Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Right to be Hungry?

In Mae Sot, many children must walk the streets every day, begging for money. For some, their parents will beat them if they don't make enough. For all of them, they are subjected to abuse on the street and are robbed of their childhood. I have seen the marks on their little bodies and can't deny that they've been through hell.

We spend time with these kids when they come to our drop-in center to be loved and fed, and to be a kid for a few hours. We also see them on the street, where they're hot, hungry, and barefoot. We don't give the kids money, but we will feed them. This upsets and irritates a lot of people. Last week, at about 8pm, another staff member and I ran into a couple young boys who told us they were hungry. We took them to a nearby restaurant and bought them dinner. They weren't kidding - they inhaled their food like they hadn't eaten in days. While we watched them with affection and sadness, we noticed that everyone in the room and walking by on the street kept stopping to glare at us, as if we were having dinner with monsters. They were disgusted.

Either independently or out as a group, we have seen and fed these boys about six times since then. I was sitting at a computer with my iced coffee in an air-conditioned coffee shop when I spotted one of the boys getting change from someone in the parking lot. (By the way, his face and the boyishness in his eyes has a striking resemblance to my little brother's at that age). He saw me through the window and ran over to wave. He knew he wasn't welcome inside, so he stood on the other side of the window, smiling. I walked outside and asked him if he was hungry. We both knew just a little Thai as our only common language, so it took a moment to communicate. An American girl walked by, rolled her eyes, and said, "don't do it", as if she was warning me not to do something foolish, like I should've known better. I left with him to get him some food, and when we stepped back out onto the sidewalk afterwards, a shop owner scolded him harshly to go away. I could see his face fall as he obeyed, so I followed him and we walked for awhile. He pointed at his bare feet and at some shoes in a shop, and I was conflicted over what my response should be. True, he might just sell them, but I was also looking at a little boy who didn't have any shoes. When I saw that the shoes were the same price as the iced coffee I was holding in my hand, I couldn't say no. I knew that shop owner, and was so happy that she smiled at the boy and helped him find a pair that fit. And when I saw him just a couple days ago, he was still wearing them!

I feel grateful to be part of these kids' lives, and intensely unsettled by the attitudes I have seen. Another girl had a similar experience this week when she shared some of her chicken with one of the boys. An American man pulled over as he was driving by to say, "you fell for it, huh?" Fell for what, exactly? Is it so hard to believe that a young kid without anyone to look after him, who works on the street in the hot sun for 12+ hours every day, might be hungry? Or is the problem that he's hungry every day, and sometimes maybe even more than once per day? Yes, the kids are good at getting money from people. They have to be. Maybe after seeing them do this day after day and week after week, I'd start to see them differently.

But I sincerely pray I don't.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I'm Not Even Mad, I'm Impressed.

I like a challenge just as much as the next guy, and learning the Thai language is certainly that.

There are five tones: middle, low, high, rising, and falling. The tone distinguishes a word, so for example, "mai" has five different meanings depending on what tone you use. There are tone marks in the Thai script, but the marks are read differently depending on the specific character it appears with, and the combination of consonants and vowels.

There are 44 sounds total in the English sound-box, and there are 44 consonants in the Thai alphabet. There are almost 30 vowel sounds, which are either short or long, and simple or complex. Vowels are either a character or a combination of characters before, after, above, or below the consonant.

Speaking Thai is awkward (and incredibly fun), and learning to read Thai is like cracking a secret code. So, Thai language: I'm not even mad, I'm impressed!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Heartbreak & Hope

After a five hour drive through the hills and jungle of Thailand, I arrived in Mae Sot on Monday night. Chiang Mai was an amazing experience, and with all the night markets and things to do, it felt a lot like vacation. Mae Sot is a whole different world. Only a couple miles from the border of Burma, it's a developing city with many issues. Someone described it as "Burma meets the Wild West", and so far that feels pretty accurate! In the busiest part, the streets are busy with motorbike and car traffic, shops and food stands. As you get away from the city, you feel like you're on a safari with all the green, palm trees and hills.

It's been a busy week, and I'm still processing everything I've seen and experienced. I have spent time with the children in Compasio's safehouse, the home for babies born in prison, and the drop-in center for the street kids. Even though there's a language barrier with these kids (they speak either Thai or Burmese), they are so eager to play or just to be held. It's impossible to not instantly fall in love with every one of them, which makes it even more difficult to see the street kids you fed and played with at the drop-in center out on the street late at night. I've gone from low to lower maintenance here, as personal comforts and luxuries take a distant backseat to the need here. I've seen people eating out of the garbage, young girls caring for babies and a crippled man reaching out to me. In the split moment of decision to either walk by or to engage with him, I was pierced by fear and ignored him. I forgot who was protecting me and what I was here for, and I pray it won't happen again.

Then there was the dump. I was told two things before going there on Thursday: wear sturdy shoes and prepare your heart. I wore shoes and socks, but there's no way I could've braced my heart for what it was about to encounter. As our land rover pulled up to the dump, the people who call it home rushed over, happy to see us. We spread out a couple rugs, gave the children coloring books and crayons, and we played with balloons. There were about 40 kids, covered in a thick sticky layer of black dirt. One little boy played in a mound of garbage like it was a pile of leaves, jumping around and making "snow angels" in it. I observed from a distance because I didn't know what to do with myself, and if I'm being completely honest, I didn't really want to get dirty. The smiling babies and playful children quickly brought me to my senses, and I joined them on the ground. I held them, played with them, wiped their noses, and I got filthy. It was worth every piece of dirt to be part of their lives for that brief part of time. Just as I was beginning to forget where we were, the garbage truck came. About 20 of the adults lined up with their bags in eager anticipation for what it would bring. Their need for the garbage, and their excitement for it, is what tore my heart out. Just as it was breaking, a little boy I had been playing with earlier ran up to me and hugged my legs. I picked him up, and he put his arms around my neck and his head on my shoulder. I was told to walk up the mountain of trash to see their homes on the other side, so I did. I almost vomited from the smell and from the blanket of flies, and I saw a small village of shacks built out of wood, metal and rugs on top of the garbage. I cried, and I prayed. I felt like God said he sees these people. We are at war with injustice and despair, but Jesus Christ will win. We'll continue to go to the dump every week, build relationship with these people, and bring them food and water. There's a small dirty lake next to the dump, so we're also looking into options for a water filtration system.

Every day my heart breaks and my hope is challenged, but I know God is at work here. There are many NGO's in Mae Sot, and it's encouraging that so many other people have seen a need and are working to bring hope to this needy and desparate place.

Thank you all for your support, without which I wouldn't be able to be here!