Street Kids Learn to Hope

LEARNING hasn't been a priority for 13-year-old Pricha Khamyen. Survival has.

Tough and jaunty beyond his years, the teenager, nicknamed Tom, has spent a lifetime on Bangkok streets. Longer ago than he can remember, he fled home to escape cramped living quarters and family turmoil.

"The house was too small, and my parents were always fighting. I got bored with it and so I ran away and met my friends," he says, explaining that his mother and father came to the Thai capital in search of construction work.

Since then, the boy has been a nightclub singer, a disc jockey, a beggar, and a prostitute. More than a year ago, after being arrested and then fleeing police custody, Tom came to a shelter run by the Moolanithi Sangsan Dek, or Foundation for the Better Life of Children, left, and then returned. He says he doesn't know where his family is.

A year ago, he began school near the suburban Bangkok shelter where cool breezes blow off the surrounding fields.

"I can read and write now and have started my own mime group," he says, wearing the blue T-shirt of a teacher's assistant trainee. "I want to be a singer."

After four years in the black hole of addiction, 14-year-old Thongmani Tahsila has just marked her first year off drugs. Her arrival at the children's foundation home ended a desperate odyssey that began when Thongmani's parents departed their native Lopburi province to work in Bangkok five years before.

Placed with an uncle who beat and abused her, the then nine-year-old soon dropped out of school, stowed away aboard a train, and followed her parents to the Thai capital.

For safety, she cut her hair and joined a vagabond gang of 36 beggars and drug addicts. Thongmani earned about $4 a day in organized begging but was able to keep little for herself.

The girl also started sniffing opium and staying with a prostitute friend. When her companion was killed in a car accident, she found her way to the shelter for street children.

Today, the shy girl with sad eyes is taking continuing-education classes for adults, teaching smaller children, and struggling with her addiction one day at a time.

"Although I stopped taking drugs a year ago, it's very difficult for me," she muses. "But I am studying again and would like to be a doctor."

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