The Common Good
March-April 2001

Suffer the Little Children

by Bette McDevitt | March-April 2001

'When the children are well enough to go home, it is a gift to me.'

On a pleasant hillside in Oberhausen, Germany, children chat in small groups in a camp-like setting. They speak many languages, and their skin tones are across the palette, as in Disney's "It's a Small World." But this is not Disney World, this is Friedensdorf, or Peace Village, and here the children move about on crutches, canes, and wheelchairs. These 200 children, ages 6 months to 14 years, have come for medical care in hospitals in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands followed by rehabilitation at Friedensdorf. Every year 1,000 children from 15 countries including Angola, Afghanistan, Romania, Georgia, and Vietnam are cared for in this way.

Established in 1967, Friedensdorf was the creation of a Lutheran pastor, Fritz Berghaus, and the former mayor of Oberhausen, Luise Albertz. "They said [as Germans] they had to do more than pray," said staff member Wolfgang Mertens, who came to the village 20 years ago, "…and face [Germany's] responsibility for all that happened to the Jews and others during World War II."

But the village's beginnings were troubled; the first 100 children who came from Vietnam were made into German citizens. "We were hesitant to return them," Mertens said. "We didn't know if there would be a bloody revolution or not." Today, the children go home after treatment and rehabilitation.

THE NUMBER OF CHILDREN selected for treatment and rehabilitation will equal the number of available hospital beds in Europe. The children must match four criteria: adequate medical treatment is not available in their native land, successful treatment is possible in Europe, the families are financially needy, but they are able to take back the children after treatment.

There are 38 staff members, whose salaries are paid by member donations. Twenty-two conscientious objectors, paid by the government, feed and care for the youngest children. Thirty more people, who receive welfare payments, complete the staff. Mertens would like to refurbish and enlarge the village, but operating expenses are high. "We need $2 million every year for salary, food, and flights," he said.

Friedensdorf receives support from Europe, but in the United States, according to Mertens, people are unaware of the village. "When you contact the media," said Mertens, "they say ‘Oh no, not more children! We've done that before. It's too depressing.'"

Eva Diego Dos Santos, 5, whose home is in Angola, came to the village after two weeks in a hospital in eastern Germany. She has a smile that lights up her face, and a tubercular bone infection that is not healing. Skin grafts have failed, and she has lost the use of muscle and nerves in her arms. Bone infections are common complications of the children's injuries. Claudia Wichern, the physical therapist, speaks softly to Eva as she flexes the child's arms. Eva does not understand Claudia's words but responds to the sympathetic tone of her voice. Another small Angolan girl, on her way to a doctor's appointment, is whisked into the office of Hong Kappenberg for a clothing change. Hong came from Vietnam 28 years ago as a translator and is responsible for the daily care of the children. "When the children are well enough to go home, it is a gift to me," Hong said.

In an effort to realize its goal of caring for the children in their own countries, Friedensdorf participates in 11 clinics in Vietnam and in pediatric and orthopedic workshops in Afghanistan, Romania, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Tajikistan. Other clinics are planned in Angola, Georgia, and Kazakhstan.

Bette McDevitt visited Friedensdorf (www.friedensdorf.de/e_main.html) last fall. Contributions to Friedensdorf may be made through the Thomas Merton Center, 5125 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15224.

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