Saturday, 12 December 2009

Philippines diary: Gimme shelter

Efren, 11, lost three fingers in a flour grinding machine
© UNICEF UK/Philippines 2009/Sharron Lovell
In my penultimate week in the Philippines, I returned to the streets of Binondo to revisit the street children living and working around the night market. This time, I was joined by Sharron Lovell, a Shanghai-based photographer, who had been commissioned by UNICEF UK to take photos of street children for a fundraising campaign. My role was to collect the stories of the children she photographed.

We were reunited with Butch from Childhope Asia Philippines, who was very happy with the photos and story I sent him from our previous trip together. We arrived in Binondo at around 3pm and started looking for Butch’s students. In the end we were out on the streets for eight hours, interspersing our time photographing children with refueling stops at Jolibee (the Filipino equivalent of MacDonalds) and Starbucks, where I quizzed Butch for details of the children’s case histories.

I was amazed by how much information he had in his head, not just about the kids but about their parents, some of whom were also former students of his. “I have thousands of case histories in here,” Butch said, taping his forehead.


In the month since our last trip, Butch had won a ‘Filipino hero’ award on C/S 9, one of the Philippines’ most popular TV channels, in recognition of his many years working with street children. As a result, almost everyone now knows him – from the street kids who call him ‘Papa Butch’ to the customers in the coffee shops and restaurants who asked for his autograph or had their photo taken with him.

One of the many children we met that night was 11-year-old Efren (not his real name), who lives on the streets with a group of friends. Earlier this year, he dropped a one peso coin (1.3 pence) in a flour grinding machine. When he put his hand in to get it back, he lost three fingers. The stall owner paid for Efren to go to the hospital but he couldn’t afford to pay for medication, so the wound got infected.

Efren hasn’t been home since February. His older brother came to Butch and asked him to look out for him on the streets. Butch found him in July, by which time his hand had become infected. “I’d been looking for him for months, then one day he just turned up at an education session,” Butch commented. “By that point his hand smelt really bad.” Childhope Asia arranged for Efren to go back to hospital and get a skin graft, and is now paying for the antibiotics he needs. Butch gives him medication twice a day and changes his dressing every three days.

Efren still comes to the street education sessions with his friends but he’s a slow learner. Butch is trying to persuade him to go to a shelter so he can be properly looked after. Efren doesn’t want to go home. His family live in the port area where his father used to run a delivery business. “Last year his father sold his kidney for 70,000 pesos. Now he’s too ill to work,” Butch says.

Despite his injury, Efren is an outgoing, playful child. He was very active, running and jumping all over the place. He showed off his injured hand, which was red and raw and shaped like a deformed claw, and tried to gross out his friends with it. “It’s a good sign that he plays with his hand,” Butch explained. “It means that he’s accepted what’s happened to him.”

A new hope

Carl, 13, ran away from home after being abused by his father
© UNICEF UK/Philippines 2009/Sharron Lovell
The next day, we visited Pangarap Shelter for Street Children, where Butch refers those of his students who tell him they want to stop living on the streets. The centre, which is staffed by social workers, house parents, teachers and psychologists, offers a homelike atmosphere for former street boys who are unable to return home. While at the shelter, they can attend school and there is a workshop where they can make candles and beads for sale in the shelter’s shop, earning a share of the proceeds.

Unlike government-run ‘rescue’ programmes, children go to these shelters voluntarily and are free to leave at any time. UNICEF is supporting Pangarap with educational materials, clothes and bedding for the children and training for the teachers and social workers.

At the shelter, we attended a group therapy session, where a dozen boys talked through their experiences, facilitated by a child psychologist, also called Sharon. Afterwards, I interviewed five boys, including Carl, 13, who used to live with his mother and sister at a brothel. His sister ran the bar while his mother did the cleaning and housework. There were lots of strippers and prostitutes living there and he found it very difficult to study.

His father, who has since left home, used to physically abuse him. He would put him in a sack and hang him upside down from a tree. Then he would beat him with a stick. Carl told Sharon that his father put holes in the sack so he could hear him scream but he tried to keep silent because he didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. “I think the holes might have been there so he could breath,” Sharon says, “But that’s not the way a child views it.” Either way, it’s a horrific story.

“I ran away from home because I felt imprisoned there,” Carl said. “It was always chaotic and my parents would fight about money. After I left, I sold plastic bottles for a living.”

Carl is happy to be at the shelter. “I’m able to study here and I can stand on my own two feet,” he commented. “My favourite subject is Maths. I want to be a ship engineer and go to different countries. Most of all, I want to go to Australia because Mr Bond is made there. It’s my favourite brand of coffee – it tastes so good.”

Carl also enjoys the group therapy sessions with other boys. “We’re given advice so we can finish our studies,” he added. “We’re taught not to steal and to enjoy ourselves.”

After the session, we went downstairs to the recreation area where the boys played basketball and other games. One group of teenagers was setting up a scrabble board and invited me to join. I tried to find words that were relevant to the Philippines, starting with ‘jeep’, then ‘beach’ and – more controversially – ‘steal’. “This is what you’ve been taught not to do,” I said to laughter.

I’d previously noticed that male Filipino youths show their affection for each other by walking with one person’s arm across the other’s shoulder. As I was playing the game, Carl came over to watch and put his arm over my shoulder in the same way. It was a touching moment for me as it meant that even after our brief acquaintance, he considered me a friend.

Birthday boy

Enjoying the underwater world in Anilao
This was also my birthday week. I was born in November, so I’ve always been slightly jealous of people with summer birthdays and it was a nice change to spend it in the Philippines.

On my actual birthday, I went out with assorted friends and colleagues to ‘The Filling Station’, a 1950s-style diner. Every spare inch was filled with memorabilia, from framed portraits of the Rat Pack, to superhero statues and an antique juke box (non-functioning). We ate ‘crispy pata’ – a traditional Filipino dish made from pig trotters – played pool and took comedy photos with the statues.

At the weekend, I went on diving trip to Anilao on a sheltered bay south of Manila with Martijn and Erik, a Swedish friend of Martijn’s who’d come over to visit. We arrived at the diving centre by boat, traversing clear, still water like that of the Mediterranean but teeming with tropical life. The resort was perched on a rocky ledge over a coral reef in a marine reserve, with sheer cliffs rising vertically behind it.

We did four dives and snorkeling trips over the course of the weekend. I remember underwater scenes of astonishing beauty. There were brightly colored corals and shoals of tropical fish everywhere you looked. Long slender needle fish swam together in a line, while a dozen batfish floated lazily in the shade of a coral chimney.

There were enormous purple giant clams tethered to the bottom of trenches formed by the coral and camouflaged scorpion fish, which looked exactly like barnacle encrusted rock until they moved. At the edge of the reef, the sea floor dropped off into a hypnotic, dark blue immensity below.

Not for the first time, I marveled at how easily we think of the world as comprising everything above water, remaining unaware of the second, magical world that exists just the other side of the water’s surface.

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