Aime is a home in Manila that takes in mentally disabled street children. There they learn how to live with others and about the basics of self-sufficiency, but above all, they learn that they can be loved.
All of the children laughing, screeching, moaning and jostling at the Aime house today came through the RAC (Reception and Action Center). In other words, every single one of them came from the street. At the heart of Manila, the RAC, appears first as an abandoned schoolyard where children would be very reluctant to show up each morning. A guard welcomes visitors with a series of lively gesticulations, but this entertaining spectacle cannot hide the starkness of the premises. On the left is the main building, surrounded by wire fencing, into which dozens of children immediately rush, all of them with shaved heads – a case of head lice, explains the substitute guard. Cooped up right at the back of the yard, on the right-hand side, are the “special people”, the name euphemistically given to those with mental disabilities.
A prison by any other name
There, the child who takes you by the hand, and immediately brings it to his forehead to make the sign of a blessing, has scabies. He is dirtier than you can imagine, and sad to a degree that few children ever are. What is his disability? When I ask, those in charge of the “special people” unit indicate, with an evasive gesture, that they do not know. There is none of the “Move along, there is nothing to see here,” that you sometimes find elsewhere. My line of enquiry is simply shut down with a brief but deadly effective show of indifference. A single rectangular room, which is both stifling hot and yet also incredibly cold, its windows either boarded up or obscured by thick bars, is provided for the “special people”. Inside, a dozen or so women and children are present that day. Adults mixed in with the children? Yes, for these adults are categorised as “special”: for the purposes of the centre, they are children too.
Their number varies as and when the police or local officials do the rounds of the Filipino capital, “scooping up” children they find hanging around in the streets before bringing them here, where they will stay until other institutions or NGOs take responsibility for their care. In a brief, solemn movement, an overwhelmingly beautiful woman sits up on her wooden bedstead and lifts up a lock of her long black hair. “I may be in here with the crazy people, but I am still alive,” her gesture seems to say. Yet this is not the first impression left on the visitor by the sight of these women and their incredibly vacant stares, nor by the sight of children whose dark eyes remain fixed on the floor and who never play.
A home that lives up to its name
On the edge of the business district of Makati, just a few minutes away from this prison by any other name, is the Aime home, where that morning, on the ground floor, there is no-one but Ryan, who is finishing his breakfast. Ryan, who is 17 years old and mentally-disabled, deaf and mute, always has trouble finishing what is on his plate. His personal story is quite unremarkable here. Like many, he was first found at the RAC, and no-one knows anything about his life before that. His age was determined by a dental exam, and it was the professionalism, patience and love of the members of the teaching team at Aime, founded by the association Virlanie with the support of Children of the Mekong, that made it possible to understand his disability. At the RAC, nobody bothered checking if he was deaf and mute. He was simply labelled “special”, and that was enough to condemn him to exclusion from the “normal” world.
Today, Ryan is learning to say his name in sign language. He already knows the names of all the other children at the centre, as well as the staff members. He can draw too, and he is good at it. His drawings are regularly displayed on the walls of Virlanie’s main office a few streets away. Sometimes, his difficulties in expressing himself lead him to be violent, and Alister, the young educator who introduces him, explains with regret that, although he has come a long way, Ryan will never be self-sufficient.
On the first floor of the house, at the top of a staircase closed off by a solid railing, is the boys’ room. It is chaos. There are ten or so children and teenagers aged between eight and eighteen, and it is wash time. Clothes, towels, soap and other utensils are flying around in all directions. Meanwhile, Alfred, Peter and Ven play the fool, running around anarchically, one doing a cartwheel in one corner while the others play wheelbarrows, fall and get back up again. Better behaved is Kyan, who, perched on his bed, is putting on his trousers, something he was incapable of doing for himself when he arrived at Aime. When he is done, he sits and watches his friends with an amused or indifferent look. It is difficult to know which. Like Richard and Michael (who is covering his ears with his hands to keep out the racket), he will not move from his bed until everyone is ready.
Aime: a family home
Raymond, meanwhile, is in the background of this free-for-all, but he shows self-restraint. And when Alister asks him, he unflinching helps Peter, who with some difficulty is dragged away from his clowning around, to put on a T-shirt. He too came from the RAC, and he has spent the last five years, half of his life, with Virlanie. “Raymond is very gifted,” explains Alister. He is starting to be able to read and do multiplication.” In fact, he is the only child at the home who attends school. It is a public school, and a specialist one at that, but one that none of the other children at the centre would be able to attend. He is also one of the children who can most readily be entrusted with the little everyday tasks that go some way towards lightening the workload of the home’s staff.
His profile is almost unique here, and gives the specialist educators at Aime some hope for his future. Raymond is already too old to be adopted, but it is not inconceivable that he could become self-sufficient enough to look after himself to some degree. Alister believes it is possible. Other solutions for these children’s future are few and far between. Besides adoption, which is impossible in most cases, there is “independent living”, a kind of home-working arrangement supervised by institutions, but many are excluded from this due to ambiguous and complex relationships with others, linked to the poor treatment they have suffered in the past.
“And then,” adds Ate Laylah, manager of Aime, “there is the ideal solution: family. But it is very difficult to find the families of these children. And it is even more difficult to get them to agree to take back a child that they may have abandoned precisely because of his/her disability. Fortunately, we try to recreate a family atmosphere for them here. We bring them up as best we can and we love them. Is not that what “Aime” means in French: love?” Indeed it is.
Founded in 2006 by the association Virlanie, with the support of Children of the Mekong, the Aime home currently houses around twenty children – boys and girls, aged from 8 to 30. The teaching team is made up of a social worker, a specialist educator, four ”parents” (two couples who try to recreate the atmosphere of a family house), two auxiliary nurses and one home help.
Article by Jean-Matthieu Gautier. Originally published in Enfants du Mekong magazine.