“They are very poor,” sighs the Khmer man on a motor scooter, his curiosity piqued as why three westerns are with the street family. “This tree is their house.”
Well, their living room anyway. At night they wait until the shop across the street closes at midnight. Then they roll out their bamboo mat and sleep under the overhang as the tree doesn’t provide protection from the monsoons. During the day, however, they camp behind the tuk-tuks in hopes the police won’t spot them from the street. If the constabulary notices the mat they will move them on, so it is quickly dropped in the gutter until it is safe to retrieve it
Lin holds three month old Siva. He is a shriveled baby who looks more like three weeks.
Swaddled in clothes and a blanket, his face is sunburned. He rarely wakes, and when he does he snuffles rather than cries. Lin can’t breast feed him as she doesn’t lactate and is HIV positive.
Laying beside her on the mat is Tran – her husband – passed out from beer, sniffing glue or a combination thereof. He wakes up, mumbles, puts on his baseball cap and wanders off. The three older sons are playing under the next tree. Jivi, Tivin and Tivan – ages one, two and three – return and plop down beside their mother. Sandie plays clapping games with the two older ones. Brad walks around with his video camera to get some good footage.
The boys are fascinated with Brad’s prosthesis and quietly go up to touch it. He lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and wears shorts in the tropical heat. “It disarms people, they know I can identify with what they are going through.”
Shooting and questions done for the day we retreat to the Boomerang Restaurant and Bar across the street. This place is an expat hangout: the food is good and the drinks are cheap. We finish eating just as the sky opens and a monsoon hurls down. We know we aren’t going anywhere until it was over so we order another drink.
The street starts to flood and the rain from the tarp at the restaurant pelts down like a fire hose. Tivan appears, stands under the torrent and proceeds to take a shower and wash his t-shirt. Tivin stands in the background, wet, forlorn and shaking. He has been coughing all day.
“Is he old enough to suck a lozenge and not choke?” I ask Sandie who has a medical background. She nods so I dig one out of the little medical kit I carry in my handbag. Back in my chair, with the rain pouring down in torrents, Tivin smiles as his cough stops. As much as I dislike children, I couldn’t not do anything so I wave him over. I wrap him up in the krama, the long scarf I always wear. He snuggles into me and promptly falls asleep. Tivan finishes washing so I beckon that he should come and sit in the chair beside me to get out of the downpour.
“It is amazing he is being so quiet and sitting still,” observes Brad, “he is a street kid and used to running around.”
Ali, the generous Malaysian who owns bar, says, “I will get him some ice-cream” and goes to a nearby store. “The kid has likely never had a treat like that,” comments Brad. A dish appears; Tivan doesn’t know how to manage the spoon on the hard surface. All of a sudden I realize how my mother must have felt as I balance Tivin and fed Tivan. Maternal instincts have never been a strong point, but I manage.
Adam is sitting across from us eating chicken fingers. “Why don’t you share some?” He reluctantly puts two on the plate I pass and I beckon for more. Fed and having finished off Sandy’s bottle of juice, Tivan bends face down in the chair. I hand Sandy the sleeping Tivin and pick up him up.
Like his brother, he snuggles right into me. He is shivering so I open Adam’s bag of laundry sitting on the table and take out a pair of trousers. Once covered Tivan promptly falls asleep, sighing deeply. When I later tell Sharon – a social worker friend – about it she says it may well be the first time he feels safe in a long time.
“The parents don’t seem too worried about their kids,” Sandie remarks.
“They know where they are and somebody will be watching.”
All of a sudden Tran – holding a naked and dripping Jive – takes shelter from the storm under the roof at the apartment next to the Boomerang. Horrified I hand Tivan to Brad and take the toddler. I go into the restaurant in search of sometime to dry him with.
“Ali, I’m making off with the towel I found on the counter.” He nods.
I am perfectly fine with leaving Tram to catch his death of cold, but Sandie indicates he should come and join us. Fine, but the tree people don’t speak English and our Khmer is almost non-existent. What to do? Call our helpful tuk-tuk driver to come to our rescue.
“Nick, can you come over to Street 110 and translate for us?”
“Sure, no problem.” Clad in a tropical style raincoat Nick wades through the water and joins us. Sandie gets stuck into Tran for wanting a beer, rather than food for his children. I am sipping on Scotch so I stay out of that one.
Where were Lin and Siva? Tran disappears and comes back with them. They are dry so they had somewhere to go.
What can we do to help? We would pay for a guest house for the night, but they don’t have their identity cards so they wouldn’t be allowed to check in.
“You could just give her the money and she could find a place.” suggests Nick. Good plan, but I already know from the expats in the area that whenever tourists give Lin money for the baby, Tram beats her until she gives it to him for beer and/or glue – hence Sandie’s rant.
The discussion goes around in circles and eventually we send them off into the night with food and water.
“Here are your trousers, Adam. Thanks for keeping the kid warm.”
“No, get them out of here I don’t want anything to do with them now.”
“Okay, but a wash would kill anything – lice, fleas, scabies. I used to work on Indian reserves in northern Canada and know about these sorts of things.”
“Doesn’t matter.” I shrug.
What can we do for the family who lives under a tree? The answer is not much.
My friend Iris chimes in on this one via email as she wants to help. “What is the most supportive thing we can do?” she asks.
“Put out a contract on the father. In the Kingdom that can be arranged for $50. But Lin would just take up with another waster or get raped by the tuk-tuk drivers so it wouldn’t solve anything.”
Iris suggests getting shoes and clothes. Good idea, but they would be sold and Tran would be stoned. According to Maslow, the lowest level of existence is food, clothing, shelter and sex. The family has three out of four, so we will work on shelter.
I’m going to investigate if we can find them a cheap room somewhere in the area so at least they won’t have to sleep in the elements. It might be difficult without identity cards, but a small bribe should fix that. I will pay the rent directly as giving them cash isn’t the answer. It would keep Tran in glue and the family on the street.
We can pay the people at Boomerang to feed them on a regular basis and to keep them supplied with water. A bottle of formula – kept at the restaurant and doled out – would be also help. An Australian bought a case of formula for Lin when Siva was born. He gave it to her in the morning; by the afternoon she had sold it, likely at about 10 percent of what it cost.
How about putting the children into a residential programme? Great if I can find one. I’m going to bring Alex – my NGO savvy friend – in on that one. But the parents wouldn’t want to give up the kids as they are the ones who beg enough for them to eat. The only way would be to pay them what the kids make per month so they don’t need their labour.
It is much easier to work with the dump people as they have dreams and aspirations to build on – like getting Srey into school. With the family who lives under a tree, however, the most they can hope for is to get enough to eat today and have somewhere to sleep tonight. Tomorrow is too distant to make any plans.
All photo credits: Brad Callihoo