Immigrants run ‘positive space’ for local kids

(This article and its content were first published in the Buenos Aires Herald—print edition— October 20, 2015).

By Orlando Jenkinson—Herald Staff

Non-profit organization offers weekly activities for disadvantaged youth in southern BA

A group of children from the Barracas and Constitución neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires City are finding a safe space for fun weekly activities thanks to a non-profit volunteer organization that is largely run by a group of expats.
“It’s about creating a positive space for the kids that they might not always get at home. So the hope is that if they have a skateboard or guitar or whatever in their hands, they can spend their time on that and not on the street,” Unión de los Pibes founder and director Will Aquino told the Herald

Aquino, who grew up in the US state of Georgia and has been living in Buenos Aires for more than seven years, helped Union de los Pibes grow from the ashes of a former organization based in nearby La Boca — Club Acorn — that shut its doors in 2010.

“I got together with other volunteers from Club Acorn to see what we could do,” he said.

The group now meets every Saturday afternoon and hosts a variety of activities in addition to monthly field trips that are paid for through fundraising events, often held at bars popular with foreigners who have made Buenos Aires their temporary or permanent home.

The space where the group often meets — a small patch of grass and concrete football and basketball courts underneath an overpass — may be modest, but the kids don’t seem to mind.

“My sister comes here every Saturday and I started coming too — it’s fun!” Lautaro, 10, beamed as he took a breather from a game of Frisbee. “I don’t like playing soccer much, but there’s lots of other things to do,” he added, pointing to the tranquil arts and crafts session taking place at the time where kids made colourful animals from recycled cardboard. In another corner, kids were playing chess and others a game of Twister.

Lautaro, though, was clearly in the minority as soccer is one of the most popular activities on offer.

“The soccer!” yells Marcos from Barracas when he’s asked for his favourite part of the weekly meetups.

Beyond the weekly activities, the children who take part in the group also spoke highly of the special activities that take place around once a month and can involve anything from a day trip to Tigre to skateboarding classes.

Team effort

The group is run exclusively by weekly volunteers, including many expats like Peter Fitzsimmons, a 30-year-old risk assessor from Ireland currently teaching English in Buenos Aires alongside his wife Emily, who were eager to volunteer but were often put off by organizations that required them to pay in order to help.

“We wanted to take a hiatus and help out. We were looking for something genuine, rather than a company that asks you for a load of money to simply go for a few days and take pictures with kids,” he said.

While most of the volunteers are expats, there are a few locals in the mix.

“I’m a local guy, from just near here in fact,” Nico told the Herald, pointing to the surrounding tower blocks near the park. “I knew how it can be with kids being in the street and surrounded by crime and I think the group is helping to change that a little.”

For Aquino, the next big challenge is to, as he says, find “a place to call home.”

“We have around thirty kids and I think that, with a club house or location of our own, we’d easily double that,” he explained.

In a bid to boost fundraising efforts, the group held a self-described festival in late July that included bands, food stands, other non-profit organisations and activities in Palermo.

Renting out the space cost the group almost all of the funds they had stored away, but Aquino says it proved to be a successful gamble not only to raise much-needed cash but also get the word out about their organization. The next Union de los Pibes festival is scheduled for November 8.




The impossible quest for overseas post

(This article and its content were first published in the Buenos Aires Herald—print edition— October 19, 2015). 
By Orlando Jenkinson
Herald Staff


Foreigners find it almost impossible to order books, deal with bureaucracy at central Post Office

Foreigners living in Buenos Aires eager for items from their home countries are increasingly turning away from the postal service, as a complex and time-consuming collection process often translates into hours of navigating a difficult bureaucratic system filled with complicated and sometimes contradictory rules and regulations.

Norman Clarke, a 42-year-old software developer living in the neighbourhood of Belgrano has given up on printed books as a result of all the hassle.

“I used to order books online all the time, but after several experiences of going to Retiro and waiting for hours to pick them up, I gave up and bought a tablet,” Clarke told the Herald.

And books should, at least in theory, be one of the least complicated items to receive from abroad because they are not subject to special duties.

Some immigrants have become so frustrated by their experiences at the central Post Office’s international package depot in the Retiro neighbourhood that they have learned to rely on friends — and sometimes friends of friends — to bring them things from their homelands.

“I basically stopped ordering anything on the Internet from abroad and instead bring things back from the US with me when I travel, or ask friends to bring things back for me,” Clarke added.

The lack of clarity in which packages will be sent to a recipient’s home and which will be kept in Retiro is one of the main obstacles. The criteria often seems random.

Some who have braved the office in Retiro quickly vowed never to try to navigate the complicated system again.

“There were multiple lines you have to get into. One to check your paper saying that you have a package waiting, then one to pay, then one to show your ID, then one to wait until they call your package number,” explained Meagan Edwards, a 33-year-old Candian from Alberta currently working in Buenos Aires as a teacher trainer.

“The second time it was the same process but took almost 5 hours. After our third time, we told our families to just stop sending things. It wasn’t worth the hassle,” she added.


For the time being at least, any changes in the system seem unlikely.

The AFIP tax bureau, which is in charge of some of the postal service’s management, insists there is no issue with how international packages are handled and delivered.

“There are no problems,” AFIP spokeswoman Adriana Pintabona said, adding that any issues encountered when receiving packages could be solved through the normal procedures as outlined by the Post Office guidelines.

“If you don’t receive your package then you’ll get a note. Then you have to take it and the AFIP form to the central office at Retiro and collect the package. There may be some waiting in line but you will receive it eventually,” she said.

Some immigrants echoed that sentiment, noting that there may be long waits and multiple rounds of paperwork but they were ultimately able to receive their packages.

“I’ve sent many packages to Argentina from the States for many years and have yet to lose one. I think you just have to look out for the messages of arrival and then bite the bullet and go to customs,” said Lilian Neal, a retiree from the United States.

For others, however, the red tape can become insurmountable.

“I’ve had horrible luck with getting any packages,” self-employed Buenos Aires City expat Kristance Harlow, said. “They end up in customs for months and then just get shipped back to the sender.”



Bike tour industry sees a boom in BA City

(This article and its content were first published in the Buenos Aires Herald—print edition— October 13, 2015). 
By Orlando Jenkinson
Herald Staff

As tourist bus faces deep crisis, biking sees ‘amazing growth’ fuelled by new start ups

Tourists in Buenos Aires are turning away from traditional organised excursions as a blossoming bicycle tour industry continues to grow from strength to strength.

The Herald reported earlier this year that the primary bus tour company in the City, Buenos Aires Bus, is facing a crisis of falling customer numbers (down 15 percent in the first five months of 2015), in tandem with the latest INDEC statistics on tourism which show that fewer people are coming to Argentina (foreign visitors dropped 4.3 percent in July) — with those who do spending increasingly less.

Amid the gloom, however, an embryonic bike tourism industry is enjoying an expansion, spawning multiple start-up businesses in recent years, which are tapping into the new corner of the market.

“It’s been an amazing growth from our the original idea: to go and ride bikes with our friends. It really started like that, as a hobby for us, and now we’re taking out hundres of customers every month,” William Whittle, the co-founder of Biking Buenos Aires, told the Herald.

Company data given by the firm showed consistent increases each month from the previous year’s total number of customers, reflecting a rise in fortunes at odds with the falling number of foreign tourists arriving.

Overall, the company attracted 3,092 customers in tours in 2014 (up by over 200 from the previous year) and was already well on course to better that total again this year with over 2,350 people having chosen to book one of many guided tours or rent a bike with Biking Buenos Aires.

The same growth in customers, with an improvement year on year, was also reflected in monthly totals, and can be said for other bike tour companies that have emerged across the City recently. BA Bikes, for example, based in Monserrat, witnessed strikingly similar patterns of growth and rising customer numbers since it was founded five years ago.

“At the start, we had just ten bicycles crammed into a tiny garage like you wouldn’t believe. Now we have 150 bikes, stores here in Monserrat and Palermo and plans for a third in Recoleta,” Director Diego Salamone said.

Offering a suggestion as to what could be behind the cause of such a dramatic growth bike tours, Salamone said that customer’s often cited a more intimate way to experience the sights of Buenos Aires on choosing to explore the City in this way.

“One of the things that customers have responded to biking around the City is that it’s a much stronger, more direct connection. You’re always active and engaging with your surroundings much more than you would be on a bus for example,” he said.

The multiple fledgling businesses tapping into this growth in popularity of bicycle tourism are attempting to cover all areas of the market even as it expands. Alongside putting on multiple separate tours which focus on different zones or aspects like culinary or historical points of interest in the City, most bike tour companies also offer the option to rent out bikes for those that prefer to go their own way.

And among the market, a range of tastes and budgets are catered for. BA Bikes for example, courts most of their customers through the more basic northern or southern-specific tours priced at 350 pesos apiece.

Meanwhile Biking Buenos Aires and Urban Biking both provide all-inclusive tours, with their most popular full-day Citywide tours including drinks, lunch and over ten different sightseeing stops, for between US$90 and US$120 each.

Bicycle-friendly BA

The rise of companies like Biking Buenos Aires or BA Bikes, which itself has two stores in Monserrat and Palermo, has coincided with the City itself becoming more bicycle friendly.

Earlier this year, the Copenhagen Index 2015, an annual survey of urban biking infrastructure development around the globe, ranked Buenos Aires the 14th most friendly city in the world for bicycle users and top in Latin America (it was the highest-placed non-European city), citing the introduction of bike lanes across various neighbourhoods and the creation of the Biking public rental scheme.

“In a shockingly short amount of time, Buenos Aires has succeeded in modernizing itself to include bicycles as transport. In the past three years, over 140 km of bicycle infrastructure has been implemented — much of it protected — along with a bike share programme,” the report said.

Both the infrastructure of the bike lanes and Biking share scheme were introduced by the City government from 2011 onwards, and have proved popular with porteños. Now the bike lanes in particular are helping visitors to the City enjoy cycling too.

“The introduction of the bike lanes across the City has helped us a lot, really helped us grow and structure our tours better,” Salamone told me, adding that he was optimistic that the meteoric growth in the bike tourism industry witnessed in Buenos Aires City showed no signs of abating.

“It’s going to explode this summer. Our business ebbs and flows with the seasons, but we’ve noticed for the first time that many porteños and tourists have been choosing bicycles as a way of getting around the City throughout this winter, for the first time since we began. It’s a great sign for us,” he said.




Leprosy is still a scourge in Argentina

By Orlando Jenkinson
Herald Staff
(This article and its content were first published in the Buenos Aires Herald—print edition— October 2, 2015)

Hundreds of cases diagnosed anually despite major medical advances

Despite its virtual eradication from some developed corners of the world and association with ancient and pre-industrial societies, leprosy remains a significant health problem in Argentina, with hundreds of new cases reported every year.

Senior dermatologist at Buenos Aires City’s Ramos Mejía and leprosy expert Dr Jorge Tiscornia said that though the progress made against the disease had been remarkable during the second half of the twentieth century, the myths and dangers posed by the disease continued to be a serious problem in the country and across Latin America.

Tiscornia spoke to the Herald at the start of the National Campaign for Education and Prevention of Leprosy that runs in the first week of October.

“This was a disease that touched all corners of the globe historically, and in the past those suffering from leprosy were needlessly put away in colonies. It’s been a huge leap forward in last 70 years,” he said, adding that despite such progress, the problem remained.

“One problem with leprosy is that it’s a disease that can be hard to recognise straight away. There have been approximately 300 cases in Argentina since the new year. We are also treating patients from Paraguay that itself has a serious leprosy problem,” he added.

Part of the difficulty in seeking to curtail and eventually eradicate leprosy — as the World Health Organization (WHO) had hoped to achieve by the year 2000 — is the nature of its early development.

Early symptoms include faint blemishes on the skin and a numbness, rather than pain, in the affected areas. Consequently, many people suffering in the early stages of the disease when it is most treatable miss or dismiss the symptoms as unimportant.

“A common symptom is losing sensation in the skin on your hands, arms or elsewhere, and often people do not think much of it and may have contracted the disease without realizing,” Tiscornia said.

Further, according to the WHO leprosy disproportionately affects communities blighted by poverty with limited access to basic health necessities like sanitation or regular check-ups.

“Under-served and marginalized communities (are) most at risk from leprosy, often the poorest of the poor,” the WHO said.

This is true globally, where the three heavily populated countries with the most leprosy cases — India, Indonesia and Brazil — are all affected by endemic and widespread poverty.

It is also reflected in Argentina, where according to the Argentine Dermatology Society (SAD), the highest occurrence of new leprosy cases were in the Northern provinces of Formosa and Chaco, two of the poorest regions in the country.

Stigma and discrimination

One of the biggest obstacles in tackling the disease concerns the widespread misinformation about the causes, risks and of leprosy. Contrary to popular myths surrounding the disease, influenced by its historically taboo reputation, it is in fact extremely difficult to contract leprosy via contagion.

According to the SAD, in the majority of cases over three years of regular close contact with the disease is necessary before one is at risk of contracting it directly from someone already suffering, and the antibiotic drugs used to combat the disease today can cure anyone who contracts it within a year. However, popular misconceptions and discrimination remain.

“There’s a lot of damaging stigma and prejudice surrounding the disease,” Tiscornia told the Herald. “People still believe falsely that it’s incredibly contagious and shun it. And those suffering from leprosy are affected badly by the stigma.”

The aim of the awareness week it has run for 16 years is to challenge the stigma and make sure people do not ignore the early symptoms.




Immigrants meet Freud in BA

By Orlando Jenkinson
Herald Staff
(This article and its content were first published in the Buenos Aires Herald (print edition), August 17, 2015). 
Buenos Aires has long been considered a hub of psychoanalysis, but one institution has set itself apart in recent years by offering a unique twist on the discipline in catering specifically to the City’s myriad immigrant communities.
“We try to create an intercultural experience. That’s the focus. So we have large group meetings and explore all the phenomena of intercultural relations,” says Dr Grace Bar Jones, the psychoanalyst director of Babel Psi, the institution to which she has dedicated over a decade of her life to and set on an orbit around the theme of multiculturalism, which dominates the narrative of the school for attendees and staff alike.

Founded in 2004 by Bar Jones, Babel Psi evolved from a previous organization, Babel Centre, which had practiced a similarly tailored form of psychiatry since 1990.

Multiculturalism is a theme Bar Jones considered highly relevant to the experience of everyone living in Buenos Aires, though the school focuses on foreign students, a unique niche in the widespread culture of psychoanalysis here.

“It can be very difficult living in a different country, because you are out of your familiar surroundings where naturally most people feel comfortable. The City can be tough too. It is an atmosphere with different practices, cultures, language. These things can foster a lot of stress,” she told the Herald.

Natural home

Buenos Aires is in many ways the perfect location for a psychoanalysis practice focusing on these issues, not least because the culture of psychology is so extensive here. The most recent World Health Organization (WHO) study found there were at least 202 practicing psychologists for every 100,000 Argentines, more than any other country, and the overwhelming majority work in Buenos Aires.

The City’s large immigrant population also makes multiculturalism a prevalent issue. Many of these are foreign students, like Alice Jothy from France, who chose to take time to study with Babel Psi, having formally attended the group therapy sessions that happen every Monday evening (8.15pm) and involve around 20 “participants” (Bar Jones rejects the term “client”).

“At the meeting we sat together and we started talking. It was very much like a conversation between friends, we heard everyone with respect and did not speak more than one person at a time — you had to raise your hand to ask for the floor and Doctors Graciela Bar Jones and Alberto Jones were responsible for moderating the discussion.”

Alice was typical for a Babel student in that she had a prior connection to the place before choosing to study.

Altogether different

By seeking a unique approach to the traditional service and study of psychoanalysis in Buenos Aires, Babel Psi deliberately set itself apart from the crowd, as Bar Jones readily admits.

“The psycho-analytical school in Buenos Aires is one of the most important in the world. However, the official school and academia can often be separate from everyday experience. It’s not genuine. Our approach strives for an understanding of people’s genuine everyday experiences and lives,” she said.

The individuality of the organization distinguished it from other psychology schools or universities that offer courses on the topic, not least since it insists on a focus on multiculturalism uber alles.

This brings certain challenges of its own, including that of juggling multiple languages of those in attendance. While making adding extra complications, however, the results Babel Psi has seen through this approach are often interesting in and of themselves.

“We always have someone to translate, since people tend to feel most comfortable speaking in their own language. However, we also find, most interestingly, that participants can also feel liberated speaking in another language, a sense of freedom that means they might more readily express feelings and emotions they’d feel less comfortable discussing in English or French or whatever.”

The unique approach to psychoanalysis offered by the organization goes hand in hand with its administration and funding, which remain independent and private. Those attending group therapy sessions that form the back bone of the services Babel Psi offers pay 260 pesos (some US$28) per month or 75 pesos (US$8.10) per session, though your first time is always free. “Multi-family Psychoanalysis” sessions are also on offer each Wednesday (8pm) for family groups and are free.

The courses Babel Psi offers for those like Alice who chose to study psychology with the school meanwhile are privately funded, and so set students back anywhere from 750 pesos (US$8) onwards, a contrast to Argentina’s long tradition of state-funded university education free at the point of use for students.

Focusing on multiculturalism, the make-up of group therapy sessions is varied between students across Latin America and further afield, while those choosing to pay for studies with the school are often European or North American. France, for example is one of the biggest origin nations of students, all of whom have sufficient disposable income available to afford the fees.

For those who do choose to sign up to study, though, it’s a service they’re willing to pay for. “They want to make it a personal experience so often it’s just two people. And they address the care aspect of the subject more than just looking at the theory. This type of degree and learning doesn’t exist anywhere else in the whole world,” French student Mathilde, told the Herald.



Foreign residents endure less red tape

By Orlando Jenkinson
Herald Staff


(This article and its content were first published in the Buenos Aires Herald (print edition), July 10, 2015). 


Immigrants coming to live and work in Argentina continue to face a bureaucratic gauntlet when applying for a temporary or permanent visa and the necessary National Identification Document (DNI), but a series of reforms to the application system and improvements to Buenos Aires City’s immigration centre have refined the process for some.

The Interior and Transport Ministry launched sweeping reforms of Argentina’s passport, DNI document and visa application process in 2009, significantly modernizing all elements, including the addition of a digital element which, in theory, has made day-to-day use more straightforward and streamlined the application and renewal processes.

However, whether this streamlining has extended to immigrants choosing to stay and work in Argentina and their own experiences in obtaining visas and identification remains less clear. The application process for expats is necessarily more complex and demands more preliminary steps than it does for natives. This is true even for those arriving from neighbouring nations belonging to the region’s the supra-state trading bloc Mercosur, who need less documentation than others.

Twenty-one-year-old Laura Sán-chez, an industrial design student from Bolivia currently living in Las Cañitas, found her recent experience complicated by staff at the newly renovated immigration centre in Retiro.

“The people who processed all my paperwork were fine, but when I needed information, they were dismissive — as if you were supposed to know the answer, despite sitting there with a sign saying ‘information.’ They weren’t helpfull at all.” Indeed, many immigrants including Laura turn to their national consulates for technical help after after the information services at migraciones fail to provide adequate help.

Issues regarding the availability of information for the labyrinth application process appears a recurring theme among immigrants seeking either the student or work visa and associated DNI. Uruguayan Juan Eraso, 28, was frustrated in his efforts to gain legal residency status having moved from Montevideo and found work in Buenos Aires to fund his performance arts degree, also based in the City.

“The process is very complicated, and I consistently had problems knowing what steps I needed to take and when,” he said, smiling nonetheless now that his visa and DNI were safely in hand. “I was only informed by the authorities much later that rules had changed and I needed more documentation, by which time the paperwork I had aquired such as my Argentine Criminal Record Check was expired, and I had to repeat many steps again.”

Inaccessible or lacking information vital to the application process can exacerbate the complicated, multi-stage process, which is itself fraught with potential difficulties. The sheer number of different steps successful applications require can lead to the system tying itself in knots, whereby certain documents become invalid before others are issued. Consequently, “the experience was nothing shy of unpleasant,” according to Rubén López, a data processor and economics student from El Salvador living in Palermo.

“I had my temporary residency precaria form, which had a validity of three months, but after two and a half had elapsed, there was no sign of my DNI and I was close to having to leave the country. I tried to contact immigration, but every number I found simply led me to answering machines. I was getting desperate,” he says, having only resolved the problem by renewing his temporary residency — involving more paperwork — until the DNI arrived.

Yet for the many immigrants like Rubén frustrated by the application process, there remain others among Buenos Aires’ expansive immigrant population — the City is home to between 400,000 and half a million foreign nationals — who find the system in its current form much improved.

James Clacton, 42, a software developer living in Belgrano, experienced the process before and after the reforms began in 2009 and attests to the improvements made. “Back in 2006, to first get my permanent residency, I had to wait in line at the dilapidated old RENAPER office in Retiro at literally 4am because they only gave out about 100 numbers per day, and if you were in the back of the line you would miss out… All in all it took me about six months to get my residency and another 18 months to process my DNI.”

He says that since the gradual reforms, which required everyone to re-apply for the new digital DNI, the process has become far easier for foreigners such as himself. “A few weeks ago, with much trepidation, I applied for my new plastic card DNI. This time I was in and out of the office in an hour, and they delivered it in the mail about three weeks later… As Kafkaesque as things sometimes are here, some things have actually improved in recent years.”

Mixed progress in expat fortunes regarding the bureaucratic aspects to emigrating is also reflected by some foreigners arriving here only recently and encountering relatively few difficulties. “I got my first appointment a few weeks ago and I was amazed at how nice all the employees were with me and how easy it’s been to get the temporary residency permit,” says Fanita Guadalupe Juárez Pimppiez, 30, a French immigrant who works as a coordinator at the local Alianza Francesa theatre in the northern Greater BA district of Martínez. However, avoiding the extra paperwork necessary to obtain the DNI streamlined the process, she concedes.

Similarly proofreader Allan Kelin, in his fifties and originally from from New York City, reported a generally positive experience during his appointment at the immigration centre. “I found that all the bureaucracy was bearable because, without exception, the people behind the glass or desk all took the time to make sure I understood what was required and where I needed to go next. There are several steps and many people waiting, but the experience was never de-humanizing.”

‘So much better this year’

Though updated, however, the complex visa and DNI application process can still leave some prospective expats cold. Indeed, the reocurring instances of false information for those applying persist. Autumn Pittman, 42, a business owner from the United States living in Caballito, was left in legal limbo for extended periods as a result.

“I got my precaria and CUIL and I feel it took far too long. We have been through several processes since coming here over a year ago. I wish someone would update the website now and then as it would have saved us a ton of wasted visits to government buildings and agencies,” she said.

Similar problems, such as the changing of application fees without widespread notifications, were also reported, though few immigrants living in Argentina long enough to experience the necessary beureaucracy that comes with expat life reported that the situation had deteriorated. For many, it has gradually improved.

“The first time I applied was quite stressful. I was new to the city and my Spanish was bad. The company I worked for sponsored me but gave me the instructions in Spanish so I had to rely on helpful colleagues to get everything organized. It took about three months to get everything. Migraciones was unorganized and the workers were quite rude,” said Megan Edwards, a 33-year-old Candian from Alberta now working as a teacher trainer, remembering her first experience.

She was adamant that the bureaucracy was now more manageble, though. “This year, it was so much better. They’ve done some awesome changes at Migraciones. It’s much more organized and the workers were very helpful and friendly.”