Kennedy School graduate Steve Reifenberg M.P.P. ’88 reflected recently on becoming — at the age of 23 — a father figure to 12 young children.
In a room filled with excited family, friends, colleagues, and fresh-faced students considering their own postcollege adventures, Reifenberg discussed the two years spent in a foreign country that changed his life 20 years ago.
It gave him “a set of connections that was much more powerful than I could have ever imagined,” said Reifenberg, who likened the experience to having his own children (he is the father of three). “[It] transforms you and opens you up to seeing the word in a new way.”
The tale is captured in his new book, “Santiago’s Children: What I learned about Life at an Orphanage in Chile” (University of Texas Press, 2008).
In the early 1980s Reifenberg lived and worked with a dozen abused and abandoned children at the Hogar Domingo Savio, a small orphanage in a poor section of Santiago, Chile.
It was fitting that Paul Farmer introduced the speaker at the May 8 talk, held at Harvard’s Tsai Auditorium. Farmer, the Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Social Medicine, a medical anthropologist and physician, understands helping others in need. He is a founding director of Partners In Health, a nonprofit organization that provides medical care to poor people around the world.
The pair met as colleagues at Harvard. Reifenberg, executive director of Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) from 1996 to 2002, helped place many of Farmer’s medical students who wanted to work in Latin America. Reifenberg is currently the program director of the Chile Regional Office of the DRCLAS.
“I just thought [‘Santiago’s Children’] was the most beautiful, wonderful memoir I could imagine,” said Farmer, who contributed the foreword to the book. He praised Reifenberg for waiting to write the story, noting that the intervening decades gave the author a type of “interpretive capacity” as well as a historical sense of time and place.
“By the end of the book you are left with far more than any scholarly treatise could have given you. You are left with a vivid sense of what these children are like and what their lives are like … [and] of the toll taken by political violence and inequality on children and on their families.”
An avid journal writer, Reifenberg, who kept a faithful log of his time in Chile, was inspired to revisit his experiences after he returned to Santiago in 2002 to open the regional DRCLAS office.
Through the lives of the children, the book reveals a deeper, darker picture of the political and economic strife that had taken hold in the country. In the early 1980s the nation was struggling under the brutal authoritarian rule of military dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, who came to power in a 1973 coup. His financial reforms led Chile into an economic crisis, and demonstrators who protested the measures and called for democratic rule were dealt with harshly. Many were detained and tortured. Countless others simply vanished.
Reifenberg explained that the precariousness of the children’s lives reflected the instability that was rampant throughout Chilean society. The children’s efforts to move forward and build bridges to the future in the face of adversity, he said, mirrored the country’s efforts to do the same.
In one passage, the book tells of two young girls brought to the orphanage when their mother was killed — shot in the head by a police bullet that pierced the wall of her home as she hid under a bed with her daughters. In another, a child at the orphanage tells Reifenberg that his young classmate died after being shot at a street protest. During a national strike, one of the children under his care, four-year-old Andrés, asked Reifenberg about the acrid smell. Upon learning it was tear gas, he asks the author, “Do they make it with tears?”
The book chronicles Reifenberg’s work with the children and his own struggle — to understand the culture and the language, and to find meaning in his own life.
Ultimately, he told the audience, he learned there was a dramatic gap between the goals he set for himself and the reality of the everyday struggle, but that the effort itself was worth it.
“I learned to believe in the idea that maybe it was not a bad thing to have big dreams, even if sometimes they fell short.”
Reifenberg and Farmer both encouraged students to keep that message in mind and to choose something they were passionate about and stick to it, regardless of how big or small an undertaking.
“I think that’s the really important thing: not becoming so overwhelmed by so much that you are kind of immobilized to do anything,” said Reifenberg. “Try to make some contribution, no matter how modest.”
“A good guideline, I sometimes tell students,” he writes at the very end of his memoir, “is that it is hard to make a wrong decision if you engage in things you care about, try your best to make a contribution to others, and continue to learn in the process. Struggling is an important part of the journey, and my hope in publishing this book, at least in part, is to reaffirm the belief that it is worth the struggle.”