April 12 is International Day for Street Children. The Pride talks to two people who have gone the distance in helping the street children of Asia find dignity, opportunity, and hope.
For Poh Wei Ye, 35, what started off as a soul-searching sabbatical through Southeast Asia became a calling to help the street children of Vietnam.
In 2010, Poh lost his mother to cancer and so began his journey to gain some much-needed perspective.
“Through travelling, I began to see that there was a different side to humanity, one that we almost never see in Singapore.”
But his entry into humanitarian work wasn’t exactly something he had planned to do.
“I honestly wanted to just look see, look see, gain some experience, be useful, you know?” he told The Pride candidly.
Working at multiple NGO’s, Poh often aided in the humanitarian work in exchange for a bed and breakfast. However, something struck a chord in him: he noticed just how vulnerable the street children were.
“It’s very dangerous for the children, if they are caught, I know that bad things can happen to them.” Among these: they could be turned into drug addicts to serve peddlers, females could be brought early on into the sex trade, and there have also been allegations of organ farming.
With money left to him by his mother, Poh made the decision to stay on to do something for street children of the community.
“It wasn’t a hard decision, after seeing the things I’ve seen, how could I leave?” he explained.
With the help of Madam Nhan, a 68-year old nun who shared his desire to keep children off the streets, and some of the locals from a small village called Vang Tau on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, he set up Thi An orphanage in 2011 which now houses 22 children. In 2013, Poh married his wife Thanh Thuy, a Vietnamese. They live on the orphanage with their four-year-old child.
Devoting his life to the children, Poh strives to empower them with education, and has organised for them to attend a government primary school near to the village. Most of the financial support has come from his friends, and the local market sellers have also done their part to help the children, by bringing meat and vegetables to the orphanage weekly.
While many of us in Singapore would spend our weekends with our family, Poh and his wife spend time with their child and their extended family of 22 children. They would play games, conduct English classes, do arts and crafts, as well as host visits from volunteers.
“I am very happy for the children, I cannot imagine what would happen if bad people caught them and what their lives would be. Every child has the potential to be something great,” said Poh.
Reminiscing on an incident that affected him deeply, he said: “I remember a two-year-old boy walking into the orphanage crying in the middle of the night. Before I could get to him, some of the older children had already picked him up and began to console him, trying to rock him to sleep. It was then I knew that they had learnt how to live together as a family. It really touched me.”
However, his endeavours for the children was a drain on his resources, and as the money left by his mother slowly depleted, Poh needed to find something to support the orphanage. This led to the beginning of his brainchild, Blessed Discoveries, a travel agency that specialises in providing philanthropic and humanitarian tour missions that would benefit the poorest areas of Vietnam and Cambodia. From building bridges to distributing clothes, even cooking meals, Poh and his wife curate programmes with the local villages to provide a holistic experience for visitors and locals alike.
In all this, Poh remains humble about his accomplishments.
“Please, I am just a normal person, and I just do what I can,” he replied when The Pride commented on his achievements. “I hope people can be more kind to each other and less judgmental. That is how we can build a community, and progress together.”
Brush with poverty inspires a decade of building homes and empowering the destitute in Cambodia
Australian-born Douglas Peris’ journey to help street children began a decade ago.
What started as an annual CSR event quickly turned into something that the Singapore permanent resident, 58, would devote every October to. His first trip to Cambodia brought to light a level of poverty he had never seen before.
“I’ve worked in Singapore for over 18 years, and only in Cambodia did I see poverty like that for the first time.
“The people live in the poorest of conditions, some without clothes, a bed to sleep on, or even basic housing.”
Shortly after setting foot on the poorly laid gravel track of Kampong Chhnang, a province located 120km northwest of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, Peris resolved to help people who come from such destitute backgrounds.
Along with a group of friends, he aligned with the Tabitha Foundation and other local Cambodians to build shelters and clean water sources to foster self-sustaining communities.
“It’s a hard slog, you’re dehydrated, but you’re literally building a home side by side with the people who are going to live in it, you can’t just plop things down.”
A large part of his humanitarian work revolves around educating entire villages on savings plans, and teaching them useful craft skills that provide hope and opportunity to the next generation.
“When you teach the elders to save money, eat regular meals and have a better income – their thoughts change to how best to educate their children,” he explained.
“I know for a fact that there are children at risk and that is why it is so important to teach them the skills that would elevate them to a better life. By instilling a sense of pride in the community, the children learn values from a young age and are kept off the streets because that pride is passed down.”
There isn’t any opportunity for this kind of work in Singapore, said Peris.
“We’re a first world country, the organisations here (Singapore) didn’t need our paltry bit of help.”
Self-financing humanitarian trips and organising fundraisers have become a yearly affair for Peris. This year marks the 10th year anniversary of his mission, and one fond memory he has from the last decade is his first encounter with a young child whom he thought was working for a child-labour syndicate.
He recalled: “She was selling little bracelets and was so confident and well spoken that I might have mistaken her for a trained runner of some sort. But it turns out she was helping her mother make ends meet.”
That chance encounter was the start of an enduring connection, as Perin has kept in touch with the girl and her family since. He intends to set up a college fund for her to ensure that the girl, who is now 16 and in school, continues to pursue an education.
In the past decade, he and his team have been involved in building over 280 homes across nine villages and raising close to half a million dollars in funds for the Tabitha Foundation.
But far from growing tired of slogging for the street children and their families, Peris continues to find purpose in what they do.
“Going to Cambodia is the one thing I look forward to every year,” he says. “The(se) people didn’t choose their situation. I feel blessed to even have the option to do something, and it’s my little way of giving love to the world.”