Begging Questions

What do you do when a four-year-old asks you for money?

Photo: Nichole Huck

By Nichole Huck

November 2006

She calls out to the man on the street

sir, can you help me?

It’s cold and I’ve no where to sleep.

Is there somewhere you can tell me?

He walks on, doesn’t look back

He pretends he can’t hear her

Starts to whistle as he crosses the street

Seems embarrassed to be there

Phil Collins, “Another Day in Paradise”

Cheesy they may be, but these Phil Collins lyrics hit very close to home for many of us who have travelled abroad. You’re dining at an outdoor cafe, or strolling through the market with an expensive camera strapped around your neck, when all of a sudden you are ambushed by a group of children.

They are young and they are dirty, wearing old clothing, no shoes. They stretch out their hands to you for money. One presses his fingers to his mouth—-a gesture to show he wants food. A wave of incredible guilt washes over you.

What should you do?

Do you reach into your pocket? After all, you won’t miss that dollar and it could buy the child a meal.

But, you wonder, if you give some money now will there be a steady stream of children at your table asking for money all night? Do you give to all of them?

Do you offer food instead? You’ve heard that many are forced to beg and they won�t actually get to keep the money.

Do you just try not to make eye contact and keep talking to the person you are sitting with hoping they will eventually leave you alone?

These are questions I grappled with on a daily basis last year when I was living in Thailand as a volunteer. I didn’t have much money, but I was incredibly wealthy compared to these children. I was enjoying the benefits of being in their country—-benefits like cheap transportation, food and clothing. Didn’t I owe these kids something?

The more I got involved with organizations working with street children, the better I understood the circumstances pushing them onto the streets to beg and the realities of where the money often ends up. But knowing more did nothing to resolve the dilemma—-whatever my response, it never felt adequate, and my heart broke because I didn’t know the solution.

Saiaew, a Thai girlfriend of mine, was as confused as I was. We decided to make a documentary. We wanted it to be about the meaning of compassion—-the feeling of understanding the suffering of others that leads us to do something about it. We wanted to get people thinking about the problem and perhaps inspire them to do something about it.

We decided to focus our documentary on the Childlife Centre, or Baan-Nana (House of Many) in Thai, a home to rescued street children who are now able to go to school. The centre, which is located near Mai Sai in northern Thailand near the Burmese border, also works to prevent child labour, human trafficking, and commercial sexual exploitation of children by increasing public awareness. I was first introduced to it when I saw the children acting out their personal stories in front of an audience in Chiang Mai.

Volunteers and staff from the centre frequently go to the Thai/Burma border to visit with the children living on the streets there. They listen to their problems and offer them an opportunity to ask for help. There are now more than 85 children living at the shelter.

Saiaew and I went off to spend some time at the centre. When we arrived, we saw young children playing out in the yard. A couple of hours later the rest of the children arrived home from school and piled out of the back of a truck, each bowing their head in greeting to Saiaew and me. The children quickly ran to do their chores before supper and some of the older ones came to talk to us.

One of the first girls we met was 18-year-old Gader Muela. When she was only eleven years old her father was arrested on Opium-related charges and was put in jail. He died there. After that, she begged on the street with her mother before coming to live at the centre.

Gader said that some days she would be out all day and make only a few cents. She told us she was treated like an animal and spit on. My friend translated her words:

“Why don’t people give me money when I have nothing to eat? Why don’t they have any sympathy for the people who are suffering?”

One day she took us to see the world she left behind. She guided us to the bridge between Thailand and Burma where she used to beg.

The area is known as the “Golden Triangle”—-the place where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. It is frequented by tourists who cross the Sai River by bridge to make a day trip to Burma. Because of the concentration of tourists, this is where many young children and women come to beg.

The young children we saw on the street were like shadows of the laughing kids at the centre. Yet this had been their reality—-quite recently, for many of them. The kids at the bridge spent their days begging, sniffing glue, or digging through garbage for recyclables to sell or food to eat.

~

After an emotionally exhausting day, we returned to the centre where we met Jeab, a worker at the Childlife centre. She has been living with these kids for a long time and understands their situation. She says the children can make five to ten dollars a day in the high season if they beg on the bridge, but when they go home they must give it all to their parents to help support the family.

She says some parents will beat their children if they come home with no money. Therefore, more and more children stay out on the street and do not return home.

And that’s when they are put at incredible risk. These children who stay out on the streets are often the target of physical and sexual abuse. Many of the kids get addicted to sniffing glue or fall into other illegal activities.

Because many of them are from minority ethnic groups in Burma, they have no legal status in Thailand. This makes them ideal targets for child traffickers who sell them as sex slaves or labourers.

Jeab believes giving money to the kids will only encourage more children to leave their families in search of easy money. And once they leave their families they are at a higher risk of falling prey to pedophiles and drug traffickers.

She says it is better to financially support the organizations that are working with the children because that is how real changes will take place.

I made a donation to the centre and we later sent them a copy of our documentary, hoping they could use it to help raise awareness and money. But we are still torn when begging children ask us for money.

At the centre we saw what their lives could be like when they had an opportunity to go to school, but we also learned about how terrible the lives are of those who are still on the street.

I recently got an e-mail from my friend Saiaew in Thailand. She said she went back to the border this week, and many of the children and women who were in our video are still there begging eight months after we left. Here is what she wrote:

I pretended to ignore everything and make myself a tourist, but I wasn’t happy. When I crossed back to Thailand, I saw the kid and a mother holding her little one on her back. They are the family we shot for the beginning of the film, they were begging on the sidewalk.

I remember them. The kid came to ask me for some money without saying any word, just begging. I tried talking to him in Burmese, but I can�t speak very well. The little boy told me his name was Ami. I was trying to buy him some food instead of giving him money. He hesitated at first but then looked willing. However, his mother called and he ran away. I kept watching as his mom with the little baby on her back held his hand and walked away.

The little boy looked back at me with his crying face. That made me feel so bad. I didn’t know what to do. What should we do Nichole?

I haven’t answered her letter yet…because I don’t know what to say.

Nichole Huck is a twenty-three year old journalist living in Regina, Saskatchewan. Earlier this year she spent ten months living in Thailand, volunteering with media organizations that are making documentaries about Burma.

For more information on the Childlife Centre visit www.childlife-maesai.org

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