Australian family that's bringing hope to the slums

A married couple who live in Klong Toey have been integral in several programmes aimed at boosting locals' self-esteem and helping them escape the stigma of one of Bangkok's most notorious communities, which they nonetheless call home

Bangkok's Klong Toey district is not the first place most foreigners think of when considering a trip to Thailand. But for one Australian family, the slum community that's regarded by locals as a hotbed of crime and drugs, was the natural choice. And it's now the place they call home.

CAREFREE: Children play at the Klong Toey Community Centre.

Anji Barker, a social worker from Melbourne, moved to Klong Toey 11 years ago. She lives there with her Australian husband Ash, her nine-year-old son Aiden and two eight-year-old Thai foster sons, Film and Tan.

Mrs Barker told Spectrum that after spending years working as a social worker in Australia, she felt something was missing in her life.

"What we felt was missing was actually living with the poor," she said. "Ash and I had already worked in Klong Toey on a sabbatical, and we thought wouldn't it be great to live there?"

Over the past decade, Mrs Barker, who is fluent in Thai, has helped launch several projects designed to improve the lives of the 100,000 or so people living in the slum. Among them is Urban Neighbours of Hope, a Christian organisation that seeks to combat poverty in urban centres through neighbourhood-based partnerships.

"We get hope from seeing people's lives change," she said.

The Unoh team works in partnership with the Klong Toey Community Centre, which runs a pre-school for the children of the neighbourhood, as well as a youth centre and football programme for teenagers and young men.

Mr Barker, who helps coach the football teams, is hoping later this year to take a dozen of the best players to compete in a tournament in Singapore.

"People need real alternatives to drugs and prostitution," Mrs Barker said. "With 100,000 people living in an area measuring just two square kilometres, everything is always intense."

The main aim of the various projects she's involved with is giving people hope.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Australian Anji Barker.

"We've met some great people and want to give them hope as a sort of resource," she said.

"Being poor is not just about having no money, it's also about the lack of opportunity and self-esteem. By the time you are six here all the hope has been squeezed out of you."

Mrs Barker gives the example of what happened to the childhood friends of her 16-year-old daughter, Amy. The teenager arrived in Klong Toey as a five year old with her parents, but left the community last year to finish her education in Australia.

Her mother said she felt she had become disconnected from her childhood friends.

"By the time she was 12, two of her friends were sex workers, three were transgender and two had had babies. Up until 12 everything was fun," she said.

Mrs Barker's nine-year-old son Aiden was born in Klong Toey and has lived there all his life. He goes to the New International School of Thailand and his current passion is learning hip hop dance.

His mother said that one day a friend of her son's walked into their house playing with a toy gun.

"We don't allow toy guns in the house. But when we took it off him we realised it was a real gun," she said.

When Mrs Barker handed the weapon back to the boy's grandmother, the older woman told her not to worry, as she'd taken out all the bullets.

"It's stuff like that that shows you that the slum has its own subculture," she said.

"We wish our kids didn't have to know about drugs and crime, but it's reality. Experiencing these tough things will help to give them a richer life experience."

On another occasion, Mrs Barker said she had to get the children out of bed after she and her husband heard gunshots in the street.

"Our kids see the world for what it really is. It's about creating a balance between realities of life and not crushing innocence."

Another project with which Mrs Barker is involved is the Munjai Cafe. Located in a side street behind an overpass, the modern-style coffee shop and eatery has created work for a group of slum children as baristas, kitchen hands and waiters.

Among them is 15-year-old Gig. Self-educated in English, she left high school to work in the cafe. "While other people my age were getting into drugs, I got into cooking." she said.

"I didn't really have any friends my own age in the slum."

One of the worst things about coming from Klong Toey is that people always assume the worst about you, the youngster said.

"When I was at school, if anything went missing, we would always get the blame, just because we were from the slum," Gig said.

The teenager's dream is to one day open her own bakery in Klong Toey. "I love baking," she said.

One of her co-workers at the cafe is 19-year-old Chaiyo.

"I love working here, but one day I'd like to be a social worker in Klong Toey," he said, adding that he too is well aware of the discrimination slum kids face.

"It can be really hard, and we're often scared to leave the area. Friends of mine have been abused and screamed at in restaurants and clubs just because of their accents," he said.

"I also have friends with young families, but the husbands can't find work because of where they're from. With wives and babies to care for, many of them turn to selling drugs or stealing just to survive. They don't do it because they like it," he said.

Despite its many tales of hardship and discrimination, Klong Toey has no shortage of success stories.

Confident, well dressed and with a good job at a large corporation, Nitaya is every inch the young middle-class professional.

Though you'd never guess from her appearance, she was born in the slum and has no plans to live anywhere else.

When asked why she hadn't moved out she said simply, and in perfect English, "This is my home."

It's also about progress, she said.

"The generation before me were mostly factory workers. Now I have a good job and a steady income, and I hope my children will do even better than me."

Many people in the slum are happy and hard working, and some are even quite successful, Ms Nitaya said.

She is not blind, however, to Klong Toey's difficulties, especially the growing drug problem.

"Things are getting worse, and the people using meth are getting younger. Some of them are just 12 or 13," she said.

"Often the kids' parents are either drug addicts or dealers who've been in and out of prison."

Father Joe Maier, a Catholic priest who has lived and worked in Klong Toey for the past 40 years, is equally concerned about the growing use of drugs.

"The problem worsened with the arrival of meth in the community about 20 years ago. The police brought it into the slums and they are still involved in selling it. Meth is destroying the community," he said.

Kunsee Putsarunsee, from the Railway Community, a local organisation that seeks to tackle social issues in the slum, said the research figures support the fears.

"About 35% of people in Klong Toey use drugs. Most of them are youngsters with no jobs," she said. The most common drug is methamphetamine, or ya ba., which costs between 200 and 300 baht per pill, Ms Kunsee said. Most addicts take about three or four pills a day, locals told Spectrum.

"There's a lot of drug trafficking activity in the community and the situation is getting worse," she said. "We don't hate the drug addicts, we believe everyone can change if given a second chance."

Despite Ms Kunsee's hopes, Klong Toey district councillor Panchai Keawaumporndee remains pessimistic about the likelihood of government support in combating social issues in the slum.

"We have been waiting for so many years, but no one will provide the funding we need to develop our community. So we just do what we can and try to help each other," he said.

It is this strong sense of community that has played such a vital role in changing the lives of Klong Toey's most vulnerable residents, like youngsters Tong and Ong. Now both eight years old, the boys were born in the slum and faced hardship from day one.

Tong's mother was trafficked as a sex worker to Malaysia when he was just four. The boy was left in the care of his grandmother, but after she moved away from Klong Toey to also work in a brothel, he was left alone, and dependent on the kindness and charity of neighbours.

Thankfully for Tong, who is blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, he was eventually taken into the care of a community-based organisation and was subsequently placed with a foster family.

Like Tong, Ong also had a tough start to life, and was mostly left to fend for himself by his drug addict mother and father. At the age of two he was hit by a car while walking near the local school. The child was alone at the time of the accident because both of his parents had been arrested the night before on drugs charges.

Constantly neglected by his mother, Ong was taken in by his grandmother, though she was also a drug addict and bedridden with tuberculosis.

When the woman finally succumbed to the disease, Ong was spotted by a community-based organisation, and like Tong, he too was found a foster home.

Stories like this are commonplace in Klong Toey. One resident who didn't want to be named said, "I know at least three other kids on my street who live like that."

COMMUNITY SPIRIT: Klong Toey may have a bad reputation, but to its residents it’s just home.

PIGS AND A PORT

The story of the Klong Toey slum dates back to the 1950s, when an influx of Chinese immigrants to Bangkok drove up demand for pork in the city.

Already established as the nation's largest port, the opening of a large-scale slaughterhouse in the area led to it also becoming known as a centre for meat processing.

Father Joe Maier, who has worked and lived in Klong Toey since 1973, knows the story well.

"When the Chinese arrived in Thailand they wanted pork, so a slaughterhouse was opened close to the port to meet that demand," he said.

At its peak, the factory was processing as many as 4,200 pigs a night.

"There was a massive influx of money and jobs," Fr Maier said.

CARING: Father Joe calls Klong Toey home.

The majority of those jobs were filled by migrant workers from Thailand's rural communities, thousands of whom were drawn to the city by the lure of better lives for themselves and their families.

Unsurprisingly, the reality was not so rosy.

The population surge resulted in a shortage of affordable accommodation and the majority of the slaughterhouse workers found themselves living in ramshackle huts. A slum had been born.

"Klong Toey was created by pigs and the port," Fr Maier said.

Though its history is inextricably linked to the meat processing industry, many things have changed in Klong Toey in the decades since.

"The place is changing. Gentrification is closing in," he said.

"Instead of working in factories, many of the people living here now work for big corporations."

But while some residents are getting wealthier, few of them are in any hurry to leave, he said.

"If you live in Klong Toey, you stay here. Even if you earn 18,000 baht a month, Fr Maier said."

Despite its bad reputation, "this is home for these people, it's their community."

Among his many jobs, Father Joe runs the Mercy Centre, a shelter for people living in the slum, which comprises five orphanages, a 400-pupil kindergarten and a home for mothers with HIV/Aids.

He despairs, however, at the lack of support the area receives from the central government.

"At Mercy we've educated 50,000 kids. We've run kindergartens for 30 years, but the government has done nothing for primary education here."

The area is also badly misunderstood by the Bangkok community as a whole, he said.

"Klong Toey is a laboratory for all the social movements that have happened in Thailand over the past 40 years. It's a working community."

With little government assistance, community organisations, local people and religious groups have banded together over the years to educate thousands of kids, Fr Maier said.

Panchai Keawaumporndee, a Klong Toey district councillor, said he is equally frustrated by the discrimination shown towards residents of the slum.

"When people talk about Klong Toey, they've already made up their minds that it's filled with drug addicts and gangsters.

"As a representative of Klong Toey, I'd say we are no different from any other people in Thailand."

About the author

Writer: Henry Zwartz