The streets of Mandalay, Myanmar are no place for a child. Yet today, hundreds of girls and boys -- some as young as four years old -- call it their “home.” At the Don Bosco Friend of Youth Center, Father Peter Myo Khin and six dedicated staff offer an oasis of love and opportunity to homeless youth who have nowhere else to turn.
Many of these children are driven to the streets due to problems associated with poverty, which affects a staggering 70 percent of families living in rural areas outside Myanmar’s cities. According to Fr. Peter, parents often force their children to leave school in order to work, and then they abuse their children if they don’t comply or earn enough money.
“Children are not happy in their homes, so they run away,” Fr. Peter explains. “Sadly, once out of their homes, the situation gets worse -- not better.”
Every single day, these girls and boys exhaust themselves trying to avoid the traffickers, predators and gang recruiters who prowl the streets in search of their next target. In order to feed themselves, these defenseless children beg for money and collect bottles and cans to sell. But too often this is not enough. If they are too conspicuous or assertive with their efforts, the police may throw them in jail, where they are locked together in overcrowded cells with no rights.
“Ultimately, the prison system feeds Myanmar’s military,” explains Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. “When these homeless and falsely jailed youth reach the age of 16, they are offered a choice: either be released with no money, no job, no education and nowhere to go; or join the army, where they will be housed, fed and clothed. It’s a false choice, but one many of them are forced to make.”
In order to avoid having to make such a choice, hundreds of vulnerable children huddle out of sight in bus depots, under train platforms, in doorways and back alleys -- hoping that their prospects might change.
Fr. Peter and his staff first encounter the youth whom they serve in such places. Several times per week, outreach workers fan out into the darkest corners of Mandalay’s streets, introducing themselves to the children, working to gain their trust, and inviting them to access the Youth Center’s services: safe shelter, nutritious meals, basic health care and educational opportunities. Some boys and girls, mistrustful of adults, take months of convincing. Others, like 11-year-old Htet, immediately jump at the opportunity.
Htet is unwilling, or unable, to talk about the family situation that forced him to run away from home when he was only 8 years old. His father, a taxi driver, died when Htet was in kindergarten, leaving his mother to care for six young children. Whatever it was that drove him away, Htet is ecstatic to now be under the care of Salesian missionaries in the company of other happy children. He excels in the public school he attends close to the Youth Center’s campus, and especially enjoys learning English. When he isn’t studying or performing daily chores, he enjoys playing football and other games with his friends. He hopes someday to be a police officer -- one who protects, not condemns, children living on the street.
Today, Htet joins 30 other children and teenagers, ages 4-18, who live full-time at the Youth Center. Soon, Fr. Peter hopes to add enough capacity to accommodate 100 residents.
Another 18 young adults participate in three-month professional training programs and internships offered through the Youth Center. Many of them did not perform well in traditional academic settings, or were forced to drop out of school for economic or other reasons. Referred to the Youth Center by teachers, clergy and other caring adults, these youth are now preparing for careers in automotive and motorcycle repair, electrical work, culinary arts, computer technology and English.
“At a time when ongoing and brutal civil war -- combined with pervasive poverty and family-based violence -- is forcing more and more of Myanmar’s children out of their homes, the Don Bosco Friend of Youth Center is increasingly vital to their survival,” says Fr. Mark. “Beyond that, it provides the education and skills they need to permanently leave the streets and become productive members of society.”
First established in 2013, the Don Bosco Friend of Youth Center shines a beacon of hope into the abyss for Mandalay’s homeless youth -- helping them reverse their fortunes and build a stable future.
Our mission helps homeless youth with the education and support they need to leave the streets for good. What’s your mission?