Meeting with Roelien from the Asia Center Foundation

Last week we have met with the Director of the Asia Center Foundation (ACF), Roelien Muller. Roelien is from South Africa, and has been in Phuket for many years. After her husband and father passed away, Roelien found herself at a point of life where she decided to do something useful. She has been enrolled in charity in South Africa, but decided to do more and to travel to Thailand with a friend from her church. She has stayed and worked on Phuket since that day.

Roelien wanted to work with children in Phuket, after she visited the slum in Patong where she taught English to children. To read out article about the humanitarian situation in Phuket, please follow this link.

After her friend, who initially brought her to Thailand, went back to the US, Roelien took over ACF. She kind of jumped in at the deep end, but managed to get her very first project proposal accepted by the World’s Children Fund. Today, ACF is an officially registered NGO in Thailand, with multiple projects and 18 staff members. Roelien and some of her children even got to meet the Queen of Thailand, which she describes as an “amazing experience.”

ACF currently has five major programmes: The Jumpstart Learning Center for Burmese children, the Patong Child Center, a scholarship programme, a youth programme for disadvantages children and the Safe House which currently hosts ten children that cannot live with their families for different reasons. Read more about the ACF programmes on their website.

The Patong Child Center

DSC01861

Roelien took us to the Patong Child Center, which is within walking distance from the ACF office. We were welcomes very warmly by the 50-ish girls and boys between three and seven years old. The kids were not shy at all, came to hug us, and gave us high-fives and fist-bums.

The Child Center is a pre-school for children from the slum and/or difficult family and living situations. Some of the children would not have the opportunity to learn something, have a hot meal and be in a safe and clean environment if they would not come to the center.

The situation for the children in the slums is more than difficult. The low standard of living and lack of hygiene are not the only the problems. Many parents work a lot and cannot take care of their children; some are addicted to drugs. Roelien said that even though she cannot change the situation at the childrens’ home, at that she is sometimes worries when they go back after school, she re-assures herself that the children have at least eaten and have spent time in a safe environment.

We had a very good impression of the child center. The furnishing is simple, but loving and the children seem happy. Here are some of our impressions:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Child Center is admission-free, but has such a good reputation that families offered the ACF money to get their children into the center, which Roelien declined. The purpose of the Child Center is to support the poor. Before a child is admitted to the Patong Child Center, an ACF staff member visits the child’s family to have an idea of the family’s living conditions. Further, there is a follow-up with the families, which are visited yearly by a staff member.

Plans for the future

DSC01838

Roelien also told us about ACF’s plans to construct a new school and youth center in Kathu. The ACF already has the land and funds to start the constructions of the pre-school building, the cafeteria and a new ACF office, but needs to raise more funds to finish this amazing project. If you want to donate to ACF, please click here.

The center will include a school and a youth center which Roelien considers can be used as a community center for different occasions. Further, she wants to build accommodation for some of the children and staff on site, a football field and a swimming pool so the kids can learn how to swim. The school is to attend to 250 children from poor and broken families.

The religious aspect

ACF is a Christian foundation, and the religious aspect clearly plays a very important role. The children are taught about Christianism, listen to bible stories and learn how to pray. However, according to Roelien, there is “no heavy indoctrination,” the ACF simply shares information and the children can chose whether to take or to leave it. To us, it does look like missionary work, and Roelien, too, used the term once or twice during our discussion.

Religion plays an important role in the Thai culture (mainly Buddhism, but also Islam), When I asked if the children, and parents, are receptive for the Christian religion, Roelien said that the way Buddhism is practiced does not help solving the problems. Thus, said that the children are generally open to the Christian religion. The parents sometimes have questions when the children start praying before eating at home. Roelien is happy to answer these questions, and to reassure the parents’ concerns.

Roelien stressed that, especially in a difficult environment like Phuket, with money, alcohol, drugs, sex and mafia around, the children, but also the parents, need spirituality and something to guide them. She considers that Christianism gives more answers to the people’s struggle than Buddhism does. Having faith into something bigger helps the children to accept things they cannot change, and pray to god for help.

Phuket – Between slums and five star resorts

Many of the NGOs on Phuket work with children and women. We have met with Roelien Muller from the Asia Center Foundation, who gave us insight into the humanitarian situation on Phuket.

Read our article about the Asia Center Foundation here.

Phuket is one of the favourite tourist destination of many foreigners that come to Thailand. Beautiful beaches, good food, cheap prices and a pulsing night life are why many “get hooked” on Phuket. But Phuket also has its dark sides. While cruising around the island, Lesly and I came across the poorer neighbourhoods on Phuket. Dirty apartment towers and slums co-exist with five star hotels and beautiful villas, drawing a contrasting picture of Phuket.

Roelien told us that when she arrived in Phuket, there was one big slum close to the Patrong area. However, a road has been built through the slum, destroying the accommodations and forcing the families to find a new place to life. Today, there is not one big slum on Phuket anymore, but several smaller ones that are dispatched around the Patong and Katu area. On the spot of the former big slum is now a shopping mall.

After the slum has been destroyed, efforts have been made to build low-cost accommodation for the poor. However, the apartments are relatively expensive, with three to four thousand Baht per month, according to Roelien, which is seventy to one hundred euros. The apartments are not maintained and have started to rot away years ago. Some families don’t even have a bathroom!

DSC01865

Many of the families living in Phuket’s slums are not originally from Phuket, but come from Myanmar or other, poorer regions of Thailand, like the North-East. The situation of the Burmese in Thailand is a difficult, complex and important topic, which will be treated in a different article.

Many of the Thai migrants that come to Phuket are unskilled. Phuket is an expensive island to live on, compared to the rest of Thailand, and many families struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes the women start working in bars, out of lack of alternatives. From there on its “downhill,” like Roelien said, meaning prostitution. Some parents also recycle garbage to gain money, are motorbike taxi drivers, cleaning ladies, have laundry services or fruit cars. However, the income remains very low.

Further, drug addiction is a big problem in Phuket’s slums. Whether the drug addiction leads to living in the slum, or whether the living and working conditions, as well as the low income and life quality lead to drug addiction is not important. Many people living in the slums struggle with addiction to alcohol or other drugs.

The life in slums is especially hard for children. Often they are neglected because they parents work all day or are drug addicted and cannot take care of their children. Even though school is mandatory in Thailand until age 15, a lot of the slum’s children drop out of school when they are old enough to do small jobs and earn money. Or the parents do not care if the children go to school, or they take their kids out of school on purpose for them to work.

It also happens that the children are abandoned or raised by relatives. Some parents are in prison, others run away because they cannot deal with the pressure. Roelien also talked about a high suicide rate. According to the WHO, in 2002, nearly 5,000 people killed themselves in Thailand. I have, so far, not heard that suicide is a big problem in Thailand and will inquire on this topic.

Conclusion

While Phuket is a holiday island of cheap fun for some, it also is the hard reality for others. There is nothing wrong with enjoying yourself, but keep in mind that you are lucky and try to do something for the less fortunate while you are here. If you want to make a donation to the Asia Center Foundation, click here.

Arrived in Phuket!

Hi everybody,

Just to let you know that we are back in Thailand, and will stay in Phuket for some weeks.

Phuket is known to be one of Thailand’s main tourism destinations, with heavy partying in Patong Beach (this is not where we stay 😉

We have already contacted several NGOs working in different fields and are curious to learn more about the humanitarian and environmental stakes in Phuket.

You will read more soon,
Lesly & Lisa