As part of the Street Child World Cup local advisory group in Rio de Janeiro and as Director of the Pavement Project, Clenir Dos Santos has worked with children at risk of the streets for many years. In 1991 Clenir made a comment to a street child that would change both of their lives forever.
The street child was Fabio Xavier Dos Santos, now 31, Fabio recalls: “Clenir might not remember but when I was around the age of 10 she said; “Now I’m going to talk to you like you are my son.” At that point I knew one day I was going to be Clenir’s son”
As Clenir listens to her son, she jokes: “Now I never say to a street child that I will talk to them like my child, otherwise my house will be full!”
Fabio is now 31, has a successful job and a family that mean everything to him:
“I never received love & care and this feeling of warmth is what shows you another way of living – it’s the possibility of having a family and being loved and when I witnessed this I decided I don’t want the streets anymore, I don’t want drugs.”
This desire to escape loneliness and danger in pursuit of a secure family is met with a unique insight from Clenir:
“All of us want to hear about ‘our story’, where have I come from, who are my relatives, what was I like when I was younger? Street children often have no one who can tell them their own story because they were abandoned. Fabio didn’t have the correct story about his life, he got very mixed up and it raised a question; who will tell him his story? Someone has to tell a child his or her story in life and no one was telling Fabio his story. It was then I realised that I knew him best and then I knew Fabio would be my son.”
Fabio’s story, like many street children is one of tragedy and abandonment. As a baby, Fabio was discovered in a rubbish bin by a woman in his community (favela) who then took him home and with her husband unofficially adopted Fabio. At age 2 Fabio’s new parents were both executed in a gang-related attack, his Father in the main square of the favela and then his Mother at her house. The couples’ daughter and her husband then took responsibility for Fabio. Unfortunately for Fabio the husband was an alcoholic and would then proceed to beat Fabio and Fabio’s sister would yell at him for causing the beating. At 4 years old he ran away to the streets with a group of local children who he felt treated him better than he was treated at home.
“We began selling sweets from one train station to another. The food and clothes I had on the streets were much better than what I had at home and I was free. I was very young and I had no notion of danger because I was very small, the group would look after me, something I didn’t receive at home”
One of the girls from Fabio’s group would frequently travel to downtown Rio de Janeiro to sell items with her Mother and she would askFabio to join them. Finally one day Fabio accepted and he never returned to his neighbourhood.
“We would sleep inside the metro area or below the shop fronts or in the common squares. At first this was an adventure and life felt easier on the street but as we joined a bigger group, I started to learn very bad things and this was when life became very dangerous.”
Gradually the perceived ‘freedom’ of street life was replaced with very real fear:
“On the streets I felt free. But this freedom and adventure was only when I was very little and then it became clear how dangerous the streets were and how vulnerable we were.”
Even at such a young age Fabio was quick to learn the ways of the street:
“I learned the cruelty of those who live on the streets. You have to be cruel to survive. It was a world of drugs, stealing and prostitution. I learned quickly how to steal. Because I went to the streets so young I didn’t even know you could go to jail or be arrested – I just thought that crime was normal.”
However, soon Fabio started to receive beatings from the Police and when a group of 5 of the street children were arrested one day, a realisation dawned on Fabio:
“They took all the children back to their ‘family’ houses but there was no house for me as I had no family whatsoever, so they took me back to a prison and I realised that I truly had no one.”
The path into crime soon escalated for Fabio and he became a trafficker for Rio’s notorious drugs gangs:
“I was 9 years old, I was addicted to drugs and I was carrying guns. Some days I would break glass and put it to people’s necks to rob them. I had never killed anyone but by this time I was the leader of the group and I was constantly fighting”
Through his tough exterior, Fabio was acutely aware of the danger he and the other children faced in their juvenile life of drugs and crime. They would board buses in order to rob passengers, a crime that led to Fabio witness his good friend shot dead, Fabio recalls how easily he could have died. On another occasion, the bus they chose to rob was populated by members of the local community (favela) and when the drug bosses from the hill heard news of the robbery, the children were rounded up.
“We were ordered up the hill but on the way up a woman from the favela who knew me took me from the group. The remainder of the children were each shot through one hand”
For street children like Fabio life was precarious and Fabio believes the fact that he survived was down to luck and his belief in God. Indeed it was Clenir dos Santos who through her local church would help Fabio and his group of street children. Clenir remembers meeting Fabio in 1991 when he was 10:
“He was very short but incredibly tough and even at this age he was the leader of the gang. All the other street children referred to Fabioas “Dad” as he would protect them. In order to get the other children into our project, we knew first we must get Fabio. Once he came, a group of 30 other children followed.”
Fabio committed to fight his addiction to drugs and he would confiscate drugs from the other children and pass them to Clenir to dispose of. Soon after he asked Clenir for a small loan for an ice cream box as he wanted to start a business, within one week he informed Clenir that he would have to let 2 of his staff (other street children) go as they weren’t concentrating and the ice cream was melting. Fabio’s potential as an entrepreneur and as a leader was shining through. This marked the beginning of Fabio’s journey to leave street life behind and to become part of a family.
This journey saw Fabio adopted by Clenir dos Santos at 17 and as an adult his determination for a better life continued. Fabio became a successful Chef and has worked in a variety of restaurants throughout Rio de Janeiro. He now trains junior chefs at Habib restaurants throughout Brazil. Yet he is quick to recall where he has come from:
“Street life is something no one should have to face and I overcame it. I’m grateful I have come through it the majority of my group are dead. I saw one girl from the group recently, she and I are the only survivors.”
As Brazil looks forward to a brighter future Fabio is keen to remind the authorities of the plight of street children:
“Don’t give up on street children. They are children and all children require care and love. You can help children see beyond the horizons that they currently see. You can help give them security, every child wants to be safe – that was my dream as a child.”
As Fabio’s children arrive to pick Dad up, Fabio asks to send one message to all the children of the Street Child World Cup:
“On the streets, bad things come easily and good things come only with determination. Evil surrounds you and it is hard to escape but it can be done. Identify the good people who can help you and never give up.”