Letter of Paolo Colonnello

This is the test of the beautiful letter in which Paolo Colonnello, well known journalist for LA STAMPA and writer, opened the show.

The street children's restaurant

I don’t remember her name, maybe I never knew it. She used to sell cigarettes and chewing gum, kept in a plastic box, hung by two little ropes around her neck. Her outworn slippers, two sizes too big green t-shirt and an elastic to hold her hair. She was beautiful, naturally. Her long fingers, her delicate gestures. She might have been 8 years old but her look was timeless. Her expression something that if you stop and think can excavate a chasm in your soul. This is why we never look at them. We let their expression run through ourselves with no feeling, becoming empty. We turn around finding that we are in a hurry. On that day four years ago I had no place to go. Sometimes the boat passage on Mekong river to Neak Loeuna is long. I bought a single cigarette for one dollar. She smiled; with a dollar you can buy a meal, maybe two in Cambodia. I smiled back; with a dollar we don’t even buy a sandwich here. She smiled again, with one dollar she could feed her brother too that day. I smiled again but I was feeling a little bit silly.

She kept smiling because I was standing there with all my occidental embarrassment, lighting up my cigarette and smoking it with pleasure, as it was fresh morning air, the best cigarette I ever had in my entire life. She must have thought that I was very stupid, maybe a little bit crazy; even children know that smoking is unhealthy!

Slowly the other children arrived. From behind cars, from trucks full of pigs, from dustbins, from tangled up shrouds. They were silent and discrete. Tiny little ghosts. One of them winked at me. One took my hand. The youngest one held onto my pants. Another one offered his poor goods. One reached out to me with his blind brother. Dirty, ill, and hardly dressed children.

They were beautiful, anyway.

Someone calls them “chiffoniers” and every morning, everywhere, when we have drank our coffee, managed our career, taken our children to school, they, even the youngest ones, have left their shacks, with holes in the tinfoil roofs, to  rummage in Phnom Penh’s garbage dumps or in Battambang’s or Neak Loeung’s, to find a leftover to eat, a tatter to wear, an object to use.

Alone and abandoned or in peaceful groups, their street family, they walk miles and miles with heavy weights and tiny hopes.

If they are lucky they walk to town, to try to resell the waste to careless tourists or to hard working Cambodian people. If they are not lucky, it’s the same. Because good or bad have no meaning for little  chiffoniers, the last ones among the last, destiny preys.

A smile has a meaning. A meal has a meaning. Who knows maybe a bath once in a while, a hair cut, nails cut, an examination, a game, a marker, even one hour spent watching cartoons on TV., as it happens, it shall happen, to all the children of the world.

Think, with 90 cents of euro we can have all that for a little chiffoniers, every day. 90 cents, less than a dollar. Not even a cigarette or a coffee in a downtown bar. Nothing in comparison with vulgar richness.

The Restaurant des Enfants de la Rue was born with this budget and now, daily, can feed 150 children from ages 1 to 14. It was opened February 2010 and slowly has become a school, shelter, and health centre. It was able to tear 100 children from the street and this year a doctor, twice a month, will examine all the children that stop by.

It’s a little oasis, a raft to hang onto, not to die along the street where every year a hundred children disappear as victims of a certain kind of sexual tourism or victims of unconcern.

You know what? The Piedmont Region didn’t want to give its patronage to this organization because, they say, they cannot control the destination of the money that we are collecting.

There is a law they say, that doesn’t allow to take a certain kind of responsibility. In a country with no laws, we have to respect laws that prevent from being generous, we are invincible.

Somehow we understand them. It’s difficult looking at being interested in these things. A little bit of trust, a telephone call to the Cambodian internal ministry, that has decided to give our restaurant an official recognition. With a little bit of work they would have found that there is already someone that, for years, has been looking after the little chiffoniers.

He is a white haired man, he is tall and wears glasses, he is tireless, he is an ex slave of Pol Pot camps, an elementary teacher called the street angel. His name is Chivv and on that day he was looking at me, while seated on the bow of the boat, pretending to admire the river.

Sometimes the boat passage on Mekong river to Neak Loeuna is long.

You can even catch a thought, a movement of your soul, a  consideration. I didn’t want the ride to finish, I felt good among all those little chiffoniers that kept staring at me and talking to me in Khmer, as if I could really understand them. On the contrary, as usual the trip ended. The long boat opened its bulkheads and we had to get off.

The street children took up their hands and made a little bow. A simple precious gesture.  Inimitable. many times I tried to reach that pathos with my clumsy movements, but I couldn’t do it.

There is nothing ceremonious in a child’s thanks. Nothing redundant, it’s already big a child’s thanks itself

Some children jumped into water, some ran away following cars and trucks because even on the broken boats sailing the Mekong they do not want these little poor children that ask for money and disturb tourists. That prohibition for children has become a game, asking for money is a game. Crawling against walls to hide is a game,  rummaging in the garbage is a game. Because if it’s not a game it would be tragedy. And our stomachs should turn and our souls should feel ashamed.  But in their endless wisdom children can forgive our cowardice’s, our neglects, our indifference. And they transform them into games, hiding pain and hopes.

The young cigarette seller looked down, my eyes misted over with tears, the goodbye moment arrived: for a dollar she, with the other children, had given me an illumination. The possibility to stand among them, and to look at each other, speechless, as you do when you really want to understand each other ever to abandon again.

I found them all after in the little restaurant of the street children opened in Neak Loeung, the first experiment if that kind wanted by Chivv the big father of the chiffoniers. It has been a party. The young girl  when she saw me she has a jump, she became serious, she came towards me and gave me back my dollar. She didn’t want to listen to any reason if I got there if I entered the chiffoniers’ shelter, with my wife and my children, I was not, any longer, a clumsy tourist, I was a friend. One of them.

That dollar, I keep it here with me, always in my pocket: it’s the price of happiness.

Paolo Colonnello