Philippines: Fr Shay Cullen on children in jail

It was a dark, overcrowded prison cell packed with the sweating,  heaving tattooed bodies of the most wicked-looking criminals you  could imagine. I could not see Hakim, the young kid I had come to  rescue from this harsh place of human misery and degradation if ever  there was one. Then in the dark corner near the stinking hole that  served as a toilet, I saw the large staring eyes of this shrunken  figure. He was terrified. I looked through the bars, the other prisoners stirred and shouted at me for food, cigarettes, money and drinks.

I motioned to the guard, he removed the padlock and Joan slid back  the bolt with a loud clang. "Hakim, come out!" the guard shouted. The  boy looked up fearful. He stood on wobbly legs, a skinny skeletal  body like a prisoner from Auschwitz, a Lazarus from the grave. He  took a faltering step and almost fell over. He was weak, emaciated,  half-starved and naked, he had nothing but cotton shorts. The spectre  of TB was all over him like a shroud of death, like so many of the  others we rescued. He was poverty itself. We guided him out the cell  gate, down the crowded corridor to the warden's office and his  quivering hand signed the release paper. He was free.

A precious human life was saved, a cast away, unwanted, alone with  his dark skin, Afro hair and indigenous features, he was low  caste. Now he was saved from certain death. "I came to bring freedom  to the captives", Jesus said, and so we all should too and meet Him  right there in the likes of the kid with the scabies and the  hollowed-out eyes. "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of  the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

The gate clanged shut, he slowly walked free that day in March, out  into the blinding, scorching sun, clutching a plastic bag with a dirty T-shirt in it - his only possession. I thought once again of  all the useless surplus stuff I had, too much and promised heaven I  would finally give it away.

The first stop was for food. Hakim was slow to eat, too weak to chew  the first bit of chicken he had eaten in years. The boy looked around  him hardly believing he was out of the cells.

It had been ten months without a visitor, ten months with only two  short trips to the court. One to be arranged for a crime he didn't  know, and although he said he was 15 years old, he couldn't prove it  and was marked an adult. The second time in court was to learn that  there was no evidence or witness or a complaint to accuse him. But he  was still sent back to the brutality of the prison and was forgotten.

He was at the bottom of the pile in the jail since he was a  dark-faced indigenous tribal person, a Muslim from war-ravaged Mindanao. Even an enemy and migrant in a foreign land you might say.  His village had been burnt, the people fled the fighting and Hakim  was taken by relatives on a rusty old ship filled with war refugees  and they got separated when the ship hit a reef and many drowned.

He got to Manila and was begging on the streets when he was picked up  by the police and charged with theft. It was the usual frame-up so  they could claim they had solved a crime and get a reward and a step  closer to their arrest quota and promotion. This boy was the most  forgotten and discriminated of all. No doors would ever have opened  for him unless Mina, Joan and Shiela had undone the bolt and led him  out to freedom.

As the days passed, he slowly emerged from the ten-month depression.  But the affirmation, acceptance, and friendship of the other boys in  the Preda New Dawn Home gave him trust and the small smile grew  bigger. He responded to the medicine and the food and the good sleep  in the cool shade of the mango tree. He healed. Today he is a college  student.

Fr Shay is a Columban priest and director of the Preda Foundation in Olangapo  in the Philippines. For more information see:

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