After teaching many years in and around Baltimore, Maryland, I began a second career with the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) in Asia. I now enjoy teaching the mix of army and navy students at Zama American High School outside Tokyo. DoDDS provides a unique opportunity during school breaks to travel and interact with people in distant countries and varying cultures of Asia.
One winter break began with a few relaxing days in the tranquil resort area of Puerto Galera, after which I traveled to Manila to visit some friends. Although I am enchanted by Manila, I treat her streets with respect and view traversing them cautiously the same way I would the cities of Washington, DC or my hometown of Baltimore.
I began an early morning excursion devoted to photographing the people and the city I have learned to love, and came across a small perilous looking alley. About half way down the alley I saw a group of people that looked intriguing and oddly inviting. Even though it was isolated and I knew proceeding was careless, I took a chance, a step, and a deep breath. That is where I first encountered Fatima and her family.
If one were to display a portrait of Fatima, it would be that of an attractive young girl with a radiant smile who could easily be your daughter’s BFF or a happy young employee at the school store or an enthusiastic player on the soccer team. She could be the girl next door, if next door meant you lived on the street next to her. Fatima had a home, but not a house. Her address was simply the corner of a busy road in an alley in Ermita only a few blocks from the US Embassy in Manila.
The beauty of Fatima’s name evokes the sacred shrine in Fatima, Portugal. According to Catholic legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to three young shepherd girls in the early part of the twentieth century warning the children of the terrors that would be forthcoming unless the world became a less divided and antagonistic place. The name that symbolizes hope for all children now belonged to an eighteen year old girl. Although she was clear evidence of children cast aside, her incredible smile spoke only of hope.
I entered the alley and was immediately aware of everyone looking at me. Undoubtedly I was the first westerner or person of means to ever venture into their domain. As I got closer I gave them a big smile and said “good morning.” The group was composed of mostly women and a few young men. They looked at one another, and I guess they reached the collective decision that I was either too naive or stupid to be a threat to them. They smiled back. As I took out my camera, they began to laugh, and I think we all felt a little more comfortable. One of the women was older and appeared to be the leader. She may have been in her mid fifties with a pleasant and welcoming smile despite the fact that she was missing several teeth. Her grasp of English was surprisingly good, and I asked her if it was OK if I took her picture. She responded by posing and giving me her best smile. The little children then began to run around making a “V” with their fingers striking silly poses. Remarkable, children are the same everywhere!
Fatima with the Baby on her Bed in the Alley
It was then that I noticed Fatima, sitting on a piece of cardboard. She was holding her small infant, and when she noticed me glancing in her direction, she began to adjust her blouse. I realized I had interrupted her nursing her little daughter. I did not know what to do, so I simply smiled at her, and she returned the smile. I began to photograph her, and her smile broadened. I took a few more pictures of the group and then decided I had pressed my luck long enough so I said good bye and retreated out of the alley. As I began to walk in the safety of a nearby congested city street, I realized what a gamble I had taken.
I had no idea this was only the beginning of my encounter.
Later that evening I ventured out of my hotel to get a Diet Coke and cookie fix at a nearby 7-Eleven. I passed an old woman sitting on a flattened piece cardboard about two storefronts before my destination. The streets of Manila are dark at night, so I could not get a good look at her. As I passed her, she called out to me and I turned around and recognized her from my morning’s adventure. It would have been impossible to forget the pleasant woman with her toothless smile.
I smiled back and continued my junk food quest. After a couple of thought-filled steps, I paused for just a minute. I quietly decided to walk a few feet back to the woman and ask if she was hungry. She naturally was, so I asked her to come with me. I accompanied her into the store and told her to buy whatever she needed. Her smile broadened and she began her shopping. She got a box of condensed milk and some Pampers for a baby. She then looked at me with a humble expression asking me if this was OK. I gave her an approving smile, and she then very meekly picked up an orange soda and a pre-wrapped sandwich for herself. She placed her order on the counter, and I placed my evening’s rations next to hers. The young salesgirl looked at me, and I told her “two bags please.” As she began to ring the order and without looking at me, she said softly, “You’re a good man.” It suddenly struck me that it must be rather obvious as to what was happening. I could not help but feel a little embarrassed. I smiled, paid for the order, and walked outside. I gave the woman her bag, and she grabbed my hand tightly and said thank you over and over again. I finally told her good night and proceeded to my room to indulge.
The following morning I ventured out in a different direction as I took my regular hike around the city. Surprisingly I found Fatima sitting on a cardboard mat holding her infant. She recognized me, and we both said hello. A few minutes later the older woman appeared holding hands with a young girl. As we began to talk, the older woman told me that her name was Elsie and Fatima was her daughter. The two children were Fatima’s. Tricia, the older of the children appeared to be almost two. The baby, named Precious, was only a couple of months old. I could not help but think what an appropriate name for such a beautiful little girl. As we talked, another young woman came down the street that I recognized from the initial gathering in the alley. Her name was Dorae, and she was Fatima’s younger sister. I finally met an older woman, Sarah, who was Elsie’s sister. They appeared to take great pride in telling me their names and then testing my memory.
Elsie and Precious
As we all talked, and my comfort level increased, I began asking them questions. Elsie told me that she and her family had been on the streets for the past ten years. They had a house they were forced to abandon when they could not afford the 2,000 Pecos (about $40) monthly rent. She also told me that Fatima had made it through year two of high school, while Dorae only finished sixth grade. They also had an older brother who was sick, and they hoped to take him to the public hospital after Easter. I finally asked the question that most concerned me. Where is the father of Fatima’s children? They told that he had abandoned her some time before Precious was born. At one point Elsie did mention that she had heard that he was in jail now for fighting in the street, but she was not sure.
After traveling in Asia for several years, one thing I knew I could never do was judge women on the choices they make. One of the most apparent observations in the poorer countries of Asia is that gender equality is almost non-existent. Orphanages are filled with young girls, not young boys. For young women facing adulthood choices are few, and possibilities are limited. Life is a fight for survival, and I knew I would not judge Fatima on what decisions she made in the hope of finding a small thread of security in her world on the streets.
As the time passed, we continued to talk about the many hardships they faced. They told me that they spent most of the day simply asking people for money for food. Clothes were either found or given to them by friends. They worried most about the children. Whether it dealt with food, health care, or education, the children suffered the most. As we talked one of the toddlers walked over to a puddle on the sidewalk and simply splashed down in the middle of it. Her mother immediately grabbed her and tried to dry her off. The crowded sidewalk was their playground, yet it seemed that the children had the innate knowledge not to go into the busy streets.
These new people who entered my life were constantly on my mind as I continued my exploration of Manila. I could not help but compare Elsie and her family with an average family back in the States. Families everywhere have a litany of problems, but the level of support here was minimal. All Elsie, Fatima and the children had was their little community. They kept each other physically safe, but daily life was a struggle for basic needs. There were many times when Elsie, Fatima and the children reminded me of my mother, my sisters and their children. Their interaction, constant laughter, and obvious caring resembled loving families everywhere.
I could not help but compare Fatima to the young girls I now teach at Camp Zama. She appeared equally as bright, energetic, and outgoing as any of my young students now. The difference relates to the future and her control over it. There was never talk of a dream or what her children would be when they grew up. My students now are joyfully talking about college and summer vacations. I imagine Fatima’s only dreams occurred at night.
Early Morning Grooming
Later that evening as dinnertime approached, I did not feel like eating alone. I walked down to their corner and asked Fatima and Elsie to join me. When Dorae and her brother saw us walking away, they asked if they could come. Elsie’s sister Sarah also came running after us. It turned into a little parade! I took them to a Chinese restaurant, Chow King, part of a chain of relatively inexpensive restaurants that offers very simple but healthy meals. As we ordered I found myself overwhelmed in a very rewarding way. The women seemed to take great joy in placing their orders in Tagalog. Every few seconds Elsie would look at me for approval. I would simply smile. I had no idea what they were ordering!
Once the meal was served, it was very interesting watching everybody eat. The only one who wanted to use a spoon was Tricia, Fatima’s oldest daughter. She tried her best to maneuver the eating utensil. The rest simply ate with their hands. While we were eating Fatima told me that this was only the second time she remembered ever being in a restaurant. As she said this, it occurred to me that it was Good Friday and we were eating chicken. I hoped under these circumstances the church would not object to our breaking the fast. I told them we would pretend that it was Sunday, and this could be our Easter dinner. Everyone laughed and ate quickly. When the meal ended, the women placed all the extra food on one plate and had it wrapped to take with them. There were about 10 of us including the children, yet the bill only came to about $35. When we returned to their corner, they gave the leftover food to the rest of their friends.
The next morning I awoke and my first thoughts were of Fatima and her family. In an almost surreal way their spirits somehow seemed more uplifted than my own. This extended family had touched my life.
Later that day I took Fatima, her sister, and mother to lunch at Jollibees, the Philippines answer to McDonalds. On the way back to their corner, Fatima asked me a question that really made me wonder. She said, “Would you like to see our house?” I told her yes, and we walked passed her corner and back to the place where we were initially introduced. Elsie walked over to a large cart-like object parked against the side of a building in the alley. Fatima told me it contained all their possessions, everything they had in the world. They also told me that last year the police confiscated their cart and burned all the contents.
On the opposite side of the alley were a few large plastic buckets filled with water. Fatima told me that the water belonged to one of the houses on the alley, and they could use the water to wash for 3 Pecos. She said there was also an indoor water faucet down the alley where they could get fresh water for 10 Pecos (about 20 cents), but this was a little beyond their budget. She said that sometimes they would go to Baywalk by the harbor and bathe there. This was done as a last resort because the water there was dirty and polluted.
Elsie pulled out a plastic chair and asked me to sit down. Our conversation continued on the many perils they face daily. She told me that many years ago the family was sleeping in the alley and a car drove through. Fatima was about twelve, and the car drove over part of her foot as she slept.
As we talked, Elsie kept referring to me as “friend.” Even though I told her many times that my name was Charles, she said she could not be that informal with me. Fatima called me Charles, and even Tricia gave it her cute try. But as for Elsie, she told me I was too good to her and her family to be simply called by a first name.
There were about 20 to 25 people in the small group that composed their community in the alley. Elsie was obviously the matriarch. Everybody would at some point come to her and ask a question. I only saw a few younger men who appeared to be the sons of a couple of the older women. Everyone was always friendly to me, and other than my first walk down the alley, I never felt the least bit threatened or uncomfortable. Elsie even told me at one point that I was safe, and that no one would bother me. After a few hours, I left the Elsie, Fatima and the children and proceeded on my journey through Manila.
Elsie Cooking in the Kitchen in the Alley
Later that evening, I found myself drawn again to their corner with an idea. As I approached, Fatima came running toward me pushing Precious in her stroller while Elsie and Tricia followed close behind. We exchanged greetings, and I asked them to follow me. Dorae and Sarah asked if they could join, but this time I said just Fatima and Elsie. They looked a little disappointed, but Elsie said it was all OK. I took hold of the little baby stroller and pushed Precious, while grandmother, mother and child followed. After a little walk and a brief stop at my favorite 7-Eleven for some snacks, we entered my hotel lobby. Their faces immediately filled with surprise and a little uneasiness. As we approached the reception area, I wondered what the clerks there would think of my company. I noticed that the one on duty that evening was a woman I would joke with every day. She simply looked at us giving me an approving smile.
This was Fatima’s first time in a hotel, an elevator, and a hotel room. Even though the room was relatively small, there was ample space for us all. Elsie sat in the chair closest to the TV, while I reclined at the head of the bed with little Precious by my side. She did not appear impressed with anything. She, like all children after an evening walk, fell fast asleep. Fatima sat at the foot of the bed playing with Tricia who wanted to investigate everything in the room.
I turned on the television, and we all watched a Filipino movie in Tagalog. I had no idea what the movie was about, and I did not really care. After a short time both women were crying, so I assumed they enjoyed it. When it was over, I asked them if they needed to use the bathroom. I said they could shower if they wished. Fatima took Tricia into the bathroom, and I showed her how to use the shower. She was amazed that she could control the temperature of the water. I returned to Elsie who was watching another movie. As she drank her juice, she said she had washed earlier today, so she did not need to shower now.
After about a half hour, Fatima and Tricia returned to the room with big smiles. They looked clean and refreshed. Their hair was still wet, and they had the same clothes they had been wearing for the past couple of days. They began to watch the new movie, but Precious had other ideas. She woke up and began to cry, and Fatima said she was hungry. She took her daughter, and very modestly turned her back to me and began to nurse the infant. Her movements were both casual and classy. I felt a strange admiration and respect for her modesty and mothering skills.
However, the most moving moment was about to occur. After a while I told them that if they wanted to stay, I could use the chair, and they could have the bed. It would all work out. Elsie said, “Thank you, but we have to go home.” It really stunned me. I did not know what to say. I was speechless. I have always associated home with a building, a roof, and a bed. The home for these two women and two little children was simply a location, a place, and a cardboard mat. From her perspective, her piece of the alley was home. It was hers! It was where she felt secure and safe. It was her part of the world where she could exercise some control.
As I walked them back, I felt so helpless and impotent. I was not changing anything. I was a mere Band-Aid to their lives. Their needs were of a magnitude that was beyond me. When we arrived at the corner, they gave me a hug, and we said good night. I slowly walked back to my room with a flood of emotions. I had an uneasy sleep that night.
With her Girls
The following morning was my last day in the Philippines. I awoke knowing I would have to say my final good-byes to my new friends. I knew it would be sad as all good-byes are. It was what I did not know that worried me. What would be the fate of this beautiful extended family? On my subsequent trips to the Philippines, would I ever be able to find them again?
As I walked down to their little corner to see them for the last time, I found my pace increasing. When we saw each other, we all broke into big smiles. I took Fatima, Elsie and the children to breakfast for the last time. We talked about many things. I told them that I wanted to help them, but I was not sure how. I asked Elsie if she had an ID, and she said that she did. I knew that with an ID I could send her money, but she would have to know that it was arriving and the control number for the transfer. We talked about this, and she told me she knew someone who had a cell phone. I could text her with the Western Union control number, and she may be able to receive some money. We had a plan.
We walked back to the alley and began our final good-byes. There was an abundance of hugs and tears. I gave them some money and promised never to forget them. I told them I would definitely see them again, yet I think we all knew that the chances of this were very slim. The last thing I did was hug the children and give them little kisses. As I walked away, I knew my life was changed, but I was not sure exactly how. Was it filled with more hope for us as a people or less?
Returning from the Store
I managed to see Fatima and her family a couple of times during the following year. It was always the high point of my visits to Manila. We would do dinner, a little shopping, and of course photos. However, during the following year I was unable to get to Manila. On my next visit, as I walled to their little piece of the world, Elsie came running across their busy intersection to me. As she got close, I noticed she was crying. She grabbed my hand and just looked at me. I asked her what was wrong. She simply said, “Fatima is dead.” I was in shock. I asked her what happened, and she told me that Fatima got an infection several months ago. At first they did not know what to do. After a period of time, they managed to get her to a hospital, but it was too late. Unfortunately, gangrene had set in and the doctors said she needed an operation which would cost about $700. Of course the family had no money, so all they could do was nurse her until she passed away.
Fatima’s death really hit me hard. She was such a pleasant young woman whose smile could make anyone feel better. The poverty of her world prevented her from having a childhood and precluded her reaching adulthood.
The legend of Fatima in Portugal is one of hope and promise for us all, but my fear is that the life of Fatima in Manila may be one of lost hope and failed promises. Our shame is that Fatima was not alone. There are not simply tens or hundreds of her in our world. There are millions of children on our small earth who sleep with only the sky above them, whose daily routine is a quest for food, and who live each day devoid of promise.
This is something that still concerns me as I share my recollections. My young students here in Zama have laptops and smart phones. They dress well, eat well, and most are involved in sports or other activities. Their lives are full in Japan, and their futures are bright. I have told them this story of Fatima, and I hope they realize how fortunate we all are here. As a teacher, my hope is that as my students become young adults, they will have the knowledge and courage to do something to balance the social scales. My dream is that through the math, science and other areas of their curriculum, they learn ways to create a world where all Fatimas will enjoy the advantages they take for granted; simple things such as a bed, food, and a classroom desk.