by PETER GRACE
ADELAIDE — New Zealand-born Dominican priest Fr Alex Vickers is doing his best to live what he believes — that if a bad situation seems too big, he can still do one small thing and make a huge difference.
Fr Vickers grew up in Blockhouse Bay parish in Auckland, and it was that connection that got him involved in work with Burmese refugees in Thailand.
After Blockhouse Bay parishioner Don Matthews and his wife Toni sold their business and retired, Mr Matthews developed a huge commitment to helping children who are abused, marginalised and victimised. His focus is largely on Burmese refugee children in Thailand, especially at Mae Sot, a town near the border with Burma, and Mae Tao.
Last year, Fr Vickers visited Mae Sot with Mr Matthews.
Fr Vickers told NZ Catholic that the sisters who run the orphanage in Mae Sot are part of a Spanish congregation founded by a Dominican friar from the French province.
“The sisters work in probably about 14 different countries. And they have a particular mission in Thailand, predominantly working with Burmese refugees,” he said.
Mr Matthews pointed out that the work is not funded by the government or the Church. “It’s entirely voluntary,” he said.
Couples in Burma often bring their children to the border and push them across, said Fr Vickers, “because their parents know they will be somewhat safe”.
The parents slip back into Burma to hide and the sisters take in the children and create a family for them. The Thai Government offers no medical help.
The sisters can’t accommodate all the children who need help, he said, but they teach refugee children in the slum, and also feed them.
Fr Vickers said that he had recently been involved in a national conference in Australia. “One of the big things that came out of the conference was relationships and the idea of family — and [the children] are family. They are part of the Dominican family.
“And it was interesting to watch their reaction as they came to realise that they are part of something much bigger.”
For example, the children in Blockhouse Bay parish will write letters for Mr Matthews to deliver to the children in Mae Sot, and those children will write letters that he will bring back.
The Mae Sot community of sisters is small.
One of them, said Fr Vickers, an Argentinean, runs the orphanage. “The other two sisters, one of them teaches in a Thai school teaching English. She’s a Filipino, and the other teaches in one of the parish primary schools that takes Burmese and she’s fairly fluent in Thai.”
According to Mr Matthews, one of the sisters, Sr Marcela, is from Argentina and came to Thailand not knowing any Thai and not having a drivers licence, “and in three months she became [fairly] fluent in Thai and got a driving licence”.
Added Fr Vickers: “She’s the sort of woman who will give anything a go. . . . “She drove into a place where they were recycling and she said, ‘Oh, I have to go to talk to this man’, and goes across the rubbish in her full habit . . . and that’s the sort of person she is, very focused, a wonderful lady. Just the right sort of person who should be doing that.
“She doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone, but she’s always looking for the best chance to help the kids. What can I get? What programme can I get? She’s just finished a garden project.”
The Burmese are barely tolerated by the Thai people.
Mr Matthews said that one of the big worries he has is what happens when the children get to an age where they can no longer be accommodated in an orphanage and there’s nothing for them to do. “And it’s starting to happen now.
“Because some of those kids are going to be very well educated by local standards,” said Fr Vickers. “But what do they do?”
There are many thousands of children.
With one of the camps they wanted to look at, Fr Vickers said, the authorities closed the border — because it was Mother’s Day.
In this particular camp, Mr Matthews said, there were many thousands of people being fed by the United Nations, “and they live in the worst conditions. And that’s only one camp, and there are multiple camps”.
“We are talking human beings who have nothing.”
Mr Matthews said that, indirectly, the involvement of Fr Vickers has made a massive difference to the people.
The amount of funding that has been generated from Adelaide in particular has been quite substantial.
“Small things do make a difference,” he said. “And people do become overwhelmed. And we are overwhelmed at the moment for requests for help.”
• To support the sisters’ work, contact:
Holy Infant Orphanage, Mae Sot.
Account Holder: Marcela Claudia Calipan
Bank: Siam Commercial Bank Public Company Ltd
Office Number: 0573
Account No.: 573 239021-8
Sr Marcela’s cellphone no.: 08 4597 5041
Orphanage on Facebook:www.facebook.com/holy.orphanage?fref=ts
If donors supply their names, phone numbers, mail and email addresses, the Sisters will keep them updated as to what is happening at the home.