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Issues Of The Environment: 'International Samaritan' Changing Lives And Improving Environment

Mike Tenbusch
International Samaritan

Millions of people around the world live near major garbage dumps.  Such conditions are a public health and environmental danger. The Ann Arbor-based nonprofit International Samaritan has been working for decades to help the people and improve the environmental conditions.  The organization's president, Mike Tenbusch, discussed the efforts with WEMU's David Fair in this week's "Issues of the Environment."


  • An estimated 15 million people live and work in garbage dump communities worldwide.  They comb through raw waste and trash for recyclable material that can be sold.  Garbage dumps are mostly inhabited by vulnerable populations who face extreme poverty, severe illness and/or disability, and lack of educational opportunities.  Many of the recyclers are children.
  • Ann Arbor nonprofit International Samaritan has been working for 25 years to end the conditions that lead to generational poverty associated with living in garbage dumps in developing countries, including Honduras, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Jamaica, and Nicaragua.  Workers face constant dangers, including exposure to hazardous materials and human waste, methane gas explosions, being swallowed by trash or run over by dump trucks, gangrenous injuries, chronic stress, and gang violence (gangs act as middlemen keeping most of the recycling profit).  The average life expectancy is 35 years, and 35% of children born in these communities die before age 2.
  • Children who live and work in these garbage dumps often lack access to education because most of these communities do not have schools.  International Samaritan and similar groups have increased access to schooling, but the COVID-19 pandemic has created new hurdles in 2020.  Where education is available, students in the garbage dumps are now learning remotely, using cell phones used to access lessons are usually shared with others, have limited service, broken screens, little memory, etc.
  • Mike Tenbusch, president of Ann Arbor nonprofit International Samaritan, explains that the organization has covered nearly a million dollars in unexpected costs due to the COVID-19 pandemic and they are currently trying to raise funds to supply many more students with tablets for remote learning. The cost of a tablet across the five nations averages about $300, which is out of reach for any garbage dump worker.

Landfill vs. Garbage Dump

LANDFILL: A carefully maintained structure built into or on top of the ground, where waste is disposed of through regulated, systematic burnings.

GARBAGE DUMP: A place where garbage is dumped illegally and/or without the careful regulations of a landfill.  Instead of being burned, garbage in garbage dumps is left to rot.

The Dangers of Garbage Dumps

Garbage dumps are incredibly dangerous places to live and work, with dangers that we don’t think about in our day-to-day lives.  The minority of deaths in garbage dumps are natural.  Causes of danger and death include:

  • Methane gas buildup causing spontaneous combustion
  • Getting swallowed into garbage landslides and suffocating
  • Illness from contaminated food and water, toxic air, and lack of sanitation
  • Serious and/or gangrenous injury from glass or shrapnel
  • Being run over by garbage trucks/crushed by contents
  • Disease and disability caused by medical waste dumping
  • Gang violence and blackmail based on region
  • Trauma and mental illness related to severity of the conditions

Q: Why would someone live here?  A: Because they have no other choice.

  1. Garbage dumps are mostly inhabited by vulnerable populations, including those who face extreme poverty, severe illness and/or disability, and lack of educational opportunities.
  2. Garbage dumps are the only place in these areas where people can live for free and find items that they can keep for their families or sell for profit, which incentivizes vulnerable populations to stay there.
  3. In almost all garbage dumps, recycling garbage offers opportunities for small wages for those willing to filter through the contents – a wage that allows individuals and their families to survive, but not a high enough wage for them to leave.

Q: Why don’t the people here leave?  A: Because they can’t afford to.

  1. Families get trapped in a cycle of generational poverty because the wages offered by recycling are not high enough to cover even their most basic needs.
  2. Most garbage dump communities don’t have access to schools.  Without access to formal education or jobs that offer enough money to relocate, those living in garbage dumps cannot afford to live or work elsewhere, or save money to invest in their futures.
  3. Living and working in the garbage dump often leads to sickness, disease, or serious injury, further trapping generations of families in the garbage dump. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.intsam.org/about-garbage-dump-communities/)

International Samaritan

  • Financially supports 700 scholars from garbage dump communities across five nations, who go to school each day with their family’s aspirations for future success on their shoulders. This includes food.
  • The parents and family members of those scholars go to work in the dump each day to give their children the best life they can.
  • 333 students and teachers from 17 high schools and universities across America who traveled with us last year, working in fellowship with our scholarship students and their families in their community.
  • 208 people who donated to our mission last year, including 119 who have supported our mission before and 89 who invested in us for the first time last year. (Source: https://www.intsam.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/2020-Winter-GRAT-REPORT.pdf)

International Samaritan builds schools and medical clinics with the help of students from the United States who offer volunteer labor.  They also provide ongoing support to families by building homes and providing food where needed.  This year, the pandemic, has closed schools in the target countries, just as in the US.  The group is working to ensure that the 700+ students they support can access school through technology.
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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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