Sabah: Children of the wind

Thousands of children are left to fend for themselves in the Malaysian state.

    Many Filipino children come to the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah to escape poverty [Aaron Favila/AP]
    Many Filipino children come to the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah to escape poverty [Aaron Favila/AP]

    He was newly washed and freshly dressed when we met him. His clothes - clean, and not ill-fitting. Which wasn't usual by "street" standards.

    Smooth-faced but bleary-eyed, he was awkward too. Like any young teen might be. But there was a weariness about him that belied his 14 years.

    He kept his head down and was unable to look us in the face.

    "It's early" - we were told - "he won't be too-far-gone yet".

    What do you mean? I asked the older man-about-town who was serving us our guide: "High. He won't be so high yet… you may still be able to get some coherent answers out of him."

    But we didn't. The young boy was, well, at least not completely incomprehensible. His answers were short: yes, no, I don't know. It wasn't clear it he was reticent because of shyness… or shame. Even his being inarticulate didn't hide the fact that he seemed deeply ashamed of who he was. Almost like he wasn't sure he should be occupying any physical space in the world at all.

    He didn't even know his real name.

    Everyone just referred to him as "Anak" - the Filipino word for "son".

    All Anak knew for sure was that he was born in Sabah - the Land Below the Wind - so he "guessed" that made him Malaysian.

    But he wasn't. Not really. His parents had come here from the Philippines - either to escape a separatist war… or economic strife… or both. Again, Anak didn't know for sure. And he tried to act like he didn't care. But there was a far away, vacant look in his eyes in the few seconds he raised them to look at us.

    Like the other parentless boys who now began to mill around us in the dockyard, Anak was flotsam – "sea trash"… moving about aimlessly, carried by the waters and the wind… belonging nowhere…and headed nowhere too.

    Anak was left behind 7 years ago when his parents, illegal immigrants, disappeared. The grown-ups here believe they were likely deported back to the Philippines. Left with little choice, Anak then made the streets of Kota Kinabalu his home. He hides in the port in the evenings. Adopted by the yard workers and seafarers who are just as illegal as he is. They give him food to eat… and a place to sleep. In the mornings that they are surprised by immigration officers, they jump into the sea or hide in the bowels of decrepit old boats. They say the immigration guards are loathe to dive into either… so it's safe for them to hide in.

    But Anak has learned to play more than just a constant game of hide-and-seek with Malaysian authorities. To get high - and escape the life he's trapped in - he's gone from sniffing glue with his street friends to shabu or crack cocaine. Because he can afford it now. He's made money being a sort of drug mule for dealers and other criminals. He's learned to move up in the underworld… to survive.

    He has no other dreams after all, he says. His only goal is to get by another day.

    And then there is Jabil - same age, same existence. A little less "fortunate" though as he hasn't yet managed to make the "powerful" friends Anak has. Jabil still sniffs only glue. It's what he has for breakfast -- and it gets him through the day. But unlike Anak - it hasn't numbed him from the pain. Jabil remembers too much. He recalls the difficult trip over from the Southern Philippines with his parents ... and he's angry that they too have disappeared.

    He's angry that they came.

    He's angry that he's been left behind.

    "I don't know where they are," he shares.

    Then he doesn't say anymore.

    It is estimated there are hundreds of thousands of stateless, rudderless, children like Anak and Jabil. Flotsam and jetsam. Left behind in Sabah to suffer the costs of their parents' broken dreams.

    Incapable of believing in dreams themselves.

    Hundreds of thousands growing up... as children of the wind.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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