When we first met a poor ten-year-old girl named Oraya, we didn’t know she was exceptional. She didn’t appear much different from the countless bedraggled street kids we meet every day. Oraya came from a broken home, and ended up in the care of an Aunt, a street food vendor, who could not afford to keep her niece in school.
Oraya wanted nothing more than the chance to go to school, make friends, and play with other kids her age.
There’s nothing unusual about poor kids wanting to go to school. Pretty much all of them do.
We enrolled Oraya in our education sponsorship program so she could complete first grade, and hoped that, with tutoring and outreach at Mercy Centre, she would stay in school, maybe even thrive.
A poor five-year-old Cambodian girl named Panda says in perfect Thai: “This morning I studied English. Now I am solving multiplication problems. I love coming to school! My teacher, Kru Rat, teaches me new things every day."
Welcome to our special school for children living in the Sukhumvit Soi 24 construction workers camp. While their parents are working in nearby construction sites, these children attend our humble, one-room school, on-site in the workers camp. Most of these children are Cambodian and lack the Thai identity papers required to attend regular public schools.
They rarely leave the camp. But going to school opens up their eyes and takes them beyond their narrow universe. And it gives them the experience and joy of learning in a safe place where kids, no matter how poor or what their circumstance, can just be kids.
Their teacher, Kru Rat, has seen over one hundred children come and go during her three years at the school. She tells us, “My students are quick and clever learners. Like every child, they deserve the chance to go to school. Besides, living in a worker camp can be harsh and dangerous. When they can read, write, and understand the Thai language, they will be better able to look after and protect themselves.”
Currently we operate six construction camp schools throughout the city. Photos by Diane Durongpisitkul.
Way, way back, even before we opened our Mercy Centre, we had a dream for our children in the slums beside the slaughterhouse – a simple-but-profound dream shared by all the moms, dads, and community and religious leaders: we dreamed that we would send all our slaughterhouse children to school.
Sister Maria and I opened a school in a one-room shack beside an abandoned pigpen and began teaching the Catholic children how to read and write and recite their prayers.
Down the street, in a warren of alleyways, a preschool was also opened for the Buddhist children; and also the Imam opened a school in his home.
Nobody had any money back then. We asked for one baht per day from the parents. Nothing more. But even one baht was too much for many, who had nothing, and so they contributed in kind, as they were able: a grizzled piece of chicken, a small pouch of sticky rice; anything would do. And every mom, dad, grandparent and guardian wanted to contribute.