St Albans family facing Christmas in Guatemala protected by armed guards

A FAMILY of four from St Albans will celebrate this Christmas being guarded by security personnel behind barbed wire fences in one of the poorest and most violent countries in Central America.

Benjamin and Charmari Downing left their home in Kings Road to live in Guatemala in January this year, planning to spend four years working with Centro Esdras, a small local organisation which trains the country’s Christian leaders, pastors and churches.

Centro Esdras recently had to move office after being burgled three times in succession, losing all of its equipment, including 48 chairs used for workshops.

But Benjamin and Charmari, who is due to give birth to their third child in June, said it was all part of the challenge of living in Guatemala.

Charmari, 35, explained: “It’s taken us some while to get used to Guatemalan life. It’s a much more dangerous society than in the UK, so for example we can’t use public transport because of the risk of shootings, and we don’t go out after dark.”

She added: “This year is going to be very different from the last Christmas we spent in St Albans, but we will try to continue the family traditions that we began in the UK, like decorating the tree, singing carols, opening Advent calendars and reading the Christmas story to the boys throughout December.”

Admitting that they will miss friends and family, the Downings also have pangs for brandy butter, mulled wine, mince pies and snow. But the family has managed to “smuggle in” a Marks & Spencer pudding.

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The couple, who are in Guatemala with their children, Daniel, aged four, and Jonah, two, are being supported in their efforts by St Paul’s Church in Fleetville and other Christians in St Albans.

They will spend much of the festive season at their home on an estate with other Guatemalans behind high barbed-wire fencing, patrolled by security guards.

Benjamin, 37, said that Guatemalans had their main celebration on Christmas Eve, with fireworks at midnight followed by the main dinner and opening presents afterwards.