Asia | South East Asia | Thailand | Golden Triangle | Mae Sai – The unbearable lightness from darkness
The scene which presented itself was a showdown. To the left was Nok, a
16-year-old who has been sheltered at Harbor House for several months. Normally
a very cheerful and sweet girl, she was staring daggers, body instinctively
turned to one side in a defensive/boxing-like stance, feet lined up one behind
the other. To the right, some 15 metres away was Savalak, staring equally
harshly in return, her right hand cocked well behind her right ear brandishing
a hard and sharp-edged half a brick.
Shira, who tutored Nok in English for a few weeks and whom Nok obviously adores,
went towards Nok and started to talk to her in calm tones. Nok would not back
down never moving her eyes from Savalak, despite Shiras soothing tone and
requests to come with her, away from Savalak.
I looked over at poor Savalak and saw a pathetic being bursting with rage and
looking terribly alone. I wanted to get her to put down the brick to help
defuse things. I took a couple of steps toward her and her eyes darted briefly
in my direction, then fixed themselves back on Nok. I too started talking in
extremely pacific tones to Savalak but loudly enough that she could hear me.
She turned her attention toward me and I smiled fully (with great difficulty
through my own tension) and asked her to put down the brick, motioning with my
arm showing her what I was saying. She turned back toward Nok.
This scenario, too, informed me with a vital understanding of the reality in
which Harbor House operates, a space where the hellish histories of children
meet each other under the best-intentioned guardianship of a staff with too few
resources both material and in qualifications. And so, as our time for
departure from Harbor House approaches, I am unsure whether the darkness
investing the kids sheltered here is ultimately stronger than the light which
shines around them and still within them too. There is a Chasidic saying: where
there is darkness all about, even a small candle gives off a great light. True,
but the question which must then be asked: is that small candle enough light to
ultimately see your way out of the darkness? Given both the light and darkness
Ive experienced here, that question is the fulcrum around which my uncertainty
for the kids futures swings.
The tense showdown illustrates some of the aspects of that darkness.
To wit, how did it come to be that Shira and I, volunteers with very limited
ability to communicate with the children here, were the only staff members and
indeed the only adults present when the hostilities between the girls erupted?
For reasons that I still dont fully comprehend, all of the permanent staff
were away from Harbor House simultaneously at that moment. Granted, it was
during school hours so almost all the kids were at school. And granted, with 25
kids to care for it has proven almost inevitable that one of them will need to
be taken to, visited at, or picked up from the hospital on a daily basis
(although it seems to both Shira and me that kids are taken to the hospital for
the mildest of causes). And most unfortunately, it is granted that there are
only six full-time staff members responsible for running every operational and
care giving aspect of Harbor House. Still, given the circumstances which I am
about to relate, their wholesale absence is illustrative of the occasional lack
of better judgment amongst the staff.
Savalak (with the menacing brick in her hand) is 14 years old and, although my
knowledge of her history is incomplete, we were told that she was repeatedly
sexually assaulted in previous years. It is evident that she has as a result
of accompanying physical abuse, I was told both hearing and seeing
disabilities. Her father is 84 years old and is not at all available to her;
her mother is who knows where? And yet, I also know from my own experience
that Savalak is quite bright, picked up English quickly from Shira and me, and
could actually be quite playful. When we first arrived at Harbor House, she
literally clung to Shira and me, with hugs.
But often, Savalak was governed by dark moods which manifested themselves in
aggressive behaviour towards the other kids. She also seemed to suffer from an
attention deficit disorder which saw her careening, almost desperately, from
one activity to the next, literally every few minutes. She would often stomp
heavily into the main office where Shira and I work, flick on the stereo to a
necessarily significant volume, pop in a childrens story cassette tape and
listen to it briefly, ear pressed hard to one of the speakers. Then she would
stomp over to each of our work stations and inject her head directly between us
and what we were working on to see what it was. Then she would head back to the
stereo and change it to a music CD, then she would grab the manual pencil
sharpener and sharpen a few dozen pencils, then run out of the office but
return two minutes later and attempt to make a phone call, pound the digital
calculator with her fingers, talk to herself, sit down, get up and then run out
again. Sometimes it seemed like she was a caged animal, manically jumping
around, trying to keep herself from going crazy.
Savalak had been at Harbor House for two years but, unlike almost all the other
kids, had not been integrated into the local school system. Several attempts
had been made to register her in programs more qualified to deal with her
multiple problems, but for one reason or another Savalak was still here,
A week or so before the tense stand-off, the case-worker told us that over the
weekend (when Shira and I are not at Harbor House) Savalak had lit a fire in
her room and then, later, had threatened some of the other kids in the kitchen
with a cleaver. I remarked to Shira that it seemed that Savalak was crying out
for help and that, perhaps, these extreme actions were the best thing she could
have done for herself; the squeaky wheel much more likely to be greased. Later
that day, she jumped into the fish-farm pond fully clothed and then crawled out
and literally began howling at the top of her lungs. It sounded like someone
was killing her. Perhaps the lack of somebody giving her proper attention was.
So these were the circumstances under which, the following week, the permanent
staff somehow had all absented themselves simultaneously from Harbor House,
leaving just Shira and me to deal.
It had amazed us that Savalak still had any reserves of friendship amongst the
kids, given her aggressive behaviour. But they had seemed to be incredibly
forgiving and continued to interact with her. So I wasnt concerned when I
heard vigorous shouting among the three girls who dont attend school. I
figured they were just playing raucously. Shortly thereafter, Shira came into
the office unable to conceal a certain look which I know by its rare appearance
one of not being able to see ANY good in a situation and reported that
Savalak had been chasing the others with a stick and subsequently had started
another fire, this time just outside the front gate of the property. While
Shiras social-work background perhaps gave her some experience in dealing with
troubled kids in crisis, my decided lack of social-work background did not. I
really didnt know what to do. Shira headed back outside and I followed.
And there was the stand-off.
While Shira continued to try to calm Nok down, to my left, I was trying to again
break Savalaks ominous staring toward Nok. I said whatever came to my mind,
especially her name, knowing the rest of the content didnt matter since her
English was limited, but trying to communicate a gentle and soothing tone: I
know youre mad and very sad Savalak and G-d knows what has happened to you in
the past, and I wish it hadnt happened to you. Savalak, youre probably
carrying so much pain and its not fair that a little girl has gone through
what you have. Please put down the brick Savalak. And I motioned again that
last sentence with my hand.
I took another couple of steps toward her and now she turned her full attention
to me, half-brick brick still locked and loaded behind her. I asked her again
to put down the brick and she drew it even further back behind her. I took
another step toward her anyway, hoping to break the impasse by getting between
her and Nok. I was no more than five metres away. Suddenly Savalak whipped the
brick forward full force. I flinched and jerked sideways, throwing my hands up
in front of my face expecting the impact.
It never came and as I recovered my balance I looked up and saw the brick was
still in her hand, cocked behind her again. I straightened up and continued my
even tone of voice, stretching the smile across my face again as best I could.
She hurled her arm forward at me again, point blank. Again I swerved and ducked
behind my arms and again the hit didnt happen. Without intentionally doing so,
I had called her bluff and she had folded.
I took two more steps toward her and knelt down on one knee, instinctively
feeling that I should make myself as unthreatening as possible. Still talking
to her gently. Suddenly she just dropped the brick and bounded toward me and
threw her arms around my shoulders with a big smile.
I got up (shaky, you can be sure, stomach somersaulting) and with Savalak still
clinging to me with both arms now around my waist and head buried in my side,
walked her away from Nok.
About 10 days later, Savalak was finally admitted to a psychological examination
in Mae Sai and given a recommendation to a program in Bangkok. I hope its the
right one for her. She has already been through far too much.
While Savalaks is the most extreme or perhaps the most recognizable for my
untrained eye manifestation of pain, I have to imagine that for most of these
kids their hell still exists for them. To varying degrees it manifests itself
within them and expresses itself beyond them, differently for different kids.
For the first nine nights that Shira and I were here, I slept in the bamboo
shack in a room beside that of the only permanent male staff member, Peethor.
Peethor often allowed the half-dozen boys who live at Harbor House to come to
his room and watch tv in the evening (yes, a television in a bamboo shack). The
boys would often fall asleep while doing so and then, in the middle of the
night, one would wake up screaming, shattering slumber all around and giving me
somnolent, hazy but sudden understanding that their pain and their past is very
much within them.
And, yet, it is because of that darkness as the background what theyve each
been through that the light from these children has been such an inspiration.
It is an inspiration that sadly comes at great cost, an inspiration that is
inseparably wrapped up with the harshest of truths; the litany of evil which
casts a shadow over each child, in one form or another: sexual abuse and/or
physical abuse (sometimes repeatedly), being sold to human traffickers and
smuggled away from their homes and even their countries of origin then forced
to work as child-labourers. Some have been forced into prostitution by poverty
and, sometimes, by their own parents or grandparents who saw in them a quick
fix to the familys destitution or, in trafficking them, a convenient way to
simply offload the cost or responsibility of raising them. Other Harbor House
kids have been orphaned due to their parents succumbing to HIV, or effectively
orphaned by their parents abandoning them.
The inspiration? Whenever Shira and I would teach a class at Harbor House, many
of the kids would come up to us at the end and say thank you. My immediate
reaction was invariably to say Thank YOU, with a certain feeling of
disbelief. They let us adults into their world, and trusted us when other
adults had sent them to hell. And then they thanked us!
The inspiration? Its in the glow which emanates from their simply being such
beautiful children, alive and willing to take life on, to give it another shot.
Its in the astonishing combination of their resilience still somehow mixed
The inspiration is in seeing their courage. When a child sleeps over at a
friends house and gets spooked, the safety of home is close at hand. When a
child goes away to overnight camp or on a class trip and feels achingly
home-sick, the security of home and family gets nearer with every day. For most
of these children, the sleep-away is permanent and there is often no other
secure home to return to, no parents waiting to hug them in just a few weeks,
no return at all.
Thus the inspiration is in their smiles which spark across their faces so easily
and naturally. Its in their laughter. Its in the beauty of their shy,
crinkle-eyed reaction, throwing their hands up over their mouths, when they
greet us in English and know theyve made a mistake. Its in their playing,
their shouting, its in their being mischievous and sometimes being a maddening
pain like kids anywhere.
The inspiration is in their eyes which, incredibly, shine with the life-stuff of
souls not defeated, where lesser beings would long ago have been crushed.
The children at Harbor Hose are heroes, and its not every day you get to be
Perhaps that light within them is not only the innate spark of childrens souls,
but all the more so the spark of children who, consciously or not, know they
are now safe, much better off than they were, regardless of the shortcomings of
the place .
As we prepare to leave Harbor House (well be aboard an all-night bus to Bangkok
this Thursday night) I hope that the light they seem to innately possess,
combined with that goodness which Harbor House manifests despite its
imperfections, it is a place of tremendous light will see them all through.
It does feel like its time to move on. Shira and I are both winding down the
last bits and pieces of our respective work here. Shira has a pile of
grant/funding applications already under review by organizations who provide
support to operations such as Harbor House. And she is finishing off a few
more. Hopefully, some of them will, eventually provide new sources of financial
wherewithal for Harbor House and its kids.
I have finished the web site development I undertook for Harbor House. The
result is at http://www.ruenromyen.org (Ruen Rom Yen is Thai for Harbor House
Foundation). Its not a tour-de-force of web-savvy engineering, but then again,
I never claimed to be either a Web techie or a Web site designer, but I did my
best to be both. Hopefully it gets the pertinent information across to
potential financial supporters, volunteers and similar organizations.
We taught our last class at the local primary school on Monday. Where there used
to be three classes, representing three grade levels, there are now only two
classes. One of the teachers was transferred away from the school leaving only
two. Thus, the youngest class now has kids ranging from first to fourth grades.
That class was a zoo on Monday; some of the kids were outta control. I dont
know how its full-time teacher, or the kids in it, will manage there. But I
suspect the will and the way will be found.
Our time here has been a tremendous experience, one I wouldnt trade for almost
anything (although a thick, soft, sweet, warm loaf of challa with humus, an
oozing cheese-y lasagna and a whole bunch of chocolate, cakes and ice cream
might be tempting oh, and skip the rice side-dish, please!). Harbor House and
our house in the village nearby have been our most stable home in terms of
consecutive days/night spent in one place, since we got married. And it has
been a place that opened up new views: of our own limits and strengths, as well
as of the striving for integrity and for making the world a better place that
exists in the farthest-flung corners. In addition, Shira and I got to work
together side-by-side and it will be a little sad going our separate ways at
the start of each day once we get home (not to mention not getting to do so
flying along the narrow road through the rice paddies, misted mountains
silhouetted in the distance, on a motorcycle or in the old hacking pick-up
truck). I am very thankful for the opportunity we have had here. Memories of
the kids will be coming with us and causing us to smile. Now, we look ahead at
our personal road over the next few weeks, as a couple. Where does it lead?
Ahhh, the suspense
Hopefully Ill get another update out to you which will
answer that question from our next stop; well see how the Travel Trail unwinds
between now and then.