The good news first: it wasn’t a major a fire. It didn’t rage on for hours.
This one, fortunately, was quickly contained. The folks rallied – using fire extinguishers and buckets of water – and they raced to set up a portable pump to open a hydrant. Thank goodness we had a strong rain a few hours earlier.
But every slum fire, even one that is contained within minutes, can destroy several structures and leave dozens of our brothers and sisters homeless.
It happened about a week ago in the 70 Rai community, just a few blocks from our Mercy Centre. Seven homes were severely damaged; four homes were completely destroyed. In total, 51 adults and children were left homeless.
Our community teams began helping the victims before the smoke cleared. We worked through the evening and next days to ensure that those left homeless had a place to stay, rice to eat, clothes to wear, uniforms, books, and school supplies for the school children, and a plan to rebuild as quickly as possible.
In building and repairing over 10,000 burned-down slum homes in the past 40 years, we understand the real cost to the victims is psychological. They may have had next to nothing, comparatively, in material terms before the fire struck, but the loss of everything they own – every family picture and every memento – and the loss of a secure roof above them is utterly devastating.
Their psychological suffering is far greater than their material loss.
The faster we can help the victims get back to their regular daily lives (within a day or two if possible) – with the ladies selling their food in the local fresh market and the children with new uniforms, books, backpacks, pens and pencils back in their school classrooms – the less severe will be their emotional scars.
Thus, from the first moment we can make a difference, we provide hot meals and emergency services. And in the following hours, we work with the victims, the community leaders, and local housing authorities to organize the clearing of tons of debris and begin putting down stakes to rebuild homes and repair lives.
Our emergency reserve funds are low, and so we write to you to ask for your support. Those wishing to help us to help our neighbors get back on their feet with a roof over their heads can contact me. I will pass on your information and scope of your support to our community teams.
Thank you, respectfully, and prayers,
Photo below: our teams work together with fire victims at Mercy Centre.
Last week our 2,500 kindergarten students enjoyed a full day of activities dedicated the joy of science. Our children discovered what life looks like under a magnifying glass and how to blow bubbles. Plus other super fun activities!
A few quick notes:
First, because several friends heard I was ailing and I don’t want people to worry.
I write to you from my home at Mercy Centre after a few days in hospital. It was something I’ve put off for twenty years that finally needed attention – a multiple-hernia – that’s now taken care of. And I’m already on the mend. Thanks to everyone for best thoughts and prayers.
Happily ensconced at home to mend (with more than enough time to sit and reflect), I have much to share with you today, starting with some fabulous news here in Mercy Centre.
August has been awesome for our kids.
Our Boys Journey to Poland!
For the second year in a row, our Mercy boys played in an international soccer tournament (each team of six players) in Warsaw Poland for children from 23 countries who live in Group Homes. This year we sent an entirely different troop of Mercy kids because we want more children to have the benefit of an international experience.
So this new troop of Mercy boys – boys who never imagined a world beyond our beloved slum in Klong Toey – suddenly found themselves carrying a passport that bears their own names on a flight to Warsaw Poland, stopping over in Moscow. One boy told me afterwards that the journey felt like a dream, that he couldn’t believe there were so many children just like himself, living without families, from countries he’d never heard of, and that now they were friends for life. He counted his new-found friends on his fingers: one from Poland, one from Slovakia, another from Netherlands, and two more from Spain. What incredible fortune!
Plus, our kids were treated as VIPS. They dined at the Thai Ambassador’s residence and received a private tour at Janusz Korczak Museum. (Korczak is a hero to the people of Poland and Israel and all poor, orphaned children around the world).
I belong to a Catholic Congregation called the Redemptorists and my Redemptorist confreres in Warsaw met our team – cheered for them during the games, took them out to a fabulous Polish meal, and showed them their beautiful Church.
On the soccer pitch, our children heard cheers trumpeting every goal they scored. We played teams from Poland, The Netherlands, Slovakia, and the South Africa. We didn’t win, but we certainly did not lose. Our boys learned a great life-affirming lesson – that they are important, that they matter, that the world believes in them!
Meanwhile, while our boys were running up and down a Warsaw soccer pitch finding their dreams, fifteen students from our Janusz Korczak School for Street Children never left Bangkok, yet made very similar discoveries.
Our Korczak Students Create Beautiful Art.
Our Korczak students were each given a camera, taught a few lessons in photography, and told to take pictures. “Shoot anything you think is beautiful or interesting,” urged their teacher, Sara Khazem, the founder of the Capturing Neverland Foundation (www.facebook.com/sarakhazem). For the next four days, our students took pictures of their life in the slums. On the fifth and final day of the workshop, they spent an unforgettable day in Wat Phra Kaew, framing its beauty as skilled photographers.
In the course of the Neverland workshop, our kids learned that what they personally see matters, and that, in fact, their own perceptions are meaningful, even beautiful, and most certainly worthy of art!
Their “Capturing Neverland” journey culminated with an exhibition of their best photos, currently on display at the Imperial Queens Park Hotel.
Neverland Photos: Top to bottom: Barbershop in our 70 Rai neighborhood. Cheri, age 16, captured an everyday scene that is remarkably colorful and thoroughly Thai. She showed us that her life is full of gorgeous images! Thai Truck, by Sue-ah, a Cambodian student, age 15; Statuary, by Sopa, a Cambodian student, age 11.
Reaching Out to Assist the Most Vulnerable Adults living with AIDS
As pioneers in AIDS outreach and homecare, we have been training health leaders in Laos, Burma and Thailand for the past several years. Now we are expanding our formal training program into the local prison populations, where AIDS stigmatization is distressingly high.
At the Klong Prem Prisons we teach both male and female inmates living with AIDS how to care for themselves. To de-stigmatize the disease within prison walls, we are also educating the guards, administrators and general staff.
When inmates with AIDS are preparing for their release, we help ease their return and provide as seamless a transition as possible, working with their families prior to their release, and then ensuring access to health care and ARVs upon their return home. Most importantly, we teach them how to protect themselves and their loved ones. They can call us whenever they need counsel, and we visit them whenever they need home care.
AIDS Outreach, Door-to-Door, in Our Community
Working with the local government health clinic in our 70 Rai neighborhood, we are currently training 40 volunteers, all community residents, mostly grandmas, to provide assistance to families with AIDS and to educate all our neighbors to be more understanding and compassionate for those afflicted. These volunteers are the perfect teachers. Everyone in the neighborhood already knows, admires, and trusts them. They are revered.
Multi-lingual Kids attending Our Schools
In recent years, we have seen a steady wave of migrant children from Laos, Cambodia and Burma enrolling in our schools. In one of our construction camp kindergartens, our students are 90% Cambodian and only 10% Thai.
For the first time in 40 years of teaching in Bangkok slums, some classrooms have a significant number of Karen Hill Tribe students, Cambodian kids, Burmese kids, and Lao kids, whose parents have moved from remote villages to seek steady unskilled work in the slaughterhouse and elsewhere in the slums.
Since children have a natural facility in learning languages, we are not worried about these migrant students mastering Thai. But we also want them to be fluent in reading and writing in their own language, especially since most of the foreign children will eventually return to live and work and raise families in their home countries.
In our Janusz Korczak School, we recently hired a Cambodian teacher to assist our Thai teachers. We will need funding to expand a bi-lingual curriculum to reach the migrant children in our schools. If you are looking for a rewarding way to help educate the poorest of the poor, please join us in this project!
All for now. More soon! Thank you, everyone, for being a part of our Mercy family.
Prayers as always - respectfully,
By Father Joe Maier
Published by Bangkok Post, Sunday Edition, Spectrum, July 6, 2004
Miss Tang: she’s one of the happiest girls I have ever met. And you can just close your eyes and visualise her — a super kid at the top of her game of life. Hasn’t lost a battle yet, although she’s been battered and bruised much too often for any teenager.
Maybe she should be a bit taller, as she didn’t eat very well during those early years — and her skin is a mess coz of a mass of scars — keloids from bug bites and mosquito bites which she has picked up from rough living. Her face is unblemished.
She’s that kind of slum girl. Ask her if she’s hungry and she says "it’s not supper time yet" even though her tummy might be rumbling. Her hair is ponytail length and luxurious like you see on the telly. She’s so proud of her hair. Says her grandma once told her, "You have your mother’s hair." Our mae ban (housemaid) gently suggested a "trim" and she welled up in tears. "My hair makes me beautiful."
One slum cat and three puppies have "adopted her". Folks here at the Mercy Centre said, "No way." She says it’s "payback time" in memory of another slum dog who would help her find food in the garbage in the difficult times.
She simply gives them her own lunch. Says she’s been hungry lots of times before and being hungry ain’t that big of a deal.
Only her angels know how she will grow up, and she’s working hard at 15 and two months on her reading and writing, but whatever she grows up to be, she will be beautiful and breathtaking.
BEGINNING FROM THE BEGINNING
The slum trash talk was that her mother ran away from the charity ward of a children’s hospital, carrying newborn baby Tang. She got drug drunk as usual, shouting some crazy-talk about how she didn’t like girl babies. She sold her 18-month-old baby to some charcoal vendors. So the slum trash talk went.
The "selling" part — that’s only partially true. Times were tough for a mum with a liking for drugs who tried to pay her bills by cheating at cards. The problem was that mum mostly played cards with folks who knew how to cheat better than she did. Her promises to pay her gambling debts was the joke of the week. No one cared about her offer of "midnight favours".
Pay your debts. Move some product. That was a disaster. "Sticky fingers" mum "dipped into the product". This wasn't a smart move. She knew a police urine test would turn purple. Plus the mafia wanted money for their missing product.
She tried to pawn baby Tang’s birth certificate plus her own ID card. No one wanted them.
Mum had no milk of her own and no money for the expensive stuff in the shops. But somehow she managed, raising her baby. Tang was about 18 months old when mum got the "red syrup" idea. She was desperate.
She pilfered bottles of the red drink from the religious shrines in the area to feed her daughter. Pious folks offer sweet drinks, whether red Hale's sala syrup or red fizzy drinks or cola, to the spirits. Mum figured the spirits wouldn’t mind. Baby Tang grew up drinking red syrup.
This went on for a couple months; word got around and the pious elderly ladies who offer the drinks were outraged.
Some charcoal vendors with grown children of their own heard the story. At 18 months, Tang was beautiful — a bit skinny — but why not raise her as one of their own? Mum agreed to "leave her daughter with them for a while". Just until things got better.
Then there were mum’s gambling debts. Did the charcoal vendors pay? Well, kind of. These good charcoal folks with one son wearing a uniform. He spread the word around: Hands off mum this time. Next time is "open season".
They loved Tang and raised her for about two years. That made her almost four years old.
Then it turned smelly.
GETTING HER BACK
Grandma — mum’s mother — never did like the charcoal people. She wanted Miss Tang back. With a four-year-old helping you beg on the streets, you can do quite well. She wanted the girl to help beg. Pure and simple.
She went to see Tang’s mum, who by now was in prison for drug offences and sick with HIV/Aids. She got written permission for guardianship and demanded her grandchild be returned to her. Didn’t like that they were Catholics.
Sadly, the charcoal vendors gave the now healthy child back to grandma, her legal guardian. So sad, they had already enrolled her into kindergarten.
Tang lived for five years with her grandmother in an abandoned and derelict building. Slept in a third-floor closet by the back stairs at night and stayed out of sight in the daytime, lest the owner charge rent. At six years old, she did go to the local school for first grade. She was voted the happiest girl in her class. Away from grandma she could learn and play with her friends. Plus, there was food for the poorer children. She attended school for three years. She couldn’t read that well and couldn’t answer all the teachers’ questions, but she was the most popular girl in her class.
But third grade was a difficult year. She was in third grade when she went to live with the Crazy Beggar Lady, who was fine when she took her medicine. They would sit at the bus stop and do homework because of the lights there. There was no electricity in their building. But just because the Crazy Beggar Lady is crazy doesn’t mean she’s dumb — she’s quite well educated. With her helping, Miss Tang shot up to near top of her class.
But her dad was murdered that year, a couple months after mum and grandma died. That’s why she moved in with Crazy Beggar Lady, who really loved her and whom Tang loved dearly. Crazy Beggar Lady really became her whole family. What a glorious pair they were together, walking down the street “looking for collectables”. In fact, the neighbourhood saved anything that could be sold for them.
Tang's dad? A nice man, but not an outstanding citizen, even in the slums. One night, there was betting on a football game on TV. It involved some drinking, and a ruckus. He tried to stop the fight but, as the old expression goes, brought a knife to a gunfight. Got in the way of a 12-gauge shotgun blast.
He crawled, dragging himself while crying out for Miss Tang. It was late in the evening. Tang was sleeping — Crazy Beggar Lady was there with her. They found dad down by the street. He kept crying Tang's name — blood all over — and he said, "My daughter I love you," and died.
The neighbours shooed them away lest the police see blood on her hands and dress and ask questions she couldn’t answer.
Crazy Beggar Lady was a street-wise woman. She grabbed Miss Tang, ran and got a clean dress, ditched the bloody one and jumped on the first bus that came by.
They rode to the end of the line and stayed there. They begged for food and slept at a bus stop for a few days.
That’s when Tang got her first job — and that was six years ago now. Up at 4am, she washed dishes at a noodle shop for 15 baht a day. She saved any leftover noodles from the customers that didn't have cigarette butts in them. That was food for her and Crazy Beggar Lady.
They were a pair.
You see, Crazy Beggar Lady had no home. Tang had invited her to sleep in that closet near the back stairs on the third floor. The noodle vendors continued to let her wash dishes, but sometimes they teased her and would only give her 10 baht.
Crazy Beggar Lady told the noodle shop owners she would put a hex on their store if they didn’t give Tang 20 baht a day and let her keep the leftover noodles.
Tang and Crazy Beggar Lady lived together for four years. They spent their nights sleeping in the closet, while in the day Tang went to school. Crazy Beggar Lady was out on the street, but was there every afternoon to pick up her "daughter" from school. Sometimes people laughed, but they didn't care.
A few months ago, Tang finished washing dishes. One of the charcoal vendors from years gone by was passing the noodle shop. She spotted Tang walking "home" to share the collected leftover noodles with Crazy Beggar Lady. The charcoal vendor woman hugged and hugged her. "Why don’t both of you come home with me, just for a while?"
They got Tang and Crazy Beggar Lady to a local hospital where they had a free TB check-up. Crazy Beggar Lady checked out totally healthy. Tang has the beginnings of tuberculosis of the lungs.
Then a while ago, the charcoal vendors brought Crazy Beggar Lady and Miss Tang to us at the Mercy Centre. They thought we could look after them better in the long term.
Miss Tang, now she’s 15 years and two months. She’s been here six months and put on 6kg. Also, she’s pretty much cut down on the TB coughing and is taking her medicine. She’s happy as can be.
There's no lice in her hair and her fingernails are cut short — schoolgirl style.
She goes to school every day. Sits in the front row. Eager to learn everything. And three slum puppies have "found" her, following wherever she goes.
Crazy Beggar Lady. We give her a pinto (lunch box) each day at noon and 20 baht for betel nut and such accessories. She loves the street, so she sleeps in a lean-to next to a pillar under the expressway. She calls it her own home, the first she has ever owned. Sometimes Miss Tang goes to sleep with her, lest she get lonely. Of course, the three puppies sleep there to protect them.
Slum Priest in Bangkok
From the Huffington Post, June 24:
By Katherine Marshall
My always iconoclastic grandfather intrigued me by insisting that he wanted to go to Hell. It might be unpleasantly hot but the people there would be interesting and would have a sense of fun. The virtuous people who went to Heaven were not people he wanted to spend a lot of time with.
I recently met a man in Bangkok who is clearly en route to Heaven, and who could make it fascinating and fun.
Father Joe Maier has spent the past 45 years in the Klong Toey district of Bangkok, a rather notorious slum community. A Redemptorist priest born in Seattle, Father Joe walks the streets of his neighborhood each day, finding solutions for the constant problems that people face. For years he lived in a shack, either above a busy slaughterhouse or by a foul-smelling waterway. Today, he presides over the thriving "Mercy Centre", a buzzing haven right in the midst of the slum community. There children live, learn, and play in safety, surrounded by love.
Mercy Centre combines many functions: orphanage, kindergarten, center for HIV and AIDS programs, child protection and legal aid, support for housing, and base for children who live on the streets. It has developed organically over the years, from a very small beginning as a makeshift child care center to a substantial organization that is blessed by Thailand's royal family.
Father Joe has managed to build his haven despite the fact that he is a foreigner and, as a Christian, part of a small minority. His success is part raw grit and persistence, part vision, and part force of personality.
The grit takes the form of a determination to keep at it, day after day. Father Joe accepts the faults of those he works with and he works within the system. There are few saints in the slums and every small action for good takes compromise. But Father Joe sees possibilities and solutions where others see hopelessness and corruption. He is a man who never gives up. He does not accept that something he thinks is right is impossible.
The vision is above all about the children. The centerpiece of Mercy Centre is the network of 33 kindergartens, where children spend three years. And at the end they dress in graduation robes, as does Father Joe, and he speaks gravely to them (and to their relatives). His message: "Go to school. Go to school. Go to school. If your Daddy is a drunk, go to school. If your Mommy is a card shark, go to school. If your Grandma is on drugs, go to school." He places his faith, in short, on education and on the chance that it offers to overcome even the worst start that life can offer. Mercy Centre has successes, too: graduates who have gone to the United World Colleges and who have impressive degrees and career paths. Many teachers at Mercy Centre are graduates from long ago. The vision, then, inspires people around him.
Another part of Father Joe's vision is that peace is grounded in a broad spirituality, rather than any specific dogma. He works with the Muslim imams in the area as well as the Buddhist monks. If there is ever trouble in the area, he says, there is a tacit pact that the Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists will support each other, with food or whatever else is needed.
But much of Father Joe's achievements come back to sheer force of personality. There's a well of outrage that is obvious and bursts out on occasion, an outrage that comes from seeing raw injustice and suffering all around. But there's also hope and love that win out. Father Joe seems able to find real good in everyone, as well as humor. He takes problems one at a time and he simply will not give up.
Today's news is full of Thailand's military coup and political stalemate. What's happening there has a lot to do with the divisions between the haves and have nots. Thailand's booming economy transformed the country in many ways but it has left many behind. It seems hard to believe, picking one's way through the drains and smells of vast slums that city dwellers are better off than many in the rural areas, in terms of health and nutrition. In the city hope always seems somewhere within reach and the magnet draws many in. But daily reality is harsh and it seems cruelest for the children caught in the vortex. It is simply impossible to explain or justify a society where some are so rich and so many are so poor, and where predators are a daily fact of life.
So Father Joe walks the streets, greeting everyone as an old friend, goading them to act, taking a child on if no one else takes care. He tells stories, talks about the "fookin'" bureaucrats in his way or the demons that plague him, and laughs at himself and his colleagues. People love and admire him because he is so human but also because they sense the deep courage, care, and faith that drive him.
Israeli Ambassador to Thailand HE Simon Roded and friends at the Israeli consulate gave honor to our Mercy Centre yesterday, sponsoring a private concert for our Janusz Korczak students, our kindergarten students, and Mercy staff.
In performance: Amir Gwirtzman, jazz artist, multi-reedist (flutes, saxophones, and ram’s horn!) played the most incredible, most rocking version of the Thai Elephant Song we’ve ever heard, bringing all our children to their feet. On other songs, Amir played on three reeds at once! Our children adored the joyous sounds!