Bu Breo has been broadsided by the realities of growing up in Klong Toey's Slaughterhouse slum, but somehow she's managed to steer her 10-year-old son toward a brighter future
By Fr. Joe Maier, C.Ss.R., published in Bangkok Post, Spectrum, March 6, 2011
She still hangs on to that old photograph, faded and wrinkled after 25 years, of the cab of a long-haul truck. Dad's at the wheel and mum's snuggled beside him holding their baby, Bu Breo. Now 27 and with a 10-year-old son of her own, Ms Bu Breo phones her father often - says he's a gruff dad.
Before the troubles all those years ago, her mother rode with her father everywhere - riding shotgun. Mum said that her talking kept him from dozing off at the wheel. He didn't need ya ba to stay awake.
Recently, Bu Breo rode with her father again on a long-haul run. It was the first time for her son, Prab Pram. It was also the first time the boy had met his grandfather. Prab Pram boasts that he didn't get motion sickness and it was the first time he had been out of the "Slaughterhouse" Klong Toey slum for more than a few hours.
Bu Breo took him along because she was afraid she would go to prison, again, and her son - her only hope – would be abandoned, as she had been when her mother went to prison. She wanted him to know his grandpa, who would surely take care of him, and send him to the best school he could. He's in Grade 4 now, an honour student.
There is at least one wonderful advantage to life in a large family like ours.
After years of practice and study, our children have started their own Thai orchestra.
And for the past two years in particular their skills have become quite impressive. Professors from Mahidol College of Music have been providing professional instruction on a wide range of traditional instruments - from the Ranat (something like a zither) to the Khong Wong Yai (a large semi-circular Gong-chime played like a vibraphone). The results have been outstanding.
The Mercy Orchestra performed last week at the “Rhythm of Earth” World Music Festival in Bangkok to a very enthusiastic audience. (Photo gallery here.)
We (my Mercy Centre family and I) stumble through life… never knowing the lyrics nor the music to the songs that every new day brings to each of us… never knowing the storyline of each sunrise or sunset.
But we are happy, and try to be joyful with all the Lord sends us between earth and sky, and we learn from our children here at Mercy to try to have as much fun as possible with each new day, and perhaps in doing so, say our prayers along the way, and help another child.
Here is a Valentine’s gift to all our friends: a short video showing how our slum kindergarten kids welcome each new school day. (Watch the video.)
Happy Valentine’s Day.
fr. joe in Klong Toey, Bangkok
Photo by Wang Eng Eng
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.