Loaning a lifeline
By Lim Li Min
A network of social workers in Klong Toey are replacing loan sharks with their hands-on help.Klong Toey, Thailand’s biggest urban slum, is comprised largely of rickety lean-tos. Some of these look onto fetid sewers; others have open doorways leading onto the area’s complicated tangle of sois. As children play in these densely populated streets, many a mother or a grandmother etches out a living through jobs such as selling noodles or mending clothes.
Malika Lertlumwan, a co-ordinator with the Women’s Group Credit Union (WGCU), an arm of the Human Development Foundation’s (HDF) Mercy Centre, knows every nook and cranny of these sois. She and other social workers have walked down these tiny lanes every day for the last few years. On her trips, Malika collects daily contributions from women who are paying back WGCU loans. Sometimes, she collects small sums that will go toward a family’s nest egg.
The social workers are not an unwelcome sight in the sois, as residents say the WGCU has provided a welcome alternative to the loan sharks that prey on their community. Since it was founded 12 years ago, the women’s group has helped fend off problems associated with the loan sharks, such as racketeering, intimidation, destruction of property and violence.
“People always know who they can go to if they need [quick] money,” says Malika. The Mercy Centre’s social workers estimate that more than 50 percent of Klong Toey’s families are in debt to loan sharks. Malika says some families have even fled the community to escape loan sharks, who may be living just a street or two away. Families who cannot pay their debts have had their valuables and property seized. Some are viciously attacked by large groups of gangsters.
It is not easy to find our Yenakart Mercy Preschool on any Bangkok map, tucked away, as it is, in an obscure slum community beneath an overpass on the way to Papadaeng. But somehow a bicycle tour company – Recreational Bangkok Biking – stumbled upon our Yenakart school several years ago, and they have been supporting us ever since. Today they lead a group of Madam Ambassadors from Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and South Africa on a visit to our Yenakart school. Our teachers received a generous donation, and our school children danced, sang, and, of course, as they always do, hula-hooped with unbridled joy for their guests. Also, as captured below, the kids enjoyed a few games of paddy cakes.
On the morning of January 8, 2011, the Archbishop of Bangkok Frances Xavier Kriengsak Kovitvanich lead a group representing ten local Catholic Churches in a charity walk in Lumpini Park to support our Mercy Centre. Over 1,000 adults and children joined in the walk, including our own Mercy children and their House Moms and Dads. After everyone crossed the finish line, our children demonstrated their skills in Taekwondo, music and dance to the assembled crowd.
Our photo gallery here tells the story: it was a beautiful day!
It's Christmas in the Slums of Klong Toey and we have really tried all year to find the moms and dads of our abandoned kids who make Mercy 'their home' the only home they remember. They want to know of their beginnings - to have the memories no matter how heart-breaking or unpleasant so that they too can 'tell their own stories' to return somewhere that was once home, even for a moment. It's been unbelievably difficult locating remote rural villages; locating lost and not wanting to be found moms and dads, but we've succeeded a lot...
And it's like the family of Jesus coming home from Egypt, heart rending, painfully beautiful, often dangerous and that long trip back from Egypt to Galilee. Like it is, for us. To come home for Christmas.
And at Christmas we once again tell our Sacred Stories.
Joseph with Mary and Baby Jesus. "Master Carpenter for hire" going from Egyptian town to Egyptian town looking for work - migrants. Work construction, in wood and stone. The legends are that they were chased out of several towns as the statues there mysteriously fell down as they walked by, but others, and I prefer them, that the Land was Blessed as they traveled and Egypt also became a Holy Land.
It was almost two years now that they'd run, fled for their lives, that death filled night from Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
Joseph had that dream, an Angel sent dream: a premonition that something horrible was about to happen. Evil Herod sending his most ferocious men to kill the child. Mary was already up. Somehow she knew: women's intuition. She woke up baby Jesus, kissed him quiet, as mom's do and then in raw fear and horror of the screams and shouts about them, they had secretly slipped out into the midnight darkness. The voice in Joseph's dream said: Take the mother and child to Egypt."
Our oldest Christian legends say they traveled alone that night - took the dangerous route through the Negev desert, trusting in God - guided by the Stars, Afraid if they traveled the normal route through Gaza, that evil Herod's soldiers would be waiting with their swords.
They'd traveled about a month into Egypt. Lonely strangers in a strange land. Cautious - trusting no one.
Now, again, The second Birthday of Jesus. Centuries later we would call this day the Feast of Christmas. But tonight, they are alone. Mary and Joseph and two year old Jesus. No Angels singing Glory to God in the Highest Heavens. No Shepherds. No Magi bringing gifts of Gold, frankincense and Myrrh.
Short on money. No real home. Living probably in workers camps, on or near construction work sites. Joseph, not Egyptian born, part time work when no one else would do the job. No bickering for wages - take what you can get - what they give you. Smile. Strangers in a strange land. A foreigner working on an Egyptian or Roman Military construction site.
Joseph heading always towards "Old Cairo: where centuries later, the present Cairo would be built. Old Cairo on the Nile River. He had heard that there was steady work there for a Master Carpenter. And so as the Legends say they stayed there a while. Settled down for a couple years. Always waiting, praying for an Angel Sent Dream. Waiting for a Sign that would tell them they could go home.
They'd spend five long years in Egypt - so the legends say -and then a Sign came. Scriptures say that Joseph had another dream. A Dream that evil king Herod was dead. Mary had heard the rumors also in the Fresh Market.
Joseph and Mary talked - prayed. They decided it was safe for the child to go home. Home to Galilee, their ancestral home.
They traveled about a month. Home to Galilee. By boat down the Nile River, by donkey, by foot. Cautious again, they traveled round about way - avoiding the city Jerusalem and big towns back home to Nazareth. A family reunion - lots of tears - catching up on news. Who had died, who had had new babies. To begin life again. They'd been away going on six years. A life time really.
So once again we welcome all of you good and holy folks reading this - welcome you home again to Mercy Centre. And maybe "Your own special Mercy Centres" are places in your own hearts filled with memories - often bitter sweet - but let us all come home. You there, and we here, and maybe if we are lucky, really lucky we might meet Joseph and Mary with Baby Jesus walking along the pathway, and you might even meet an abandoned street child. Perhaps they are cousins of Jesus. Please wish them Merry Christmas. Give them a big hug.
Merry Christmas to you all. Prayers - fr joe and our Mercy Centre kids.
On behalf of all our children, house moms, house dads, teachers, cooks, social workers, and everyone here at Mercy Centre, we wish to thank you for your friendship and support in 2010.
And if we may, we would like to demonstrate with a few 2010 numbers and statistics how your friendship makes a difference for our children and neighbors in Klong Toey.
To start, one-hundred-and-eighty-two orphaned and abandoned children have lived with us as family in 2010. We send our children to school; encourage, tutor and nurture them; open their world to music, dance, sports, fine art, and martial arts; and celebrate everyday life together.
A few more 2010 statistics:
2,324 Slum children enrolled in our 21 Bangkok preschools
651 Education sponsorships for Bangkok’s poorest children
505 Education sponsorships for the poorest Moken (Sea Gypsy) children in Phang Nga, Phuket, and Ranong Provinces
54 Adults receiving palliative HIV/AIDS care in Mercy Centre
846 Mercy HIV/AIDS patients receiving homecare
3,648 HIV/AIDS patients counseled by Mercy teams in government hospitals
88 Street children and adults enrolled in our Janusz Korczak School
359 Destitute families, especially the elderly, who depend on Mercy for food and basic living expenses
380 Poor children we represented in police stations and courts
1,013 Poor children and families receiving legal aid counsel
97 Micro-loans made to members of our Women’s Credit Union
27 Mercy children attending vocational college and universities, at home and abroad
Although there are many more weights and measures in 2010, we wish to leave you with just two.
First, 36 children –27 boys and nine girls - joined our Mercy family in 2010. We have never turned away a child in need and never will.
Finally, our favorite statistic of the year: in the past twelve months 23 Mercy children – 16 boys and seven girls - were able to return home to live with their real families. The transition home for these children rarely is easy. It requires coordinated efforts from diverse Mercy teams – and equal or greater efforts from the families themselves - but nothing we do gives greater joy.
Family is everything.
Thank you for being a part of our Mercy family and for every way you have supported us this year. Every kind word, every warm gesture…. everything you do on our behalf is a wonderful gift.
Wishing you the most joyous New Year with family and friends,
Usanee and the The Mercy Teams
Photo by Yoonki Kim
This past Monday, December 13th, HRH Princess Srirasmi, the Royal Patroness of the Human Development Foundation, celebrated her birthday with the children of Mercy Centre.
This was her second birthday visit to Mercy Centre. Last year, as a gift to HRH the Princess, our children promised that they would go to school, study hard, and be honest and polite with friends, family, and everyone they meet. This year our children renewed their promises and gave a performance of music, dance, song, taekwondo, and (among our youngest children) the Hula-hoop.
HRH Princess Srirasmi was especially moved by the children’s rendition of the old Thai song, “The Lotus Dance,” - a song, she said, she sang as a child – and asked a favor of our children to sing the song again. Our children proudly and passionately gave their Princess an encore performance. Photos by Chawalit Kumsatok. Photo Gallery.
Galong was in his mid-20s, living on the street, and working as a “doorman” at a bar near the Pratunam market when we found him fifteen years ago. Born with a kind of Downs’ Syndrome, he could speak only a few words, and unfortunately they weren’t the ones he needed to explain where he came from or how he came to live by himself in the most crowded neighborhood in Bangkok.
We don’t know much about Galong’s past, but we have a pretty good idea how he survived on the street: he is incredibly good-natured and loves to help people. Galong comes at you like a burst of joy, and his joy is irresistible. During his years on the street, many kind people must have looked after him.
Others, however, were surely less kind. As a perpetually innocent child, Galong could never possibly negotiate his way through an adult world without facing abuse and injury.