"The key points of Caritas action are people", Natalia Peiro told OmnesWhat has changed and what has remained since its birth, María José Atienza asked her. And Natalia Peiro answered: "The root remains. Our feet are founded on the Gospel, on the Christian community. Caritas is an expression of that Christian community and that continues to be so in all the countries of the world. It remains that raison d'être that tells us that our task is an expression of our faith. And it remains, always, the service to all, without exception, without asking where you come from or how they are".
These words can be applied to the letter to the diocesan Caritas of Ceuta, a Spanish autonomous city of 83,000 inhabitants, whose geographic enclave has proved over the years to be not the most tranquil in the world. To discuss the challenges facing this Ceuta diocesan Caritas, Omnes contacted Manuel Gestal, its director.
Rafael Zornoza Boy, bishop of Cadiz and Ceuta, blessed the facilities of the "Virgen de África" Basic Aid Distribution Center, managed by Caritas Ceuta, which has become a reference point in the care of needy families and in the management of resources.
"They are attended to, they are listened to."
"The distribution center is a way of dignifying those in need. They are not given a bag, but they are attended to, they are listened to... Even if they come for the material issue, they take something else and they are treated with the utmost dignity," Manuel Gestal pointed out before the pandemic on the website of the bishopric of Cadiz and Ceuta.
Now, a few weeks ago, the director of Caritas Ceuta underlined to Omnes some of its peculiarities: "It is a center that Caritas Ceuta has put at the service of the parishes. The most important thing is to point out that before, the Caritas teams in the parishes were autonomous, and each one, according to its possibilities, distributed to its users the money they had. With the Distribution Center, we have managed to do away with the terms "rich parish user" and "poor parish user".
"Now, any user, no matter what parish, receives exactly the same. What we basically look at for assistance is the number of members of the family unit. And depending on that, a certain number of points is allocated, and they make a purchase, with small limits, so that it is a responsible purchase. That is what we also intend to do".
"The salary will last for eternity."
Before commenting on the challenges facing the Distribution Center, and Caritas itself in the area, Manuel Gestal explains his trajectory over the years. Next year, in July 2023, Gestal will be six years into his second term as director of the Ceuta diocesan Caritas. But he has been at the helm since 2009. In total, he has spent 14 years promoting and directing the care of the most needy in the autonomous city.
We briefly transcribe this part of the dialogue, because it is thought-provoking: Does it give you time to attend to your other things, to your family? "I retired last year. Before that I have been simultaneously doing everything. The salary is good," he says with good humor, because he is actually a volunteer. "I hope I get it when I get up there. The salary will last for eternity. It's all very rewarding. Feeling useful is important." You can tell that the bishopric has a lot of confidence in you because they don't let you go, we tell him, and he answers: "My goal is to be 70 years old. I am 66, that is, I have 4 years left".
Regarding the current taskGestal explains that "there are seven parish Caritas in Ceuta, and we serve about 600 families a month, with an average of 4 to 5 people per family, so we currently serve about 2,500 people. We have a total of between 40 and 50 volunteers. In the Distribution Center there are 5 workers".
However, we immediately moved on to the immediate challenges, which have to do with the neighboring country. "In terms of needs, right now we are in a "stand by". The border with Morocco has been opened, and we will surely go up. It oscillates a lot with the city's employment plans."
"In 2020, when the pandemic began, we saw a significant drop," he adds, "because many of the people we assisted were living between Morocco and Ceuta. They were caught by the closure of the border in Morocco, and they stayed there. On Monday they opened the border and we will surely notice it. But then, when they closed the border on the 20th, we noticed a drop of more than a hundred families, between a hundred and two hundred. Because we were around 800 or 900 families a month. During the pandemic there have been ups and downs, but today, we are serving about 600 families, with an upward trend," he says.
Reception in parishes, data base
The first step continues to be the reception in the parishes. "They are our base, we cannot do without them. The Caritas teams in the parishes are still functioning and they are responsible for the files, for the reception. They tell the Center when people are going to come the following month. And they tell us: I have seven registrations, or three cancellations. And we are making provisions for the purchase and for the shelves to be full."explains Manuel Gestal.
"The parish directors go to the Distribution Center with the list of those assisted, the users, according to the number they have, and they should not accumulate, because the number of people allowed is eight," he adds. "And what they take is already controlled by us. In some places we have point codes and in others color codes, to see the amount they can receive. At the end, they go through a checkout, just like in a normal supermarket; the cashier, who is a hired person, checks that the points match what they are taking. In this way, any user from any parish receives and it is controlled according to the number of members of the family unit".
In parallel, a national database has been created, which gives transparency to the whole process. "We, all the aids we make, we load them in a database, to which the city, the Department of Social Affairs of the City of Ceuta, and the Department of Finance have access. In such a way that any user of ours, or any registered person authorized by the Administration, or with their own certificate to access it, because these are sensitive matters and cannot be accessed by just anyone. It should be pointed out that any user, naturally authorized, who has access to the national database of his regions, can enter the DNI of one of our people, and he can have everything he has received during the last three years, it seems to me. That database belongs to the Treasury, and it is transparent".
"When a user goes out the door, he enters that national database, and the authorized persons can see, with that ID card, the families that have taken, for example, one hundred euros in food from Caritas Ceuta Diocese. This at the moment it goes out the door, because it is already registered, before leaving".
To conclude, it seemed natural to ask the director of the Ceuta diocesan Caritas about its main benefactors, those who contribute the most. This was his answer: "The majority is from the FEGA fund (European Agricultural Guarantee Fund), what comes from Europe; then there is the subsidy from the Autonomous City, from Ceuta, almost 200,000 euros; the Ceuta Food Bank as such, because its mission is to serve the entities that we are dedicated to helping end users. and then there are the donations".