Thursday, October 8, 2009

Lost Children

by Richard Crews

Dal is one of the million-or-so homeless and abandoned children in the world. She lives in Manila in the Philippines--but there are thousands in every major city in the world (and thousands more in non-urban areas). She is seven. She also cares for her four-year-old brother since their mother died several months ago. (The young woman they called "mother" was not really their mother, she was their older sister; she cared for them for about two years and died of unknown disease, certainly including malnutrition. She was twelve when she died. Neither of them remembers their real mother.)

The two children sleep under a concrete abutment down by the harbor. Each day they walk several blocks to streets where there are business people and tourists, and they beg for coins. When they have gotten a few, they take them to the back door of a bakery where, uncounted (neither of the children can count) they are exchanged for a piece of bread. In the afternoon they beg in a small park nearby. The coins they get there they take to the back of a restaurant where they are traded for a bowl of soup. If they happen to have gathered several coins that day, the soup may have a small piece of fish or meat in it. They are also allowed to go through the garbage at the back of the restaurant to look for food as long as they do not make a mess.

Their entire world of several city blocks is dirty and crowded. Anything they get to eat, they eat right away or it will be stolen from them--sometimes with a beating. They have no possessions beyond the few thin rags of clothes they wear.

Every few months, particularly during tourist season or when there have been an inordinate number of citizen complaints, the police round up as many homeless and abandoned children as they can catch and stick them into crowded and dirty jail cells for a few days. There they get thin soup and bread to eat; there are a few open toilets, and no sleeping, warmth, or other amenities. After a few days when several of the children have died, creating a nuisance, the police let them go. (In Rio de Janero, for years the police rounded up several hundred children every few months and drove them in trucks out to the garbage dumps at the edge of the city and shot them; civil rights groups report that this has not been done in the past couple of years.)

The world we Americans live in is, at times, hard and complex; for some it is sparse and harsh. We often see pictures on our TVs of dirty, crowded refugee camps in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere. But we rarely see or hear about the million-or-so homeless and abandoned children in the world.