Exile on main street
Taking popular Thai bloggers to see a drop-in centre for street children in Chiang Mai
Last week, we took a group of popular Thai bloggers to see projects for marginalised children in Thailand’s Chiang Mai district. After two days visiting orchard schools in Fang (see part two of this blog), we returned to Chiang Mai itself to visit a drop-in centre for street children.
Run by the Volunteers for Children Development Foundation, the centre focuses on preventing and supporting the victims of sexual abuse. Many of the street children in Chiang Mai were sold to child traffickers at the Burmese border and brought into Thailand to work in the sex industry. Once in Thailand, these children are considered ‘stateless people’ and are not entitled to identity cards. This denies them the right to education, healthcare and – when they grow up – to legal work.
The Foundation helps these children by providing life skills training and sexual health education. Condoms and pregnancy tests are available free of charge. UNICEF helped fund the centre’s HIV prevention work and is now evaluating it. “We do outreach to around 800 children in Chiang Mai,” Foundation Director Ake told us. “They come from ethnic minorities and broken homes. Lots of children end up here because of the sex trade. We build their trust on the streets, then we invite them to visit the centre. Here they can get food, milk and informal education.”
The drop-in centre was a small building in a side street, with an open-plan play area on the ground floor and an office upstairs. While Ake told our bloggers more about the project, I started taking photos of the children. Most of them were ethnic Shan Burmese, as in Fang, but some of them were Thai. They were watching an exercise video and copying the dance moves. A girl in a white vest punched the air enthusiastically in time to the music.
I find that taking photos of vulnerable children presents a particular challenge. In order to protect their identity, you cannot show their faces, yet you still need to convey a sense of their personality and environment. There are various ways to do this: you can photograph from behind or above, cover the child’s face with a toy, or use a narrow depth of field to blur out the faces in the background.
I moved into an adjacent play area and crouched down to get a low-angle shot of the children dancing. A six-year-old girl took this as an invitation for a piggy back ride and climbed onto my back, wrapping her arms tightly around my neck. I can’t say no to children who want to play, as my nephew is well aware, so I took her for a ride around the centre.
My passenger was a small girl in a green t-shirt with her hair tied into a top knot. She was with a four-year-old boy, who was playing with a box of plastic shapes. He carefully fitted the shapes together into a long line, which he held up triumphantly. “My name is Andy. What is your name?” I asked the girl in Thai. “Jaidee,” she replied (not her real name). She pointed at the boy, who turned out to be her cousin. “Tong” she said.
Jaidee and Tong joined the other children, who were now making tie-dye t-shirts for sale in the centre’s gift shop. This helps raise money to fund the project, but for the children it was just another fun activity. They each took a handful of stones from a plastic cup, placed them on a plain t-shirt, and tied them together with an elastic band so they were ready for dyeing.
While the children were busy with their activity, I spoke to Jaidee’s mother, 22-year-old Chompoo, who had just arrived with an eight-month-old baby boy. “We live on the streets near here and work in the evening, selling flowers at the night market,” she told me. “I leave Jaidee and Tong with my sister and I take the baby with me. On a good night, we make 200 to 300 Baht [£4 to £6]. On a bad night it’s more like 20 Baht [40 pence].”
I asked Chompoo why she brought her children to the centre. “We started coming a year ago,” she replied. “Before then, the children didn’t know what to do during the day. They’re much happier now. Jaidee enjoys drawing and painting. It’s good that they can come here and learn things. They’re more disciplined now. The Foundation is good to us. When the children get sick, we can come here to get medicine or money for the hospital.”
Everything must go
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Andy Brown
We didn’t have much time before catching our return flight, so we left the children and went to visit the centre’s shop, in another part of Chiang Mai. The store was selling tie-dye t-shirts, like the ones we saw the children make, as well as hand-made cards and other arts and crafts. I’m getting married soon and we needed some small presents for our guests, so it was the perfect shopping opportunity. I bought 60 patchwork animals, including miniature fish, birds and elephants.
Back at our hotel, we held a wrap-up session for the bloggers, where they presented to each other about what they had seen and learned. Along with the night school, this was the time when I saw a few of the bloggers moved to tears. “I was born in the south of Thailand so I’m always touched by underprivileged children,” Fah said. “Some of the kids I grew up with were very poor. Here, the children help each other. I want other people to see these projects too.”
Sresuda, who is also a news reporter, added: “I admire UNICEF for opening up and letting bloggers come to see these projects. I would like to thank them for supporting the orchard schools. The blog stories will be useful because there’s not much information in Thailand about social development. I hope that we will be good broadcasters of these issues.”
Once we were back in Bangkok, Bhee from Sansiri sent me a summary of the early results from social media. We were the fourth most popular trending topic in Thailand on Twitter, reaching over 250,000 users with 1,228 tweets. In total, our messages were viewed 2.9 million times. Our top blogger, Kafaak, was responsible for over 1 million views. In the weeks after the visit, several bloggers also produced in-depth stories about what they had seen.
I sat at my desk in the UNICEF office in Banglumphu, overlooking the Chao Praya river, now swollen with flood waters coming down from the north. As I scrolled through thousands of messages on Twitter and copy-and-pasted the blogs into Google Translate, I felt that we had achieved what we set out to do. We had brought UNICEF’s work to a new, wider and younger audience. We may not have been on the front page of the Bangkok Post, but we certainly sent ripples through Thailand’s emerging cyberspace.
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