U.S. citizen Mark Kaseman first arrived in Colombia in 2004. Captivated, he returned two years later, and a chance encounter with a missionary couple brought him to Medellín where he has been working since pioneering his own charity project in one of the city’s most impoverished barrios.
With the missionary group, Kaseman ventured up into the city’s poorest areas where he was confronted by thousands of predominantly displaced people living high on the valley slopes, banished to the fringes of society and ignored by authorities embarrassed by their presence.
Kaseman fell for the struggling families he met and when the missionaries withdrew from the mountain, amid suspicions that paramilitaries controlling the neighbourhood had driven them away, Kaseman stood his ground, choosing to abandon life in the U.S. for Medellín. He began his own project – Angeles de Medellín.
The community of 8,000 people lives isolated from the urban centre of Medellín and the town of Bello below them. The majority are families displaced by Colombia’s interminable armed conflict. Homes are built from splintered wood and plastic sheeting, while the streets are gouged from the mud. With only two buses connecting the neighbourhood to the world below, there is little infrastructure and, according to Kaseman, the secluded community receives no support from city authorities.
Kaseman, thought slight and unassuming, is ambitious, devoted and impressively energetic – clearly adored by locals who call him “Padre de la Montaña”. Largely alone, though aided by donations from family and friends, Kaseman has established a thriving school called Leon 13, which currently counts 280 students. He noted that the drop-out rate is surprisingly low, “those who come to school tend to stay,” while the primary issue is pregnancy among young girls – five students under the age of 15 fell pregnant this year.
As we wandered through ramshackle streets a stream of children flung themselves into Kaseman’s arms, while he pointed out that many see him as something of a saviour, “I am not, I cannot be,” he sighed. He bears a clear burden but brightly intends to persevere regardless, “as long as I don’t die, I’m happy.”
In October 2006, paramilitary gang members resentful of Kaseman’s achievements and popularity with the locals issued a sobering warning, “if Mark ever comes up here again, we’ll kill him.” Refusing to desert his project and people, Kaseman went up the next day and confronted the paramilitaries. He described looking into the leader’s faces and stating “if you ever see me do a single thing wrong here, you can kill me.”
The majority of the community welcome him, but it is an colossal task to take on so many, such desperate people, and Kaseman puts the poorest first and foremost. Bitterness and jealousy invariably arise and in a country where life is cheap, Kaseman seems honourably aware that his work could at any point cost him his life.
On December 19 Kaseman is throwing a Christmas party at the school. He has a list of the worst-off families for whom he will be providing food and modest gifts – every time he visits the mountain he cannot help but add more names to that list (on the two occasions he produced it, an eager crowd engulfed him). Kaseman is expecting over 700 people to attend the party, and many more will be sorry they did not make his list. With limited funds there will never be room for everyone.
It is clear that Kaseman’s mission is a labour of love. “This is my family away from my family.” He puts it down to his desire to show people – above all children – that the world is bursting with opportunity; “they have got to dream.” Kaseman says that he enjoys bringing foreigners to meet his adopted community as he hopes it will inspire both parties.
Kaseman has aspirations to make Angeles de Medellín into a foundation but expenses and bureaucracy have so far impeded him. For now he is happy to do it alone, “I am an honest man … like this I do not have to answer to anyone.” Without the middle-men involved in a foundation Kaseman says that every penny of money donated goes directly to those who need it.
The project is ever-growing and achieving exceptional results. The dedication and enthusiasm radiating from Kaseman is unusually honest and thus very moving; “every day I wake up excited … I have no regrets.”