The Malta Independent 15 June 2021, Tuesday

‘Ziemel, ziemel’

Andrew Azzopardi Wednesday, 5 May 2021, 07:37 Last update: about 2 months ago

This is the bitter story of a sweet mischievous boy I fell in love with. 

I haven’t ever spoken openly about this chapter in my life, a sad one for that matter.

This is the account of a little boy who used to live at Dar tal-Providenza when the standard of care and quality of life were incomparable to what is happening today. Since then, this Home, albeit an institution through and through, has made a concerted effort to improve its operations; programs, hygiene, staff training, management structures, diets, CPD, SOPs, slowly drifting away from the charity model and so on and so forth.

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Mind you, I still believe people should be living in the community, choosing who to live with. Having said that I also understand that there are people who, due to life circumstances, unfortunately, might need the full-on care in this hospital-cum-residence format.  Nonetheless, I don’t believe too many should be taking that option and we really need to invest in deinstitutionalization.  But we will leave this debate for another day.

Let me give you a context.  Allow me to take you back in time and my first encounter with this little boy.

I started getting involved in the Home from a young age. At the time Mons. Azzopardi, the founding Director of this project, had a vision that established a modern unprecedented concept.

I remember him clearly, a visionary and a social operator we haven’t seen too many of in this Country. The Dar was a place that embraced diversity and sought to give dignity. Naturally the standards of care were nowhere near close to what we expect today, but for that period of time they were indeed a breath of fresh air. Id-Dar was doing sterling work. Disabled people were literally emerging from crypts. I recall an experience - which is stamped in my mind – of when we needed to work for about 3 months, day-in-day-out, to pacify a person who was living in a cellar after his mother died and his sibling did not know how to manage his behavior. 

I remember that awful scene the first time I saw him, being tied to the bed from his ankle with a bandage like a dog – oh and the smell – that was horrendous, a mix of secretion and humidity.  Hardly any air except that coming from the entrance to the cellar – it was asphyxiating.  It was dreadful.  But the greatness of Mons. Azzopardi was that he would embrace these people and ooze so much love, because you know it all starts and ends with love. He took him on and this young man grew and flourished and rediscovered joyfulness. 

After Mons Azzopardi passed, another Director was assigned to the Home and what a jumble he did, a Monsignor who was a diplomat by profession but nonetheless anything but venerable, had in a twinkling turned Dar tal-Providenza into an uncannily domicile, secretive, cagey and reticent institution.  It was an unhappy place. 

But let me take you back in time and tell you the story of this beautiful boy and how this Mons. carries the answerability of wasting this boy’s life.

It was some 30 odd years ago when Sue, at the time my girlfriend, and myself used to go to ‘work’ in this Home.  It’s here that we met this little boy. Actually, it was through a really smart government scheme at the time that gave us the opportunity to start ‘working’ within the student-worker scheme, a smart way to kindle the passion for social issues. This scheme gave us the option to apply for ‘community work’ instead of wasting our time idly doing nothing in one of the government offices we used to be assigned at.

  

We were allocated to the ‘therapy unit’.  We had so much fun when we worked and played with the residents.  It was a haven of experiences.  We had some fantastic colleagues there who taught us the art of working with disabled people.  They were good people who wanted to give it the very best notwithstanding.  I immediately sensed that this is the direction I wanted to take in my career and profession.  It as a sector that I was so passionate about, but yet inexperienced. 

The closer I got to the Institution, as always happens, there were things that started to irk me especially when I used to go into the ‘wards’. I started noticing that things were not right. I tried to keep my focus on doing my job and doing it well, but there were instances that notwithstanding my lack of experience, did not feel right. They were happening right under the nose of the management, the care staff and the nuns; force feeding, lack of hygiene (I remember a nun serving food after brushing off dozens of cockroaches from the ross fil-forn, residents that due to their aggressive behavior were restrained by being tied to the wall or else had a make-shift restraint jacket (done with a sheet), people were forced to wear nappies (even though they didn’t need to), medication was the most ‘popular’ therapy and I also witnessed some heavy-handedness – there was a sense of impunity.

I am so angry with myself as I didn’t know what to do with all of this. When I pointed things out to the care workers and nuns they would tell me that they were understaffed and because the residents were aggressive they had to react in that way. Puerile excuse. 

To be quite honest, I soon realized I couldn’t change the world and so focused on doing my bit and contribute towards giving some dignity and decency to the little boy we started to befriend.  Sue found a way to communicate with this child who had a mischievous but infectious smile.  He was dead crazy on her, chanting her name as soon as he had a glimpse of her.  As time passed by we started deepening our relationship with this lovely soul and established what used to be called a ‘social contact’.  This allowed us to continue strengthening our relationship with him.  We used to take him out regularly and we enjoyed every minute of it.  As I was telling you, this little boy won us over.  We literally fell in love with this lovely creature, a cliché maybe but indeed a ‘bundle of joy’. 

Oh my God I still see him so clearly in my mind. 

The way he stooped his head to one side, looked at us from the side of his almond shaped eyes.  When he saw us, he would clap his hands in a gracious way to express his elation that we were there. He would come running to us the moment he saw us and hug us as if there was no tomorrow.  The joy in his face whenever he saw us was unbelievable. His little pinches that were nothing more than an expression of his love topped it all.  And yes, notwithstanding he was speech impaired, he tried to talk. He wanted to connect. We opened our hearts to him and fell in love. 

At one point Sue and I were even considering adopting him.

It was through our regular visits that we started realizing that this boy was not being treated well by the staff.  True he was indeed naughty, like any other child, but so enchanting. He would be smacked, forced to wear a nappy, which he didn’t need. We also started noticing scars and scratches. He would be forced to sit on the floor and we also got the wind of other ways he was being treated badly by the care staff.  We also got information through other residents. They would tell us that ‘our boy’ would be tied to the chair for hours on end. Instead of a program based on love and affection he was being treated belligerently. One day I witnessed with my own eyes a care worker slapping him and as she did she cut his slips and there was blood everywhere. 

I froze.    

Our reaction to all of this was to take him out more often to try and flood him with love and make up for the mess he was living in. With us, his behavior improved a lot, but the abusive behavior continued. 

I could not stand this anymore and I made an appointment with the Director of the Home, this ostentatious and pompous Monsignor.  I passed on a whole list of entries on a diary with what went wrong, what we noticed and what we were being told. He stood looking at me like a statue, expressionless, straight-faced and unresponsive as I mentioned one incident after another.  When I said all I had to say, his reaction was to point his finger to the gate (we were in an office close to the main gate) and in not so many ways told me; ‘You are a persona non grata.  This place is mine and I will decide who comes in and who doesn’t’ 

He told me to never return there again. The pain was excruciating. My jaw dropped. I couldn’t cry and walked out as if I was the guilty party. I left.

I went to look for his natural mother and when I finally found her after going around a number of streets in the town where she lived, she told me that if we went to visit him again or try to take him out they wouldn’t keep the boy at the Dar and she was not in a position to take him back home. She forbid me to let us go and see him anymore. This same ‘parent’ who had abandoned her son was happy that he gets smacked around it seems. Unbelievable.

I haven’t seen him since. I am sorry that we had to leave without even saying goodbye to this lovely soul.

We cried our hearts out but couldn’t get him back. 

We never forgot him and we found a way of taking him around wherever we went in our life journey. I can’t take away the sound of that sweet and loveable way he reacted when he saw horses; ‘żiemel, żiemel’, he would call out and point and laugh.

‘Little boy. You have unjustly suffered.  Life was not fair with you.

Thankfully, since then, the staff and their practices have improved immeasurably. That idiot of a Director has disappeared into oblivion and now the Dar is much safer and the quality of services enriched. Fr Martin and his team are doing great work and we owe them support not because we pity the residents, but because we are a community and community supports those who were dealt a bad hand. 

What Fr Martin has managed to do in these last years since his headship was to steer the ship in the right direction, re-establish the connection with the ethos of Mons. Azzopardi and morph it into a modern notion of care and support after it was interrupted by that fatuous pseudo-grandee.  Let’s face it, this Home hosted people who had been rejected lock, stock, and barrel by their communities or else have lived in circumstances that were unbearable for the family. I will not be the one to judge. Now a days, Dar tal-Providenza has grown respectfully. I wish them well.

 

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