Willie. I will tell you about Willie. He is about 4 years old, short with thick, dark hair, cut close. He has sparkling eyes, a brilliant smile and an incredible ability to mimic English words. Say "watch" and he says "watch." Say "thank you" and he says "thank you," but mostly what he says is "poppa," which is what he said over and over again as he hugged me around the legs. Willie is a war orphan.
I met Willie when a crew from ABC television and I came here to do the requisite story about war orphans. It is an old story, as old as war itself, but war orphans really are El Salvador's bumper crop. Some of them are sold, some of them just die, many roam the streets begging from people as poor as they are and some, the lucky ones, manage to get here--here being an orphanage run by Kenneth Myers, a priest from Cleveland who forages in refugee centers for kids no one wants. He wants them.
Willie is one of these. He burst upon me when we entered the cottage where he lives with 13 other children. He lunged at me, grabbing me around the legs, saying "poppa, poppa" over and over again. He was dressed in oversized orange shorts, a white T-shirt and sandals made of aquamarine plastic. I picked him up and swung him over my head and instantly about four or five other kids barreled into me, swinging from my legs like drunks from a lamppost, all of them calling me "poppa."
Willie attached himself to me. When I walked outside into the sun, Willie followed. "Poppa, poppa," he said.
"No," I said, more to myself than to him. "Unfortunately, I am not your poppa." Willie smiled. "Unfortunately," he mimicked. "Unfortunately."
I knelt down to talk to him and instantly he was in my arms, hugging me. You cannot imagine, after dealing with nothing but death and war, how good it feels to hold a child, to hug and be hugged. And so the two of us held onto each other until other kids came and they joined in. There was a girl in a yellow dress and a chunky boy and maybe one or two others. It is tough to take notes when you are being hugged by lots of little kids. It is tougher still to say who needed the hugging more--me or them.
One of the kids, an older girl named Maria who watches the younger children, was asked how she was orphaned. She said the soldiers came, ordered her out of the house and took her parents away. She never saw them again. She was asked also what she thought of the war. Her response was to turn away and look into the mountain.
This is a depressing place. In the cities, the poor live in ravines, their one-room homes made of corrugated steel, the roofs held down by bricks and rocks. In the countryside, the homes are sometimes made of branches and twigs woven together. The better ones are of adobe and brick, with tile roofs, but no running water and often no electricity.
It is hard to be optimistic. There are so many poor people, so little wealth, so much violence, and a foreigner, especially the newcomer, walks on the surface of it, confused by everything, scared by much of it, asking questions to get one answer one time and a different answer the next time.
A country like ours sends down experts in everything, but the truth of the matter is that in more than a decade we have not been able to rebuild Newark or Detroit and now we have come here where the problem is so much greater to tell the Salvadorans how it should be done.
This is why I like Willie and, by extension, this orphanage run by Father Myer. Here the job is simple: keep 145 children alive. Here the goals are neat and uncomplicated by politics.
Willie looked into my sunglasses. He saw his reflection and studied it as if it were someone else. He touched the glass tentatively and then harder and then so hard that I feared he would damage it. "Stop," I said.
"Stop," he said with a laugh, and then he ambled off to play with some other kids and I never saw him again. Willie. Let me tell you about Willie. So far, he is the only thing here I really understand.