Hidden in plain sight, the Samlal families live behind rusty galvanized fences on the outskirts of Palmiste, one of the most affluent communities of San Fernando.
Spanning three generations, over 20 children between the ages of three months to 17 years are living in plyboard shacks off Wells Road Terrace. They have no electricity and despite living there for 31 years, there is still no garbage collection.
The children spend their days scavenging for bottles and selling fruits and vegetables outside Gulf City Mall, Superpharm and Palmiste Park. But since COVID-19 hit, they sometimes go without food.
Speaking to Guardian Media yesterday, grandfather Rickey Samlal said he often worries for his grandchildren’s safety as they hustle sales at popular spots.
“You know they kidnapping people now so this is why I stay with them but they all sell in separate areas but I do keep an eye out,” he said.
Sometimes people judge them and threaten to call the police for the young ones, but Samlal says this was better than going into a life of crime.
“At least we are earning an honest dollar. We don’t beg. We try to earn,” he said.
If he had it his way, Samlal said he would work to support all of his relatives. But this is not possible because of his ailing health.
“I want to work you know but I have real pain in my foot and I can’t stay in the sun too long,” he added.
His daughter Sarah Samlal has seven children of her own. She lives in a separate shack, devoid of running water or electricity. The house is dark and filled with mosquitoes. Sarah said she remembers the days of her childhood when her father used to boil coconut and green fig for them to eat.
Wiping away tears, Sarah said, “I end up just like my parents. These days we do not know where the next meal is coming from. When you wake up in the morning, you don’t know what to give the children,” she cried.
Saying she had a hard life, the 32-year-old mother said she got pregnant at 16 and three months later her baby’s father abandoned her. By age 20, she got involved with another man Amit Balgobin who fathered six more children with her.
But since COVID-19 struck, Amit has been out of work.
“He used to work with a butcher but now he cannot find any work so he goes by the bar and tries to help out so to get a little something for us to live,” she said.
Sarah admitted she never planned on having so many children and had even joined Family Planning.
“But you know God blesses you with children and I do my best to care for them. We all work together and I try to educate them so they will get out of poverty. I didn’t get an education. I never had a chance to go to school but they are getting that chance,” she said.
All of the Samlal children are enrolled at the Hermitage Presbyterian School.
“Before the school closed, all of them would walk to school and walk back home. I would try to sell whatever we could to buy their books,” she added.
They plant crops like ochroes, tomatoes and seasoning which they eat and sell. Whenever possible, they sell limes and mangoes as well.
Sarah said now that COVID-19 has shut down schools, she makes it her business to collect print packages for them at the school.
And her youngest sister, Nilee Samlal, 18, teaches the children every day.
“At 4 pm every day when the place gets cool, I spread a piece of plastic on the ground and all of them come to get their lessons. They are all in different classes so I have to give them one on one attention,” Nilee said.
Having just completed her CXC examinations, Nilee says she wants to save some money so she can earn her degree in Education.
“I want to be a teacher but if I don’t save I will not get the chance,” she said.
Saying she wanted a better life for her family, Nilee said she wanted the authorities to start picking up garbage from Well Road Terrace.
“We cannot put the garbage out the road because the neighbours say the dogs burst it up. We cannot bury it so whenever the place is dry we have to burn our rubbish,” she said.
She also hopes that one day they will get an electricity connection and running water.
Anyone wanting to assist the families can contact Kavita Ragbir at 334-5454.