CRS photojournalist and communications officer Sara Fajardo reports from her visit to Guyana:
If Ansel Watts’ life were a novel it would be listed under three categories: adventure, tragedy, and redemption. When he was 23 he stowed away on a Miami-bound ship that set sail from his native Guyana. After 7 overheated days of no light, his only meals bread and water, the ship stopped. He peered outside and saw palm trees and beaches dotted with luxury hotels. “This must surely be Miami,” he thought to himself and climbed ashore. But Ansel miscalculated, it was one stop too soon. He’d landed in the Bahamas, still an ocean away from his intended destination.
For the next 20 years the aspiring writer would work his way through construction jobs and bartending gigs in the Caribbean. He ran a homeless shelter for six months in Barbados, built websites, devoured self-help books, and transformed each chapter in his life into stories for others to learn from.
Writing as a way of life for Ansel. It started when he was 19, freshly in love, and intent on wooing a girl through letters and poems that slowly blossomed into a children’s books series idea: “Adventures in Monkeyland,” about the history of Barbados.
He wrote, he bartended, he helped build up the islands through construction. Things were going well for Ansel, until after 20 years of living in Barbados and the Bahamas, he was deported for illegal entry and overstay and found himself back in Guyana without a home, a family, or a job to make ends meet.
In the beginning Ansel made do. He moved deep into the jungle to work in the gold minds. He loved the job, the green landscapes, and life among the other workers. But mosquitoes got the better of him, and after three bouts of malaria, he found himself back in Georgetown with nowhere to go.
His home became a slab of concrete outside the teeming stalls of Bourda Market, his bed a flattened cardboard box. Positioning was everything, too close to the street and he’d get drenched by heavy rainfall, too close to the stalls and he’d have to contend with the rats as large as cats running past him, crawling over him as they scavenged for scraps.
He stuck near a friend, “the Canadian,” a fellow deportee for safety. Meals came from the nearest soup kitchen. Jobs were hard to come by.
He didn’t have the proper clothes for interviews. He didn’t know where to begin. After six-months on the streets, Ansel yearned for a change. His dreams had always been large, and being homeless was not among them.
It took a trip to the Juncata Juvant Friendly Society, a $150, and a pair of several-sizes-too-big work shoes to write a new and more promising chapter in Ansel’s life.
A fellow deportee, Donna Snagg, who is intimately familiar with the obstacles faced by the repatriated, founded CRS partner, Juncata Juvant, which in Latin means, “Things that are joined together are helpful.”
When Ansel walked through their second floor office doors, he wasn’t sure what to expect. He only knew that he was eager for a change.
What he got was more than he’d dared to imagine.
Within two days, Snagg had gotten him off the streets and into a temporary home, a job interview and proper work attire. Within a week Ansel was a different man, he met the woman who would become his fiancée, Linda, while working the security job Snagg had helped him land. Two months later he’d saved enough money to move into a small room. Large lace curtains hang from the high ceilings of the living room where he unwinds watching an old TV set.
Light streams in from the large kitchen windows as he and Linda cook-up curries on the series of gas burners. After months of eating what strangers provided, Ansel finds nothing more satisfying than a home-cooked meal. And in his spare time, Ansel sits and reflects on the turns his life has taken.
He hopes to soon begin a book about the homeless in Guyana, many of who are deportees like him.
Without the society, Ansel says, he’d still be in the streets. It’s hard to imagine how little it took to transform his life. Every three days, Ansel polishes the shoes Snagg gave him to a perfect shine. He doesn’t mind that they are too big, or that the children in the neighborhood call him “boots man.” It’s all part of the story, his story, which he crafts and re-crafts with each passing day.
– Sara Fajardo
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