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A refuge for street children in Myanmar

Maung* is quiet, self-possessed, unassuming. His gentle nature and maturity belie his still tender age of 16 years, and the horrors he has already faced in his short life. Maung is also a stark contrast to the many loud and energetic personalities who surround him at this monastery in Sagaing Region, in the north-west of Myanmar, which provides a refuge for homeless children and youth.

The young people sitting in the monastery gardens as we arrive look unfazed by our presence; street life gives you the appearance of confidence and fearlessness, even if these qualities only run skin deep. But once the ice is broken, they are also affectionate, eager to ask questions and all competing with each other for attention. Maung watches happily from the perimeter, rather than take a leading role in the group antics.

Around 50 homeless children live at this street children`s refuge permanently, while another 200 come and go, still not ready to give up a life of complete independence despite the hardships and risks they face on the street. Most are runaways €“ having left homes because of domestic violence, poverty, family breakdown, alcohol abuse. A handful are orphans, having lost their parents to AIDS-related illnesses.

Maung has lived here permanently for two years now, having been without parental care for almost half of his life. At the age of 10, his parents forced him to leave school to work in a gold mine. He had recently passed his school exams and was doing well, but grinding poverty meant there was no money to pay for additional schooling. Instead, there was money to be gained for the family by sending him to work. Maung says the depression he felt at having to leave school was terrible; he felt his future had been torn from him. So he ran away.

For many years, Maung lived as other street children do in Myanmar. He collected rubbish, mainly plastic bottles, to earn enough to eat at night. At other times, he was reduced to begging for food.

It was also hard for him to find somewhere safe to sleep. Homelessness is considered a criminal activity in Myanmar, and young people found by the police are sent to youth detention centres. Many of the children at the refuge have found themselves detained at some point; all had escaped.

Some of the boys here are happy to recount their daring tales of breakout; of climbing walls and jumping fences, with the staff in hot pursuit. They laugh and congratulate themselves on their amazing escape. Their stories of heroism make me smile. I love their bravado.

But Maung`s story, told in his thoughtful and considered manner, strips away the romance and adventure. He speaks of daily beatings and terrible injuries suffered by children who were caught escaping. Maung himself was chased down by staff who threw stones at him and his friends as they tried to escape. They were all hurt, but Maung eventually made it to a train station, after running for many, many miles. Maung`s physical injuries have healed, but I can sense that the fear and terror will always remain.

Venerable U Tayzadipati, the head monk here (pictured above), talks about Maung fondly as one of the monastery`s success stories. Having shown a desire to take part in vocational training, he arranged an apprenticeship for Maung with a mason working on a construction project in the monastery grounds. Maung works here daily now, learning new skills, saving money and thinking about his future.

Maung also speaks warmly of his new monastery home and of U Tayzadipati, who he says takes good care of them. In this place, says Maung, he is provided with everything he could desire. He admits that he still cries when he thinks of his parents, and he misses his sister who is still at home. But he also feels that it isn`t yet time for him to return.

Instead, Maung tells me how he must think and plan for the years ahead of him. Unprompted, he also begins to tell me about his girlfriend. They have been together for two years, and he is clearly smitten. As he shyly shows me the tattoo of her name on his arm, I am touched by his tenderness and loyalty, and incredible resilience in spite of all that he has undergone in his short life. His story may yet contain some romance, and in the meantime I am happy to see him smile.

*Name changed for child protection reasons

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