, in large part due to Javier’s injury.
They needed a comfortable place of their own, and I think they have it now,” said Emma Keough, a volunteer whose family helped pay for the new home.
They were also able to get Urbina a job at a bed and breakfast in Escazú, southwest of San José, where she has learned new skills and earns a wage with which to support her family.
“These people are moving up. A big part is (Urbina’s) job training, her work, and now this house knocks them up a level. Once you have a decent house you can think about what you want to do with your life,” said Nystrom, a U.S. citizen who came to Costa Rica decades ago as a Peace Corps volunteer and stayed on.
One recent afternoon, Morán sat in his new home, which has a living room, a kitchen, three rooms and a small back yard. Pins jutted out of his right leg where he has been operated on. He still requires another surgery and is trying to scrape together the equivalent of $60 to pay off his Caja insurance dues so he can move ahead with the next operation.
A bracelet he had made of aluminum can tabs encircled his wrist. Nystrom said the foundation is getting together funds to help Morán start a small business like a jewelry store, a bakery or a pulpería.
One leg hung farther off the chair than the other. He stood up to show how one leg is 10 centimeters shorter than the other.
“Humans, we’re nothing.We have to live and support ourselves as best we can. The life we live is tough, and sometimes we don’t understand it,” he said.
His two daughters showed up from school with the uniforms he had to take a loan out to pay for. The younger, Michele, came up and wrapped her arms around him, her backpack slipping off her shoulders.
“But now I value things more,” he said.
How to Help
For more information about the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation’s efforts, or to help the Morán-Urbina family, contact Gail Nystrom at 837-5205 or see the Web site www.crhf.org