Education and work to uplift street kids in Bangkok
by Weena Kovidhavanij
Tens of thousands of abandoned children are forced to beg or get caught up in the sex trade, leading a life on the margins without rights or parental care. Catholic and other associations work to guarantee them a future. Education is the only tool for radical change, as former street kids turned teachers can testify.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) - Tens of thousands of kids share the same terrible fate of living in the streets, hovering under bridges, of Thailand's main cities, like the capital Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket or Had-Yai. Coming from broken homes, abandoned by their parents unwilling or incapable of taking care for them, uneducated and sometimes stateless, these kids are exploited by unscrupulous adults, "friends" who draw them into the sex trade. Most of them are Thai, but some come from neighbouring Cambodia or Myanmar. The luckier ones follow their parents who eke out a living by doing the odd jobs; the others beg or survive by their wits.

Recently, the National Health Foundation (NHF) and the Foundation for the Better Life of Children (FBLC) organised a public meeting on "Solving the Street Children' Problem Sustainably'. Activists, street kids, teachers and volunteers, some of them former street kids themselves, took part in the event. Everyone agreed that education and jobs are the path to take the kids out of the street and improve their social conditions.

"I grew up in a slum in Klong Toey (Bangkok) with my mother and grandmother," said Zim, a teacher with the FBLC, and "I never met my father".

Often she would skip class and refuse to do her homework until one day she learnt about the street children's foundation. Eventually, this gave her a "chance to go to university."

After graduating, she dedicated herself to the education of abandoned children. Her hope is that "society will give them a change," the way she got a chance. Presently, she is responsible for "80 street kids".

Pong is also a teacher at the Mercy Center and Servant of the Poor, which was founded by Fr Joseph Maier, a US Redemptorist, together with Sister Maria Chanatavarodom. He too lived on the streets for months on end before a friend directed him towards the centre.

"I'd like to give back to society what I was fortunate to receive," said the young educator who studied with the support of the Mercy Center.

In his previous life as a vagrant in the streets, he rode motorbikes, begged and gambled. Now he acknowledges that it takes years of work in education to turn things around.

Some 30,000 street kids benefit from the services of a number of associations, said FBLC coordinator Thongpoon Buasri, but many are still left to fend for themselves.

Providing an education that fits individual needs, whether university or vocational training, is the greatest challenge in his view. In the meantime, the kids need to eat and drink and stay in close contact with their mothers.

In Thailand, some 40 homes are open to street kids. Seventeen of them are run by the government; the others are in the hands of private groups or associations, some Catholic.

However, the recent downturn in the economy has caused the closure of six privately-funded children's centres.