By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Published, Bangkok Post, April 10, 2011
Violence and mayhem don’t just happen in our slums. It’s not how we handle our affairs. When it does, it’s almost always from outside causes.
This was the case for Klong Toey's Khun Dhee, whose life descended into mayhem during the red shirt demonstrations two years ago
He was hit by shrapnel from an old tear-gas canister during a fracas. Its effects are insidious: you can't breathe; smoke sears your lungs, your eyes, the chemicals mixed in with the shrapnel burns deep to scar, maim and cause wounds that won't heal.
Dhee, an artist and portrait painter in Klong Toey bore the entire vicious brunt of the tear-gas grenade. Shrapnel tore his right lung, bruised and cracked some ribs, breaking one, and mangled his right hand. A couple of pieces of shrapnel penetrated his chest and throat, bringing him to his knees.
He kept his head back to make it easier to breathe and clasped his good hand to his throat, trying to ease the pain. He never lost consciousness during those first few minutes and kept a tight grip on his motorcycle key with a sacred image attached.
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.
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 an evening some time ago as young Yor Saeng left her home in Issan to catch the overnight bus to Bangkok, a jing-jok (small lizard) made its "tak-tak" sound at her. Her Momma shuddered: "Girl, that creature is warning you. Make a 'tak-tak' sound back to thank the jing-jok and change your clothes so the naughty mischievous spirits won't recognise you."
But Yor Saeng only laughed. Her name means something like "the beauty of a temple with a grove of sacred trees under a Northeast pre-dawn sky". And she's a Star. No doubt about that. That's a short step below Heroine.
Stars are tough survivors with a beauty about them. Also warts, wrinkles thrown in, with mud from the rice fields between their toes.
She was the baby of the family: the ninth child. Attended the village school and worked the fields with Momma and the family. Daddy died when she was five. She was 12 that night she shrugged off the jing-jok's forewarning and climbed on the bus to Bangkok to live with an older sister and work in her noodle shop.
Keynote Address, International Korczak Conference, Aug. 6, 2010, Tokyo Japan
To be here today, of course I had to ask permission from all our children in our Janusz Korczak School in the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok, especially the ones in their early teens, both boys and girls; because in many ways, they are more fragile and vulnerable, and bruise more easily than the smallest and youngest. The younger ones hurt for the moment, the older ones hurt for a lifetime.
I come before you from Bangkok with a nearly impossible task.
To imagine that Dr. Janusz Korczak is sitting here in the front row, listening to what all of us are saying.
And of course, he is here in spirit.
I am here to give you a message from our children: the Janusz Korczak children of the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok.
And if my message rings true and clear – and you can hear the voices of our children - then I know Dr. Janusz approves, and more important, our children approve. And if our children approve, then the children of the whole world approve.
Our Children: (slide show)
These are our children, formerly street kids, used and abused thow-aways who live with us as family.
Our children have several messages:
First, they wish to say, “We the Janusz Korczak children of Klong Toey are okay. Not perfect. Not 100%, but doing okay – and we hope that you are okay.” And from the younger ones… they ask, “Do you know how to play ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors’ and how many times can you skip rope without missing a step?”
And so the children ask you, do your children do this?
I do not come bringing a magical formula for protecting children – only a message from our children. But maybe it is magic:
Published in the Bangkok Post, Spectrum Section, July 25, 2010
RIP Khun Vinai, their daddy, dead from booze at 47. Husband of their momma Ms Dhang, five years now in prison for drug possession and distribution.