Born in a shack, half-blind and fearless, but there's still honour in a wasteland child.
by Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
It’s a story that simply needs to be told. Sai Chon, the half-blind, no-fear, ex-rubbish dump kid. He’s moving up the social ladder. “Shack-born” in a city rubbish dump, where he spent his early years, he's now only a part-time street kid.
He’s done well in life so far. A sixth grade graduate of the Blind School, he can read and write braille, but not brilliantly. He admits to being a bit lazy in lessons, since he can still see partially out of his left eye.
Three months in detention for vagrancy and loitering in a public place (ie, begging) is unfair, he said. He told them he didn’t do anything wrong. But the uniforms wouldn’t listen. To them simply hanging around is vagrancy and that breaks the penal code. They said three months and that was that.
He’s a polite and honest kid, like the sort you might meet on any street, in any slum, even if he does take donated flower garlands off the big sacred shrine to resell. But only when he needs a bowl of noodles to eat. He is loveable, never gives up and can take care of himself completely. He won’t use a cane, or dark glasses, or sing songs for money on street corners. He says that’s for sissies. He can even swim in the river (doggy paddle) enough to survive. And he is friends with every cat and dog he meets. They like him.
His name is Sai Chon and he’s blind. Mostly.
He was born “normal” alongside a rubbish dump outside a provincial town in the northeast of Thailand. Some dump virus smacked him hard as a baby — messed with his eyes. Downwind of toxic burning trash, little boys with dirty hands rub their eyes, trying to take away the stinging from the smoke.
I don’t know how much you know about “trash smoke”. It’s all bad, but there’s the ordinary stuff and the really toxic. Folks who make their living — and live — in the dump say you can never get used to the most toxic stuff; just can’t build up the immunity.
That’s what happened to baby Sai Chon. Irritated eyes, then infection, no medicine and blindness. And mum, with her booze and her drugs, didn’t even notice. Mum has been dead for some years now.
Shack living, booze and drugs took her early. Plus breathing the smoke and rubbish fumes seared her lungs like it does to everyone who lives in such places. Sai Chon’s dad? Well, to quote mum: “Sai Chon, my son, your dad ran off with a rubbish dump floozy.”
And mum’s proverb: “If you can ever find someone to love you, my boy, love her and love her and never let her go because you’ll probably never find another.”
Sai Chon is 17. About four months ago, for his birthday, he had the notion that he wanted to go back “home”. Just to see. So he set off by motorcycle to the Northeastern Bus Terminal to catch an inter-provincial bus — six hours to the rubbish dump for a visit.
He’s been with us here at the Mercy Centre in Klong Toey for 10 years, on and off, because he’s an independent lad. Thanks to great teachers for six years at the blind school, he’s literate. He also likes the streets.
Anyway, back to going home. He wanted big sister Meo to go back too — just for a visit. Meo also grew up with us.
She didn’t want to. No reason, she said. She simply didn’t want to go. Murmured about some bad memories back there that she’d never told anyone, not even brother Sai Chon. Nasty people had done nasty things to her. Leave the nightmare horrors to haunt the dump. Don’t go back and wake them up.
Her final word: “No. I won’t go with you.” So he boarded the bus alone. At first the bus ticket girl wouldn’t let him on. In his gentle way, he begged her: “Please let me sit on your bus for a while. I won’t bother anyone.” Yes, he had a ticket, and a 100 baht tip fixed the problem. The bus driver made a special stop near the dump. You could see and smell the smoke.
He’d never been back. Rubbish dump or not, it was his home. He was born there, and home is home.
A lot of people had moved on or died. And he couldn’t remember them all, because he left when he was seven. He found an old auntie who used to feed him and Meo when mum was drunk. Auntie hugged him and wouldn’t let him go. She said she he had known he was alive and would come back before she died. So she hugged him some more. Then stopped to mix up a batch of betel nut, before showing him the shack — its tin roof now half-gone and rusted, floorboards rotted, and rats running around — the abandoned place where he was born. And just outside, she showed him where his little brother had drowned — in a mud puddle — because again, mum was drunk that day. Auntie said they should say a prayer and do something holy.
She had some plastic flowers someone had thrown away, so dusted them off. She and Sai Chon lit a candle with incense and placed the flowers outside the shack where he was born, and then carried a candle stuck in a beer bottle to the puddle where his little brother drowned. Plus they opened a bottle of red soda, just in case little brother felt thirsty. Finally there was a half-grown tree nearby, so they tacked a religious picture to the tree — to ward off any bad memory demons who might want to dig up sister Meo’s nightmares and horrors of days gone by.
He asked how his dad had died. Auntie remembered that she was the only one at the temple since the “rubbish dump floozy” skipped town when dad took sick.
And old auntie still had one of Sai Chon’s colouring books she had saved. His first scribblings before mum left the dump and took him and sister Meo the two kilometres into Korat City to beg and sleep on the street, before being sent off to Bangkok.
The dog he’d left as a puppy was somehow still alive, decrepit, with a gimp back leg, but remembered Sai Chon immediately. Slum and rubbish dump dogs are that way.
He bought some instant noodles for auntie because she didn’t have much chewing power left in her few scattered teeth. Thus all his money was spent. So he walked to the city, to his old begging spot — crying tears and tears — remembering mum and Meo and the family life they never had.
He was begging but he couldn’t stop crying. And he cried and cried. People passing by felt sorry for him and he soon collected just enough, so hailed down an evening bus back to Bangkok. He’d done what he needed to do. Now to face life and whatever it might bring.
It takes some tears and some years to know there is dignity and respect in growing up on a rubbish dump and begging on the street. Some kids never get over it. They feel inferior. But Sai Chon carries his past like a badge of honour.
He stayed on the street, sleeping under the big bridge for a few days, but then he got sick. The street kids didn’t want him to die and have his spirit wandering around lost and homeless. So they told the police.
After about a week, he was better. He told them he was a Mercy kid. The detention centre folks said: “We will keep him three months. Feed him and keep him clean.” We sent over some special skin soap for his scars and bites. It was then he told us about going home to the dump and his old begging place.
He is safe in detention because he uses our name. He says he’s a Klong Toey Mercy kid. So the bad ones in there leave him alone.
And so it goes. He’s a smart kid when he wants to be. In blind school he skipped class a lot. But he did once write me a letter in braille. Not the best, but the basics were there.
So what of tomorrow? He is willing to start wearing glasses to help him see better and care for his good eye. He could certainly teach at the blind school. There are honourable jobs.
He now has a girlfriend he met in blind school who helped him with his braille — also blind, and steady as a rock. She bosses him around, and he seems to like being bossed. And he’s told her mum’s proverb. “Son, if you can ever find someone to love you, my boy, love her and love her and never let her go because you’ll probably never find another.”
Today at Mercy Centre we celebrated the birthday of Galong, our oldest Mercy boy. Born with a type of Downs' Syndrome and abandoned to the streets in his youth, he was found by our social workers over twenty years ago near the Pratunam Market, and has been living with us as an older brother to our younger boys ever since. When we found him, he had no given name, so we named him "Galong," a Thai bird without a nest. And he had no documentation, so we made Valentine's Day his birthday - because that is what he is about: absolute love and joy. We don't know his exact age, so we approximate. On Valentine's Day, Galong celebrates his 49th birthday. Happy Galong's Day, everyone!
We opened four new schools in just the past few months!
This announcement may not seem like groundbreaking Mercy Centre news. After all, we currently operate 23 preschools and have opened and operated well over 50 schools at one time or another in the past 40 years.
But these new schools are a big deal to the kids who are attending.
Our new students are construction camp kids, ages 3 to 12. They move around a lot with their parents, from one construction project to the next. So they don’t get many chances to learn to read and write and count and play and make new friends. Our schools may be “it”: their one and only chance in life.