When we first began working with the Mokan community on the island of Koh Lao two years ago, the villagers had never heard of “Mothers Day” or for that matter any other national holiday. They had no concept of a specific day, week, or month of the year because their culture bases the passing of time on the moon and the tides.
Once nomadic, living on the sea, they are now anchored on an island, impoverished and stateless. As we continue to help educate the sea gypsy children in this community and improve their health and welfare, we are also trying to introduce everyone in the village to the world they must live in now and forever in the future: a world with days, weeks, months – and holidays.
Many Koh Lao villagers, especially the elders, may never give much thought to our concept of a calendar, but Mothers Day is exceptional: it’s a day everyone believes in.
The villagers held their second annual Mothers Day Celebration this past week, where the children danced and performed for their moms and then knelt before them, expressing their respect and love. It is hard to understand exactly why this event hit such a huge emotional chord among this Mokan village. Everyone in the village cried in joy throughout the ceremony. Koh Lao Project details.
Father Joe recently presented the keynote address at the International Janusz Korczak Conference, held this August 5 - 9 in Tokyo, Japan. (Complete text of speech here.)
The bi-annual international conference is dedicated to the life and works of Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish educator and pediatrician who introduced progressive orphanages to Poland and pioneered the legal rights of children everywhere. In 1942, when his Jewish orphanage was removed to the Warsaw Ghetto, Janusz Korczak refused an offer of help for his own safety. Months later Korczak and his children walked together in quiet dignity to the train bound for Treblinka, where they perished.
In his keynote address, Fr. Joe Maier presented a message from his own children – the 200 abandoned and orphaned children who live as family in Mercy Centre. When Fr. Joe told his children he would be speaking in Tokyo on the rights of children, they asked him to include the following statement:“Every child has an absolute right to protection from each and every adult they meet. All children, when they see any adult anywhere – on the street, in school, and especially at home - can look at that adult and know they will be protected. Loved. Looked after. No matter what. That they will not be harmed. They are safe.”
If anyone doubts the revolutionary power of a strong education, they should meet our international scholarship students. All fourteen of our current scholarship students grew up in poverty; several lived for years as a part of our Mercy family. None had ever imagined studying past high school.
But because people believed in their potential, they were accepted into Baccalaureate programs at United World Colleges in Norway and Canada, and have continued their studies in American universities on academic scholarships.
During their summer breaks, if they are able to return to Bangkok, they join together to help us at our Mercy Centre. And once every summer, the students gather with their families for a special celebration of education. At this year’s gathering, held last Saturday, Ms. Jariya Yamkhamang , a Senior at Westminster College in Missouri, spoke for all our students about her education when she said, “The best gift in life is the gift of opportunity.”
We agree. And all our students prove the truth of Ms. Jariya’s statement every day.
Even though our Mercy Centre is located in the middle of Bangkok's largest, most densely populated slum community, our home often feels like it's far away from the city - as if we were living in a traditional Thai rural village. And this feeling always gets even stronger during Thai holidays. On April 9, we celebrated the Thai New Year - Songkran - at Mercy Center the same way we always do - as a village. The monks from our local temple and the elderly poor from 20 surrounding slum communities joined our staff and children in prayers, blessings, songs, a few old saucy dances, and a wonderful feast. To make sure everyone could attend, we held our Songkran festival a few days early, which, as it turned out, was fortunate. Mounting protests and a bloody confrontation on the following day forced the government and most residents to cancel or alter their festivities. Photo by Yoonki Kim
They put on their robes. Donned their caps. And with great pomp, circumstance, plus a few giggles, 702 children celebrated their Graduation Day at Mercy Preschools throughout the slums this week. It was an especially joyous day for their families as moms, dads, brothers, sisters, aunties, and grandmoms joined their children in the celebrations.
At the ceremony, Father Joe, in his doctoral robes, spoke to the children about the importance of staying in school, as he has on every graduation day since 1973. “If you’re hungry and have no shoes, what do you do?” he asked them.