On an island near Myanmar, Moken children get not only an education but a sense of pride, and are taught it's not over until the fat lady apologises. Published by Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, September 28, 2014: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/434772/the-sea-gypsies-new-flag
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Twenty young boys and girls from the Kao Lao Moken sea gypsy camp on an island near Ranong were swimming as fast as they could. A fat lady in a long-tail boat was bearing down on them, poking at them with a stick with spines on it.
It began innocently enough, when two of the best swimmers, Nid and Nung, both eight and becoming among the first in the community to learn how to read, write and count, asked the headmistress of our school if the class could take a break and go swimming. The teacher said OK, and when they returned they began to discuss a special event.
Teacher said yes, it's Saturday when we usually have classes to "catch up", but promised this Saturday would be a special day. Birthdays and names would be celebrated, followed by a swimming contest and ice-cream. Let's make today an exception.
The incoming high tide on the Andaman Sea was perfect for swimming and the water was so clear you could see three metres, right to the bottom. And there were no jellyfish. It was not yet their season, when they might sting you, upset that you invaded their space.
This was a very special place. When the tide was low, you could walk all the way to Queen Victoria Point in Myanmar, a distance of maybe 3km, with the water mostly no deeper than your waist.
At a glance, you would hardly know you were in a swank Bangkok neighborhood.
All you can see in front of you are rows and rows of corrugated tin shacks in a field of mud. Yet just beyond the shacks, just a few blocks away, the streets are full of posh condos and fancy restaurants.
What you’re seeing is a construction workers camp, filled with migrant families, mostly from Cambodia, who have come to Thailand to eek out a semi-nomadic living, moving from one construction site to another, wherever they can earn a modest day-wage.
During the day, most moms and dads here are working on nearby construction sites while a few grandmas look after the babies and toddlers. The older children are left to fill their days idly in their shacks or to wander and play in patches of deep rutted sludge. The children are not allowed off premise. This mud patch is their world, their entire universe.
What a glorious day!
Our Korczak School students had been preparing for the big event for over a week. They practiced their classical Thai song and dance performances. They created an art exhibit of their own original photography. They wrote speeches and memorized every word. They even baked cakes and cookies on the day before the event.
They were more than ready to celebrate.
The 10th Anniversary Celebration of our Janusz Korczak School, held last Thursday, turned out to be fabulously fun, and moving.
We opened our Janusz Korczak School in 2005, at first for several children who lived with us as family in our Mercy Centre – kids who simply could not fit into regular school.
Many Mercy kids had been living on the streets before they joined our family and missed out on an early education. Other Mercy kids missed out because they were too weak from AIDS or had other physical ailments. Some Mercy kids were developmentally slow. No government schools would take them in.
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.
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.
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.
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!
by Fr. Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Published by the Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, June 1, 2014
Auntie Boon Mee looks and carries on in life pretty much how you’d expect a high-class Klong Toey slum pioneer woman to look and carry on.
Not that she “can run faster than a speeding bullet or jump over tall buildings in a single bound” or do any of that stuff — the street-sweeper says she couldn’t do that even when she was young and first moved with her new husband to the Chao Phraya riverside swamp called Klong Toey 60 years ago.
She’s pure, unadulterated Klong Toey pioneer stock. Eighty-two years old — remembers the year for sure, as her mum told her, and also that she was born on a Thursday. Teacher’s day. Everything else is lost. The date on her ID card was invented years ago, when some kind official registered a good day and month to be born.
She’s 20,000 baht in debt at the moment. That’s what she admits to; it’s probably more, but in Klong Toey’s debt-ridden culture, it’s “un-slumlike” to admit to more.
Borrowed from the neighbouring noodle shop at 10% per month, her debt shot up. She needed cash to buy a motorcycle taxi for her youngest and only remaining son. In street trash talk, he’s called “Blurr”. He’s OK as a motorcycle taxi driver on short trips. Not so safe otherwise.
That’s how she got her shoulder banged up — riding sidesaddle on Blurr’s motorcycle to get one of her brooms fixed. He skidded, she slipped. She wouldn’t go to the hospital. Said: “No need. I’m not bleeding.”
Six decades ago, her village wedding was done all proper-like. Too poor for a dowry, her mum asked for a brass ring — a wedding ring to show respect and dignity. Thus, approval of their elders and blessings were given and taken.
The morning after her wedding, she and new husband asked for “a going away blessing” so her mum and dad gave them rice cooked in banana leaves for when they got hungry along the way. They said their goodbyes and set out to seek their fame and fortune.
The word was there was work and wages in the Klong Toey river swamp. You could move in for free and for work: carry 100kg rice sacks on your back from the wharf onto the ships. Women were hired to sweep and clean. So they boarded an early morning bus to Bangkok and then walked to Klong Toey. Her mum had said, “Girl, stay near the river, there’s always fish.” Mum didn’t know if there were black crabs around Klong Toey, but she thought there might be.
Auntie Boon Mee had grown up in mangrove trees and mud flats 50km from Bangkok. Her mum and dad had a tiny wooden boat. They caught small, black, saltwater crabs used in Thai spicy food, sometimes by hand with no gloves for protection against the snipping of the claws.
At Klong Toey, Auntie Boon Mee and her husband were happy newlywed pioneers. Their first home was a lean-to shack salvaged from scrap wood. They had work, a home and nice slum neighbours. She patched up an old mosquito net for sleeping. They began a family ... raised two children in Klong Toey, where they thought they could give them a future. But the swamp slum was not always kind. Often, even now, she laments: “I should have taken my boys back to the mangrove trees and taught them to catch black crabs bare-handed as I learned from my mum and dad.”
Her first son died at 20. He was sick from “whatever”, that was brought on by injecting heroin into his veins along with various other “whatever else” he could put into a needle.
He had been arrested and was awaiting sentencing when he convulsed in the local jail. So the good policeman, a neighbour and fellow settler, solemnly and without a smile, told Auntie Boon Mee that the arrest of her drug addict son “was a case of mistaken identity”. She quickly borrowed a wheelbarrow from a neighbour, got him into it as best she could and carted him home. He died a couple of hours later. Everyone said: “Thank goodness he died at home. A police cell is not a good place to leave your ghost.”
Auntie Boon Mee had no money for a coffin. But the man at the Benevolent Chinese Society liked her, knew of her street sweeping and donated his best plywood casket.
Her husband died shortly thereafter. One early dawn, she was sweeping outside their shack when she heard him groan and collapse. He died in her arms, not Hollywood style, but with him gasping for air while her youngest son — Blurr, the motorcycle taxi guy — shouted “Dad, breathe!” and she blew air into her husband’s mouth. He had come around before, she says, but not this time.
After her husband died and was cremated in another donated plywood casket, she still had three small children living with her. She doesn’t know exactly how they ended up with her. They were stray kids. They’d help her sweep the streets and one morning they simply followed her home.
She used to spoon-feed these three children, who are now grown up. When neighbours asked why she spoon-fed them, she explained that she didn’t have much money, almost nothing, and she wanted all three to eat at well as they could. She didn’t want them to fight over their food so she dished it out by spoon, making it equal. This way, no one would go away hungry and no one got more than another.
It was about that time she got more into sweeping. She wanted the area in front of her shack to look nice; wanted her “orphans” to feel proud of their home. The place didn’t need to be dirty and filled with garbage.
Now that’s what she’s known for. A kind grandmother and Klong Toey street-sweeper. Plus, a bit of gambling in the local Jhap Yee Gee — 10 baht a chance and 100 baht if you win. A winner each hour, 12 hours a day.
She’s never accepted money for keeping the slum clean.
Fresh garbage? She’d never sweep that. Leave it for hungry cats and stray dogs. “They have to eat, too,” she says. Even the rats. Feeding strays plus seeking intercession at the local Sacred Tree brings her good luck at the local Jhap Yee Gee, she says.
But of late — the past few months — her luck has changed. She’s losing more than winning. She’s asked a woman neighbour — the same age and known for telling fortunes — if this string of bad luck comes from catching all those small, black, saltwater crabs when she was a girl.
Or maybe she didn’t make enough merit while praying for the souls of her first son and husband. You never can be sure about these heavenly matters.
So she sweeps the streets of the slum — her way of paying back and saying thanks for her life along the river and for her slum neighbours, and, even, for the bad patches she has faced.
A while back — maybe four years — it was announced on the loud speakers that Auntie Boon Mee was now duly elected. She was second in charge after the newly elected president of the Slum Committee.
Everyone was congratulating her and she didn’t have a clue. People were buying her “shots”. (Special medicine that’s a morning wake up for her aching bones. Some folks have a morning wake-up cup of coffee, others ...)
The street-sweeper of Klong Toey had won the slum election. It happened this way.
There are no secrets in our slum and moneylenders are not unaware. They needed her on their ballot. So they went to Auntie Boon Mee and said: “Auntie, let us put your name on our local election ticket and we’ll pay for the motorcycle and make your debts disappear.” They did not say: With a majority vote, government improvement projects will come to our slum, and of course, there might always be a bit left over for the local politicians.
She said: “Absolutely not.” They put her on the ticket anyway. She got votes. Lots and lots.
Embarrassed, not knowing what to do, early the next morning she went and swept around the Sacred Tree near the Klong Toey walk-up flats, seeking wisdom. She left her broom there. Somehow there was now a sacredness about the broom. She said she felt better: it would be OK to accept the position of vice-president. She said no bribes. However, if the moneylenders did not come around and bother her any more, well, that would be a relief.
But there was one problem.
Her hair had grown out — returned to its natural colour of grey. This is an embarrassment. In Klong Toey, no matter what your age, your hair must be black. Rarely grey at the edges. So she accepted a proper hair colouring from her hairdresser. As a gift. Not a bribe.
A couple of mornings ago, she had just finished her special Klong Toey breakfast: First, a morning shot of “bone medicine”, as she calls it. Second a glass of sweet local coffee with a raw egg mixed in. Third, a Jhap Yee Gee lottery ticket. Although she didn’t win, she says her luck is changing. She’s winning more often. Probably because of her sweeping around that Sacred Tree.
It began to rain. Some children going to school asked her: “Auntie Boon Mee, why do you sweep while it’s raining?”
She replied: “My children, I can’t help it if it rains while I am sweeping. That’s not my fault. Blame the rain.”
And so, there you have it. Auntie Boon Mee, a world-class street-sweeper, wearing out one broom per week, and our slum’s very own second-in-charge. Elected by the people, for the people. Maybe she can’t run faster than a speeding bullet or jump over tall buildings in a single bound, but she is much more than a fictional superhero to us.
She’s a wonderful role model and our high-class Klong Toey swamp slum pioneer. It’s a privilege to know her.