Saturday, 16 April 2011

Away match: Bryan Robson visits Bangkok shelter

For many people, football is a sport, a passion and a part of their regional identity. For UNICEF, football is a way of keeping children fit and healthy and of teaching them life skills like discipline and teamwork. We also team up with leading football clubs and players to raise awareness and funds for our work on children’s rights.

Manchester United legends Bryan Robson and Andrew Cole were in Bangkok last week as part of a fundraising tour to help the club raise £1 million for UNICEF’s work with children. During their trip, I went with Bryan to visit Baan Phumvej Reception Home for Boys, to learn how UNICEF is supporting children who have been abused or trafficked.

I arrived in Pak Kred an hour ahead of the main group. The boys were practicing for a music class and changing into Man Utd kits, bought specially for the occasion. Bryan arrived later with Alex from UNICEF UK and John Shiels, from the Manchester United Foundation. Also known as ‘Captain Marvel’, Bryan was the longest serving captain in the club’s history and is now manager of the Thailand national team.

We also met Ann and Nang from Peuan Peuan (‘Friends’ in Thai), part of the NGO Friends International, which gets support from UNICEF to work with migrant and trafficked children.

I asked Bryan how the Thailand national team was getting on. “I’m really enjoying the experience and working with the Thai players,” he said. “We’ve done well in one competition, the Asian Games. We didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped in the Suzuki cup but in July we’ve got our first World Cup qualifying game coming up, so for me it’s all about building up for that.”

Pak Kred is a shelter for children who need special protection. Some of the boys are victims of child trafficking or domestic violence, others are former street children. At the shelter, social workers look into each child’s situation. Educational activities prepare them for work or formal school and, where possible, preparations are made to return them to their families or communities.

However, staff at the shelter are not fully equipped to deal with non-Thai children. The shelter is home to 130 boys, around 40 per cent of whom come from the neighbouring countries of Burma, Cambodia and Laos. They arrive with migrant families or through child trafficking. Staff from Friends International visit Pak Kred shelter three times a week to give these children non-formal education in their own language. The organisation also works with NGOs in neighbouring countries to try to trace their families.

Bryan Robson holds a football coaching session at Pak Kred Reception Home for Boys.
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Piyanun Kiatnaruyuth

On tour

We took Bryan and John for a tour of the shelter. They saw a hairdressing room with leather chairs lined up before a wall of mirrors, where the trainee barbers practice new haircuts on each other – and on visiting celebrities. Bryan got a quick trim. Next door was a pottery workshop where boys made ceramic animals and flowers from rubber moulds.

In another room a class was performing music with traditional Thai bamboo instruments called angklung. Each instrument produces one note when shaken, so the melody was determined by the teacher, who conducted the class. Bryan and John joined the orchestra, carefully copying the boys on either side of them. “It’s good for the arms,” Bryan joked afterwards, before giving signed photos to the boys.

After the music class we went out to the centre’s football field, where the boys had assembled in their Manchester United kits. Bryan spotted one boy in a number 7 shirt. “That was my number,” he said. Bryan and John ran a coaching session for the children, teaching them how to score goals. They put them in numbered pairs, with one boy as a striker and his partner as a defender. At the end, Bryan took a shot and scored. I felt a bit sorry for the young goalkeeper, who almost certainly had never had to defend against a professional player.

After the training session, I interviewed Bryan for a short video for the UNICEF Thailand website. I asked him about his impressions of the project. “What I’ve seen is a fantastic facility,” he replied. “The children are really well behaved and very concentrated on what they’re doing. I’ve seen musicians playing, I’ve seen them on the sports field. It’s a terrific facility for badly abused and homeless kids. So they do a terrific job here and I’m impressed all round. When you see facilities like this, no wonder Manchester United want to be involved with UNICEF.”

Bryan was particularly impressed by the focus on sport. “What’s great for me is that they’re doing sport as well as education,” he continued. “We all know that education is very important but when kids get onto a playing field, no matter what sport they’re doing, they really enjoy being outside. And it’s good for them, for their health and keeping fit.”

I asked Bryan what he’d learned about UNICEF’s work. “I spoke to the staff here and it’s not just about bringing kids off the street, it’s about educating them how not to end up back on the streets,” he said. “It’s about trying to get the older boys some employment so they can learn a trade. Also trying to get some of the Burmese and Cambodian kids who’ve been trafficked to Thailand back to their own countries.”

Bryan and John join a music class at the shelter, while Alex and I watch from the doorway.
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Piyanun Kiatnaruyuth

Child protection

One of the boys on the team Bryan coached was nine-year-old Fahan (not his real name), who had been taken from the Burmese border area and brought to Bangkok with his sister Meliha by a trafficking gang. Fahan is from one of the Muslim minority groups in Burma. His family is very poor. They have four children and live in Myawaddy village on the Moi river, where the father drives a boat.

Recently, a child trafficker went to the family and offered them 3,000 baht [£600] for two of their children. Traffickers often promise to look after children and give them a better life, but the reality is very different. He brought Fahan and Meliha to Bangkok, where they lived with him in a room above a shop. They slept during the day, and he forced them to sell flowers on the street at night. If they disobeyed him, he would beat them. They earned around 1,000 baht a night, but the broker would only give them 10 baht each for a snack.

On a previous visit to the shelter, we talked to Fahan about his situation. “I used to live with my family in Burma on the Mae-Sot border, near the Friendship Bridge,” he told us. “I went to school there. I was in the second grade. There was someone who brought me and my sister here from Burma. I don’t know him. We came in a big bus. When we got here I sold roses with my sister in places where there were lots of tourists. We sold them from 8 p.m. until the morning. After a while we ran away from where we were working and a Burmese guy brought us here.”

Fahan seemed happy at the shelter but was keen to go home. “During the day I sweep the floor, take a shower, work in the kitchen and eat soup,” he said. “I like learning Thai and Burmese, and playing and listening to music. I would like to go back home to my family in Burma.”

Luckily, Friends International were able to trace Fahan’s family in Burma and make sure it was safe for the children to return. As Bryan left the shelter, he walked with Fahan for a while, and I talked to Man Utd’s camera man about the issues facing trafficked children. Solving these kinds of problems can be an uphill struggle involving UNICEF, the government and other partners. Support from football clubs like Manchester United makes our job a lot easier and helps give children like Fahan a chance for a better future.

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