How one priest built a system of belonging for abandoned children
(A condensed version of this post was first published in our parish bulletin The Manna, and a full version was published on our parish website.)
“NBS is my alma mater. I grew up there.”
This is Raymond, the 22-year-old boy on the right. Cyril is the 19-year-old boy on the left.1 Both of them have been studying English full-time in Yangon for two months; they have another three months to go. As the country opens up to the rest of the world, fluency in English becomes key to better prospects, so these classes are a shrewd investment that will open doors in the two boys’ lives.
This is not an investment that Raymond and Cyril could have made on their own. Before this, Raymond and Cyril were staying at Nazareth Bush School (“NBS”). But for NBS’s support, the two of them would not have had this opportunity to further their education in English.
Since October 2015, SiGN has been visiting and supporting NBS.
NBS eludes easy definition. Located in the Irrawaddy delta—a five-hour van ride from Yangon airport and one-hour away from the Myaungmya town centre—it functions as a hostel, a school, an orphanage, a community, and more. This year, 68 children with ages ranging from 6 to 18 years old attend NBS. They receive full board and lodging. During the day, they also attend classes that run parallel to the State’s public schools. Although NBS’s teachers are not formally accredited, many parents and children still prefer NBS for its superior quality of education.
No one pays NBS for anything. The community supports itself to some extent and the children share the little that they have with each other. They grow bamboo and cashew nuts, and sell any excess. They also grow the best pineapples that I’ve tasted in my life. There is a roster for chores—cooking, cleaning, drawing water, etc. There is also a chicken farm producing 700 eggs a day. Add in their daily Mass and prayer devotions and the community almost seems apostolic.2
The children who attend NBS do so for various reasons. Some are orphans. Many are indigent. Some suffer abuse. Some are dropped off by their families for being one child too many. Some find their only opportunity for education in NBS.
These children fall into two categories. The first category comprises those who are just passing by. These children are welcome to stay as long as they like and leave whenever they are ready to—when their families are ready to receive them back, when they have been sufficiently educated, when they want to find better career prospects.
The second category is those who do not leave; they integrate into the larger community that NBS is a part of. For these children, the commitment to and responsibility for them become lifelong. Viable futures for them must be created where none existed before.
This year alone, there are 25 new children. No one knows whether they will belong to the first or the second category. But this rarely matters anyway, because NBS provides for all regardless. The common thread they share is that they have been abandoned—by the system, by society, by their families.
And here is where NBS truly shines: NBS is not just designed to be a system of livelihood (which is already laudable), but also a system of belonging.
This is Icydo, the smallest child in NBS. He might also be intellectually underdeveloped. Everyone looks out for him.
When we play Whacko, he does not quite seem to get the rules of the game. So when it is his turn to be the beater, an older kid takes his hand and runs along with him.
In NBS, the conditions are simple but the love is warm. Meals for the children can be a mound of rice, some jackfruit arils, and a plate of Burmese condiment called balachaung. (We, on the other hand, get at least a meat and a vegetable dish.) During their free time, the children play volleyball or soccer, or just sit around and chat. The boys sleep together one floor above the main classroom; the girls sleep in a separate dormitory.
Although the children whose families live nearby are free to return home after classes, most of them choose to stay at NBS. Life at NBS is more vibrant, more engaging, more familial.
One night, after the day’s program has ended, the children plead with their principal to let them hang around in the main classroom for a while longer, rather than dismissing them for the night. It is only 8.00PM, they reason. The principal acquiesce. After a while, however, the limited electricity supply to the classroom gets cut off. This hardly fazes them. By torchlight and candlelight, the boys continue to play the guitar and sing and the girls continue chatting.
When we ask Cyril and Raymond whether they prefer staying in Yangon or in NBS, they too are unequivocal. They miss NBS and they want to return as soon as possible.
For many children, NBS has become home and their fellow schoolmates have become siblings. Many in fact do have siblings at NBS. Some children even openly acknowledge that the priest in charge of NBS is a better father than their own.
“God gave me a mission to be a father to those who have no father.”
This is Father Benjamin Eihsu. He is 68 years old this year. He was ordained in 1973 when he was 24. Any story of NBS is a story of Fr Ben, because he is its progenitor, its builder, and its visionary. This is all only God’s will, of course, he would tell you.
Fatherhood descended swiftly on Fr Ben. Within his first year of ordination, he was made a parish priest and was put in charge of the parish’s boarding house. “At the age of 25, I was a father to 25 children,” Fr Ben recalls.
As the years passed, Fr Ben became aware of the increasing need for education even as more children came under his care. On one occasion, he discovered that although some children had only received 10% for their English final exams, they were still advancing to the next school year. The public education system, he realised, only cared about pushing students through to the next level rather than about truly educating them.
In 1999, Fr Ben asked God for a sign if he should start a school. At that time, he had no resources and no land. God would have to provide. And God did.
That same year, in a retreat in Singapore, a man came up to Fr Ben to give him an envelope of S$1,000. The man told Fr Ben that he felt prompted to do so.
That S$1,000 turned out to be the exact amount needed to buy the eight acres of land that a local had offered to sell to Fr Ben. With that, NBS was born.
“Why call it Nazareth Bush School?” I ask.
“Nazareth is the place where Jesus grew up. The model of the family in Nazareth is a model of parenting and education,” says Fr Ben.
I met Fr Ben by pure chance even before I visited NBS with SiGN. I had been interning in Myanmar and I had stayed at the compound for the Bishops Conference. Fr Ben was one of the many local priests that I had shared a meal with.
Even then, Fr Ben struck me as different. He is quieter, gentler, wiser. He looks old, but when he speaks, his mind is sharp and his eyes are bright. Later, when I attend the Masses that he celebrated, I would marvel at how easily he extracts theological depth from the readings.
When I ask him about the costs of running NBS, his answer reveals a deep trust in God. Food and lodging for a primary school child costs around S$200 to S$300 per year in a normal hostel, he tells me. However, like parents, Fr Ben does not count the financial costs.
“I have never solicited for funds,” says Fr Ben. “God gives me these people. He entrusts them to me. God will provide.”
When Fr Ben addresses SiGN, he hits this point home. “Your visit is not just a social-pastoral visit. This is a message from God the Father that I am not forgotten. Our community is not forgotten. God wants to remind me that He is with us by sending His agents. Your visit is a sign that God is with us. You represent God himself, like ambassadors or agents. And not only your gifts, your personal presence is a sign, an encouragement, a motivation [for us] to keep on doing our work.”
This is us, SiGN’s fourth mission team to Myanmar.
In October 2015, SiGN made their first trip to Myanmar. They had heard of Fr Ben from Sister Grace, a Singaporean IJ sister, so they wanted to see his work for themselves. They were impressed with his efforts and his vision. Since then, SiGN has made three more trips, including this most recent one from 1 to 6 June 2017.
This time, we bring up boxes of books and magazines. We conduct a class on the Seven Gifts of the Spirit. We get attacked by mosquitoes. In early June, the region transitions from the summer to the rainy season, so the air is heavy and the nights are warm.
On one of the nights, we organise a prayer ministry session. We split the children into smaller groups with at least one SiGN team member in each. The group then forms a circle. One by one, the children come to the center of their circle and voice out their prayers. The rest of the group extends their hand and the SiGN team member leads them in praying for that child.
That night is thick with moisture and hope. One child’s prayer lingers in my memory to this day: she prays that she can be a teacher when she grows up.
And it strikes me then. This is what Fr Ben and NBS do: They guard the dreams of these children. They keep those dreams alive. They keep the children’s faith, hope, and love alive.
This is Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta. They are 8 years old and they are triplets named after the three children whom Our Lady of Fátima appeared to.
Giving birth shortly after the Cyclone Nargis wrecked the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, their mother passed away from malnourishment. Karuna, which is Myanmar’s equivalent of Caritas, stepped in. Karuna’s staff were supposed to take care of the triplets for seven months. But these were salaried workers who could not afford to provide 24/7 care. They caved after two months.
The day the triplets arrived at Fr Ben’s hostel, they had to be hospitalised for malnutrition. The hospital told Fr Ben that if they had arrived a week later, they would not have survived.
Unsure of the community’s capacity, Fr Ben asked the older girls whether they were willing to care for them. The older girls dispelled his doubts. They were once like that too, they told him. This was the time for them to pay it forward.
Today, the triplets call Fr Ben ‘grandpa’. This is legally inaccurate: Fr Ben has not officially adopted them. Nevertheless, the triplets’ biological father recognise that they have a better life with Fr Ben, and has thus signed away his rights.
Children do feel abandoned, Fr Ben tells us, especially when they grow up and find out that their parents are still alive but simply did not want them.
Enter in—as a panacea to abandonment—Fr Ben’s vision for NBS and his principles in running it. Children are not projects. His commitment to them is lifelong. This community welcomes any child who wishes to stay.
These are easy words but Atlantean promises.
“I am scared by the responsibility of taking care of the children. I feel like running away sometimes.”
This is Ba Kyaw, the principal and administrator of NBS. He is 26 years old. The first time I teach a group of children to play Ninja,3 he translates my instructions. The second time we play, he joins in.
In NBS, Ba Kyaw is in charge of everything. When we want to turn off the lights for prayer ministry, he brings a stool and cuts the wire. On Pentecost Sunday, we do not not see him around because he is buying food for the night feast. On the first day of school, he waves a hasty goodbye to us, before rushing back to the classroom to oversee the moving of chairs and tables.
Although he is soft-spoken and mild-tempered, the children listen when he speaks. He seems to be happy to do what he is doing.
It is only later that he confides in Uncle Alfred: He feels inadequate, underprepared, even overwhelmed at times. There are so many lives, so many futures at stake here.
When one takes a step back to see the bigger picture, Fr Ben’s work is indeed staggering. Beyond NBS, there are three other hostels that he manages—one in Yangon where we met Cyril and Raymond; one called Bethany Hostel located nearer the town center; and one called Mother of Myanmar just next to NBS (where the students attend public schools rather than NBS). Then there are the 28 Pathein University students whom Fr Ben supports, two of which came from NBS.
Fr Ben’s newest project, aiming at long-term sustainability, is Nazareth Farm School (NFS). Situated on a 25-acre plot about a half-hour van ride from NBS, NFS grows some major crops such as corn, brinjal, roselle, etc. Currently, four former NBS boys run the farm.
If all goes well, Fr Ben envisions that the community can progress from production to manufacturing and processing. NFS could integrate with NBS, and a land-based livelihood can be developed to support the whole community.
Again, it boils down to the children and what they need. For those who want to leave, to work in the city, to find some life beyond the community, they are free to go. For those like the Pathein University students who want to and are capable of further education, Fr Ben and the community tries to support them. As for those who want a simple life with the community, NFS might be a place for them.
His resources are stretched thin, Fr Ben admits. And foremost amongst his concerns is continuity: Who will take over after he is gone?
These are difficulties that Fr Ben faces with the agency of an activist, the worry of a parent, but also the surrender of a Christian.
“Whenever I do something difficult or demanding, I used to say: I do this because You love me… The love of Christ compels me. These days, I say to myself: Father, live in me, so that I may live in You, and that we may be one. Whatever I do is Your work, not my work,” Fr Ben says.
“I like morning prayer. I feel that Jesus is with me in the morning.”
This is Justina. She is 12 years old.
The night that the children stay up late, I chat with a group of them. They help each other to translate and to overcome their shyness.
Justina tells me that she still feels sad about leaving her family. She had arrived in NBS two years ago via the river during the rainy season. She is here because she wants to study; she returns to her village for one month a year.
As the night draws to a close, she and several other children ask me: When will I be back? Will I remember them? Will I pray for them?
I think about my busy life back in Singapore, the clean and sterile air, the beautiful concrete skyline. Then I look at the children pressing all around me, eager, hopeful, and so alive. We have become a part of this system of belonging, I realise.
“I will.” I don’t know if I am making more of a promise to them, to myself, or to God.
“I don’t know when, but I will come back.”
1.In order of appearance, here are the credits for the photos in this post: me, uncle Thud Chee, Catherine, Catherine, Catherine, uncle Thud Chee, uncle Thud Chee.
2.See Acts 2:42-47.
3.In Ninja, players take turns to swipe each other’s palms. Think of it as Pepsi-Cola, but with palms instead of feet.