"I know it's around here somewhere." I called back to my friend who was following me.
I was looking for a certain small entry from the main street that led down an alley to the packed neighborhood in the heart of the Muslim community. It took two drivebys before we finally found it.
We parked our bikes and made sure they were locked before walking down the alley.
The busy walkway went quite and suddenly every eye was on us, the two foreigners.
"Mingalaba!" I greeted everyone quickly.
"Nay kawn la?" Faces broke from the distrusting grimace into wide smiles, and life resumed.
I spotted an elderly woman that I had visited once or twice before. She has been our first example of a family changing for the better. Her four nephews and son have been enrolled in school, where they were thriving. Just six months ago they were on the street collecting garbage and getting into drugs with the older gangs of boys.
"My daughter, come inside." She welcomed me warmly, and I entered her home.
Each "house" in this slum is one room with a small bathroom and a standing room only area for cooking. The houses are dark and build with old dark wood. Cracks are patched with plastic bags and the walls are thin enough to have a conversation with your surrounding neighbors. The alleyway is scattered with mud puddles and blood colored stains from the beetlenut spit from every person on the lane.
I began conversing with the woman, asking about her health and the health of her husband, inquiring about the boys in school and telling her that she was doing a wonderful job. After a time, I told her we had come to visit Ko Ko's house, could she tell me where it is? She pointed in the direction of it, just a few houses down from hers. As we entered the house, I saw Nyi Nyi, one of our community mentors, talking with Ko Ko's mother. The problem was this:
KoKo, his sister, and a few other young girls are beggars around Mae Sot. They provide for their families by begging at the market, in front of 7-11 and in front of restaurants. They make the bare minimum when they're on their own but if they have an extra, for example a disability or a baby, they can make a lot more each day. So they had found a baby.
Across the river in Maywaddy, there was a mother desperate for money, and she happened to have a baby. She had literally been renting her 6 month old child out to a ten year old for days at a time. Can you imagine loaning your infant to a young boy who walks around a city illegally begging? We were appalled that this was happening and had gone to confront the parents to try to reason with them. So far nothing has worked.
"Can you give us the money the baby is making? If not then don't say anything to us." was their simple, yet bitter reply.
This work is difficult and change does not come easily. Looked down and despised by everyone, these neighborhoods of people are exploited and persecuted. Sometimes it seems like what we're doing is not making any difference. As I sat in those dark one room houses where up to 12 people sleep packed together like sardines, I wanted to cry and I asked God, "Why?". The woman in front of me had been crying, hopelessly in debt and owing an interest of 500% per loan. I felt a lump in my throat and knew that each family in this neighborhood was suffering from not having a salary to provide for their needs.
At that moment I looked outside into the alley. A mother was blowing bubbles, and her two young boys were squealing with joy and dancing through the curtain of rainbow colored soap. It was light out side. It was like a cave inside, but the sun was shining beyond the darkness and there was laughter. A father, dirty and tired after collecting garbage wheeled his cart to his front door and bent down to pick up his small daughter who had run to be held and cuddled. Two of our streets kids came home for lunch after a long morning of collecting recyclables. They washed their feet and hands and kissed their mom on the cheek.
Change is possible. Hope can be seen, even in the midst of a poor slum.
As I rode my bicycle home, my phone rang and I stopped to answer it.
"Hey, teacher Katie." A young voice greeted me in Burmese.
"Thank you for coming to our house. We've really missed you. See you Wednesday at the drop in center?"
"Yes." I replied, smiling, "I'll see you on Wednesday."
Unoh, one of our kids who is now in school