The rainy season has definitively arrived to Thailand. Heavy, dark clouds hang over the streets of Bangkok, the back alleys flood every night and the traffic is at a complete standstill. It might be inconvenient to move around and annoying that the laundry never dries.
But at Mercy’s preschools the sound of 3000 children singing the National Anthem fills the classrooms with warmth, at our Janusz Korczak vocational school they’re reciting the Thai, English AND the Cambodian alphabet, putting a big smile on the teachers’ faces; and in Bangkok’s biggest fresh marked the migrant children are naming all the animals they know in English – making their parents forget their struggles for a moment.
Life goes on in the slums of Bangkok and at Mercy Centre we continue what we have been doing for the last 45 years.
Saturday 25 March we opened our doors to longtime friends and partners, to mark our anniversary and show our gratitude and appreciation for the pivotal support received over the years. Thank you for being our contributor of prayers, love, kindness and generosity.
But we also underline that Mercy Centre’s job is far from done.
Every week our social workers are saving children from abusive home and dangerous situation. Children that don’t have anyone that listens to them, no one that recognises their struggles and needs.
Many a time individuals, who used to be a Mercy child, reaches out to our staff, quietly and humbly asking for a hand, some support. They got off track and need some guidance. It might have been ten, fifteen years since last time but Mercy is still home.
It is not said that a child that was “saved” by our staff, got their education and upbringing at Mercy, are fully prepared and ready to take on life when they leave “the nest”. Over and over again we see that the ordeals you experience the first couple of years of your life has a very strong impact on your future. Not having a stable family situation, being surrounded by bad influence like drugs, abuse or general neglect leaves a gap in your confidence, in your well being for many years to come. To grow up in a home without healthy role models leaves a scar.
We listen to the children and then try to follow their ways. We work FOR the children, FOR the poorest of the poor – it might be a slow, quiet path to prosperity, but rather stay on the right path for a 100 years, than get off track and loose grip of our mission.
We at Mercy Centre cannot replace a blood family, but we are our own household, our own proud clan. We understand each other. Don’t have to say much when you come here, your 100 brothers and sisters “gets you”.
Thank you for being our friend and supporter – we are truly grateful.
Fr. Joe and all the children in the shanty slums of Klong Toey
An amorous deck hand learned a painful lesson when he targeted a proud and resourceful Klong Toey girl as his child bride
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
We never knew mum when she was young and not yet ravaged by cheap booze and hard hot years under the Southeast Asian sun doing unskilled sweatshop labour, living wherever there was work on the decks and holds of rusty out-of-date cargo ships in the Bay of Bangkok.
When only daughter Miss Tip whispered to mum "Today's my 14th birthday", there on the cargo ship, mum had another excuse to get hammered one more time. There wasn't much beauty left, but even the slight traces still showed she was a beauty in her days of yesteryear. Just like Miss Tip, a Klong Toey beauty with a good complexion and sturdy stature.
Mum was an amiable drunk who would agree to almost anything after a few. That's when this guy -- a fellow sweat on the cleaning crew -- told hammered mum he wanted to buy Miss Tip. True, he used some nicer words, but the meaning was the same.
You see, all this started with this sweat, missing a couple of teeth, going bald in front, with arm tattoos. But not with proper meaning and symbols, like from prison, nor even the tiger tattoo. He was a day hire contracted to temporary work on the ship. No one knew him very well. He was a stranger. Not Klong Toey born. Didn't go to school here.
He came up to hammered mum, big grin, showing his missing teeth. Came right up to her, right there on the deck, in front of everyone. Offered 4,000 baht for the hand in matrimony of 14-year-old Miss Tip.
Proud of himself, like he was doing mum and Miss Tip a favour, he said the ship's captain could say the words and make it formal and all legal, which wasn't true but sounded uppity yuppity. Besides, the captain could say it in Chinese as this was an old Chinese leased cargo ship. Certainly unsafe in a storm.
Mum's words were quite clear. We are not low class from the rice fields -- my daughter is a Bangkok-born Klong Toey girl and we have dignity. She's strong and healthy and can hoist and carry 50kg rice sacks better than most of you men. And she's pretty with nice skin, has good teeth and can work all day in the sun and not get sick. And no one has ever touched her, and if you do, I shall toss you off the side of this ship.
In spite of the booze, or maybe because of it, mum knew of these things. Things you don't always learn in school. Her earlier days weren't always "pretty please with sugar on it and flouncy pink". She and a neighbour lady, totally loyal to the end, who rushed mum to the hospital when she came back on the bus from the ship … but back to that in a moment.
These good ladies had worked a Klong Toey pleasure place for lonely sailors at the mouth of the port, just a few steps from the ships and no customs officials and immigration folks to deal with. And a nicer place called the Mosquito Bar (now closed), also at the mouth of the port. Air conditioning, karaoke and all. Mum and her neighbour had a reputation with the Port Authority Police. Any amorous sailor who advanced too boldly would be snookered with unopened beer bottles by mum and her neighbour.
Back to the wedding plans. Mum, quite indignantly, said no dice, it has to be at least 4,500 baht. But the sweat didn't have that much cash. He would have to pay in weekly instalments. Mum said again no dice, the money has to be up front and in cash now, and not just promises. Besides, what if you don't like my beautiful daughter Tippy. You can't just return her as damaged goods, give her back, like, trade her in … and expect your money back.
When Miss Tip, who was asleep on the deck, heard about this, and then realised they were talking about her and her life, she was horrified. The sweat came over and tried to put his arm around her. In self-defence, she kicked him in his lower regions. Screamed at mum. I hate you. I hate all of you.
Seeing no place to hide, she tried to crawl over the railing, to jump that dangerously long way down off the side of the ship into the ocean. Death would be better than giving herself to this sweat who wanted her for 4,500 baht in weekly instalments.
She didn't quite make it over the rail. Some quick-acting folk grabbed her in time and wrestled her down. The sweat came over. She managed to kick him again, but this time she had a better position and really kicked him hard.
That ended any marriage plans.
The captain was totally miffed. He radioed for a "lighter" and put Miss Tip, somewhat hysterical, and her drunk mum on the small boat to the wharf about half a kilometre away. He shouted harsh words for them to never come back. He sent the Klong Toey foreman with them and told him to make sure they had pocket money for the three-hour bus trip to Bangkok.
The story doesn't get any easier.
The foreman made sure mum and daughter boarded the right bus. At first the bus people weren't going to let dishevelled mum on the bus, but Tip promised she would take care of her, keep her quiet and make sure there were no problems. There weren't. Mum slept all the way. Yes, she snored loudly but Tip kept shaking her.
Arriving at the Ekamai bus terminal, 10 minutes from Klong Toey, Tip had calmed down after the three-hour bus ride. Knowing she was safe for the moment, she got mum to their rented shack.
Taking one look at mum, her loyal neighbour lady from years gone by brought Miss Tip to us in the slums for safe keeping before taking mum to the emergency unit of the nearest hospital.
Mum died there three days later. Never left the hospital. Hardening of the liver, plus complications. As the nurses told the story, mum died gasping "Tell Tip I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
At the cremation, the sweat with the bad teeth who wanted to pay Tip's dowry price in weekly instalments showed up to pay respect.
He was repentant. Tried one more time. Told Miss Tip that he would take her in. She could be his wife. He would take care of her. They could work on the ship together. He also told his story that he had given Tip's mum 2,000 baht as a down payment. That's when he said, if she refused, he wanted that money back that he had paid her mum, now lying dead in a clapboard casket with no lid, donated by the benevolent society for the very poor.
Tip panicked again. Ran out of the temple into the nearby slaughterhouse. She said later she felt safe there with the pigs and a couple of stray dogs who lived next to that particular holding pen.
Seems that though she was a stranger, the dogs took an immediate liking to her. The cremation went on. Tip came back once she saw a policeman there and felt safe.
Mum had worked, sometimes for two or three weeks, on cargo ships anchored off the coast some three hours from Bangkok. She was part of a day/night team that brought their own cooking utensils, living literally on the deck of the ship. Cleaning, working in the hold of the ship. Anything. Getting 350 baht for working shifts of six to eight hours.
Hammered mum had been hauling her daughter Tip along with her for five or six years. There was no one at home in Klong Toey to care for her, and Tip could also earn money. She was safe -- until this sweat with bad teeth wanted a child wife.
Miss Tip is safe now and in school. Enrolled even though she is beginning at 14 years of age. It's never too late. Now Miss Tip also wears a locket around her neck with an old picture of mum when she was pretty. She says mum is in heaven and has stopped drinking. She never knew her dad, but mum used to say he fell off the side of a ship in a storm. That was a couple of months before Miss Tip was born.
Back to the sweat. One of our house mums, a sturdy lady, is a distant cousin from the same village as the sweat. She knows why years ago, according to village law and lore, the sweat had to leave the village suddenly and never return, at least for 20 years. She told this to the local police and they kindly mentioned this to him, so he is out of the picture. The sweat doesn't dare come around now.
It's 100 days now since mum died, so schoolgirl Tip brought two lotus leaves the fresh market lady had given her. She wouldn't accept any money for them because Tip said she wanted them for the ceremony to pray for her mum, and that mum didn't drink in heaven.
A snippet of mum's hair and a bit of an old dress were placed in the folded lotus leaves. Tip took them to the temple to place them at the foot of one of the sacred trees, sending away any bad spirits. Together with us she placed a medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who protects children.
Tomorrow is another school day. A happy day. She wants to be a teacher and teach little girls like herself.