On an island near Myanmar, Moken children get not only an education but a sense of pride, and are taught it's not over until the fat lady apologises. Published by Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, September 28, 2014: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/434772/the-sea-gypsies-new-flag
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Twenty young boys and girls from the Kao Lao Moken sea gypsy camp on an island near Ranong were swimming as fast as they could. A fat lady in a long-tail boat was bearing down on them, poking at them with a stick with spines on it.
It began innocently enough, when two of the best swimmers, Nid and Nung, both eight and becoming among the first in the community to learn how to read, write and count, asked the headmistress of our school if the class could take a break and go swimming. The teacher said OK, and when they returned they began to discuss a special event.
Teacher said yes, it's Saturday when we usually have classes to "catch up", but promised this Saturday would be a special day. Birthdays and names would be celebrated, followed by a swimming contest and ice-cream. Let's make today an exception.
The incoming high tide on the Andaman Sea was perfect for swimming and the water was so clear you could see three metres, right to the bottom. And there were no jellyfish. It was not yet their season, when they might sting you, upset that you invaded their space.
This was a very special place. When the tide was low, you could walk all the way to Queen Victoria Point in Myanmar, a distance of maybe 3km, with the water mostly no deeper than your waist.
As Nid and Nung and their friends plunged into the sea, they realised they had overlooked one thing: the fat lady who operated the community's only store, near where they were swimming. She liked to give orders and was used to being obeyed. Now, with the Moken kids learning to speak Thai and read and write, she knew she was losing her power. She screamed at the swimming children in Thai and then in broken Moken: "You can't swim here!" she yelled.
Moken boys Nung and Nid were swimming underwater and when they came up for air, they heard the engine whine on the fat lady's boat. The boys knew she despised them and didn't want them to go to school. So long as they were ignorant, she had total control.
You see, before there was a school not one person on the island could count, read or write, and certainly not do simple arithmetic. It had been four years now and the children were learning, so the fat lady could no longer cheat them. Plus, now the children spoke Thai and could translate for their mums and dads from Thai to Moken.
The boys shouted in Moken: "Swim, swim back to school!"
The fat lady chased the boys in her boat as they swam, steering with one hand and trying to poke them with her bramble stick. She stabbed one boy, drew blood. Then turned to chase the others.
Some ran out of the water, up the hill and hid, still naked, behind the trees. They didn't have time to collect their clothes.
The rest — 13 of them, mostly six- and seven-year-olds, intimidated by the fat lady's cursing — stood on the wharf waiting while the fat lady struggled out of her boat, shaking her bramble stick and screaming "put out your hands". She beat the kids so hard their hands were bloody.
But cowed as they were, the children whispered to each other in Moken: "Not a word. Do not cry. Silence." And thus they kept their dignity, making the fat lady even angrier. It looked as if she wanted to hit them all again.
That's when our headmistress ran from her school along the shore to stand beside her students. She silently walked up to each child, kissed their bloody hands and made an imprint of the children's bleeding hands on her school uniform blouse. Child after child. Thirteen bloody handprints.
Then she faced the fat lady, her school blouse all stained with her students' blood, put out her own hand and the fat lady just stood there, shaking in rage. Our teacher took the bramble stick from the fat lady and cut her own hand, drew blood then made another bloody handprint on her school blouse. Then she gave the bramble stick back to the fat lady, who slunk back into her boat, started the engine and returned to her store.
Our teacher, standing on the wharf, gathered up her children and walked with them back to our school. Now that the fat lady was gone, they began crying, and she had to carry the youngest girl back. She was upset beyond walking.
The teacher first cleaned her own hand, so she could then properly clean and bandage the children's wounds, then she changed into a clean blouse and hung the bloody one in front of the school for all to see. By now, the news was spreading through the village.
And the "flag" of the Moken children, waiving in the breeze of the Andaman Sea, became not a sign of shame, but a sign of victory. And after displaying the flag, the teacher said: "Let's all have some ice-cream. We can swim some more another day."
There is no electricity on the island, so the teacher had brought ice-cream in one of those dry-ice containers from the mainland — 45 minutes by fast long-tail boat. Rumour had it that the Fat Lady sat and pouted in her store all day. Also, there were no Moken customers.
The fat lady's store is the only one on the Moken's part of the island and the children's parents all owed her money. Until now, they had never complained because they could not do the simple math, something unnecessary for living on the high seas. They had no preparation for living on the land.
The Moken had been cowed for more than 10 years now, ever since the tsunami, when everything changed. They had ended up on the mud flats of this island. There was nothing there attractive for land developers and hotel people. Once a gangster-like man came with a gun and two other thugs and waved his gun, speaking in Bangkok Thai. He claimed he owned the island and they could not live there, so they built shacks in the mud flats, a part of the Andaman Sea.
They had nowhere else to go. To fish the waters of Myanmar meant paying a large "fishing fee". Nor could they compete with the big Thai fishing boats. They could only get hired as coolies, speaking broken Thai at best. They had no resources, no language. It was pure and simple slavery.
But that was changing now. The adults still did not dare stand up to the fat lady, but that day was coming.
Nid and Nung were tasked with organising the special school event — speed swimming above and beneath the water, plus diving for treasures, just as their ancestors had done for centuries. But the children dived down only 3m, not 20m like their parents, and they were diving down to retrieve prizes given by their teacher. The prizes were cans of food, rice and fresh fruit tied tightly in plastic bags because on the island there was never enough to eat.
Besides the swimming and diving for treasure, the day was called a "group birthday" day, because none of the children knew the calendar date of their birth. Only Granny, the Moken midwife, knew. She had delivered more than 100 children over many years, including all those in the school.
Although Granny could not read or write like land folks, she did know the language of the sea. She could tell each child that they were born during the sunshine or under the moon, and also if they were born on a rising or falling tide.
They were also celebrating their own personal names. Their beloved head teacher had given names to them all. In their part of the Moken world, names early in life are not important. Only when there is a need, for example during school registration or when sick and going to the big hospital on the mainland, did they need a name.
The headmistress is the most trusted person on the island, so she became the giver of names. When a new child came to the kindergarten and needed a name, at least for the sake of convenience, she would first ask the child if they liked any special name, then would consult with the parents for a meaningful Thai name.
Something of the sea or the island — like the name of a beautiful bird or fish or even a beautiful sky or sunrise. The local shaman was consulted, too, of course.
The next morning, after roll call, the fat lady came to the porch outside the school. The head teacher would not allow her in and the three dogs who lived there growled. The fat lady asked that they take down the blouse stained with the children's and teacher's blood. Our teacher asked the children what they thought. They said the fat lady had to apologise.
The fat lady mumbled some words, but that was enough. Also, she brought candy from her store, but the children refused to take it and told her to take it back. No one could buy them off.
That very afternoon, as school was closing, all the villagers came to the school and individually thanked their children's teacher. They said their precious Moken blood had mingled with her Thai blood and now she was a Moken sea gypsy too, or as close as anyone could ever get.
The shaman said our teacher would always be protected. The spirits of their ancestors and the spirits of the sea would be with her no matter where her path in life led her.
At a glance, you would hardly know you were in a swank Bangkok neighborhood.
All you can see in front of you are rows and rows of corrugated tin shacks in a field of mud. Yet just beyond the shacks, just a few blocks away, the streets are full of posh condos and fancy restaurants.
What you’re seeing is a construction workers camp, filled with migrant families, mostly from Cambodia, who have come to Thailand to eek out a semi-nomadic living, moving from one construction site to another, wherever they can earn a modest day-wage.
During the day, most moms and dads here are working on nearby construction sites while a few grandmas look after the babies and toddlers. The older children are left to fill their days idly in their shacks or to wander and play in patches of deep rutted sludge. The children are not allowed off premise. This mud patch is their world, their entire universe.
Welcome to our newest construction camp school, located on Ekamai Road.
We call them Kindergartens, but that isn’t entirely accurate,
While kindergartens are generally for children ages three to seven, our construction camp schools are open to children of any age from toddlers to young teens. And our curriculum varies by the ages and needs of our students.
First and foremost, we want these children to learn to read and write, and in the process to ignite a lifetime love for learning. When the parents eventually and inevitably move to another construction site, we want their children to insist on going to school!
Equally important, our construction camp schools are safe havens. The world of a construction camp may be fraught with dangers, but when children enter our schools, they must know that nothing can hurt them.
Finally, we want our construction camp kids to develop like normal children everywhere. To this end, we make sure they have milk and fruit snacks and a healthy lunch every school day. We watch and measure their growth throughout the year. And we keep our eyes wide open for any tell-tail signs of problems at home or in the camp, especially regarding neglect and abuse.
As you can see below, our new school is humble. It’s just an “old fashioned” one-room schoolhouse. It keeps the rain out during the monsoon season. It let’s the air in every day. It’s a bright ray of sunshine, no matter how muddy it gets outdoors.
Our first class had ten students. The number of students will increase to twenty or more over time, but the quantity is not important. What’s important is that every poor child has a safe place to grow up, make friends, go to school, and have a chance in life.
What a glorious day!
Our Korczak School students had been preparing for the big event for over a week. They practiced their classical Thai song and dance performances. They created an art exhibit of their own original photography. They wrote speeches and memorized every word. They even baked cakes and cookies on the day before the event.
They were more than ready to celebrate.
The 10th Anniversary Celebration of our Janusz Korczak School, held last Thursday, turned out to be fabulously fun, and moving.
We opened our Janusz Korczak School in 2005, at first for several children who lived with us as family in our Mercy Centre – kids who simply could not fit into regular school.
Many Mercy kids had been living on the streets before they joined our family and missed out on an early education. Other Mercy kids missed out because they were too weak from AIDS or had other physical ailments. Some Mercy kids were developmentally slow. No government schools would take them in.
We started our Korczak School to make sure that every child, whatever his circumstances, has the chance to go to school, to learn to read and write, and to make friends just like other children.
By the second and third years of operation, we began taking in more street children from outside our Mercy Centre.
By the fourth and fifth years, more migrant children, mostly from Cambodia, began attending our Korczak School. These kids, ranging from ages seven to fifteen, lack the documents to allow them entry into regular government schools.
Today, about half of our 40 Korczak students are Cambodian or ethnic Rohingya from Burma.
We named the school after Janusz Korczak because he is a hero to all poor children. A Polish-Jewish doctor and humanitarian born in 1878, Korczak advocated for the universal rights of poor children long before there was a United Nations. He also operated an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw. When the Nazis invaded Poland, his orphanage was removed to the Jewish Ghetto. Korczak could have escaped, but chose to remain with his children.
Korcak and all his children died in the Treblinca death camp in 1942.
In honor of their national hero, the ambassadors to both Israel and Poland joined in our celebration. After I gave a Catholic ceremonial blessing, H.E. Ambassador of Israel Simon Roded recited a prayer in Hebrew, followed by a blessing in Polish from H.E. Ambassador Zenon Kuchciak.
The good Doctor Korzack would have been proud to see his works honored by a school that opens up a world of opportunities to so many children in need.
Several Korczak school alumni performed at the celebration. I give you one example, Ms. Sunisa:
Ms. Sunisa joined our Mercy family at age twelve. Raised in a destitute Akha hill tribe village, she had never gone to school as a young child and could speak only her local hill tribe language. When we first met her, she was begging on the streets of Chiang Mai and in great danger of being sold and trafficked as a sex worker.
She entered our Janusz Korczak School and began her studies. After three years, we were able to place Sunisa in a local high school. Today she is completing a vocational college degree in accounting while working both as a House Mom for our younger boys and as an assistant in our accounting department – a long way away from her days as a child beggar. (Photo above, Ms. Sunisa performing classical dance at anniversary celebration.)
Here’s another story of a Janusz Korczak School alumna:
Ms. Tengmo was born in prison where her mom was serving time for selling methamphetamines. By the time our Korczak teachers met Tengmo at age eight, she was living in a shack under a nearby expressway and looking after her three younger siblings as best she was able – trying to make sure they had enough to eat, a place to sleep, and somewhere safe to play.
Our teachers invited Tengmo to join our Korczak school and enrolled her younger siblings in one of our Mercy Centre kindergartens. During the school year, the teachers observed her home situation and saw that she spent her after-school afternoons begging beside a pedestrian bridge to put bread on the table for her younger siblings. Our teachers often spoke with Tengmo’s mother and earned her trust. Together with our social workers and our legal aid center staff, our teachers eventually were able to persuade Tengmo’s mother to let our Mercy Centre look after her children. Today Tengmo is in Second Grade at a government school, still a bit behind her age peers but catching up fast! (Photo above, Tengmo with her sister and two brothers.)
Back to the celebration…
Did I mention that our children baked cakes and cookies for their guests? I did, but I wish to add, they were simply delicious! Our Korczak students also gave presents to their guests, demonstrated their vocational skills in barbering, cooking, and sewing, and proved to be most gracious hosts.
When you visit our Mercy Centre, please be sure to drop by our Korczak School. We want you to see this beautiful school and meet the teachers and see how much our students – who otherwise would have no place to learn or play – love going to school.
May our Korczak School live on and serve the poorest children for generations to come!
Photos above, Korczak children present gifts of their photographs to H.E. Ambassador Simon Roded (top) and H.E. Ambassador Zenon Kuchciak (bottom).