Longdy Chhap, a Cambodian who suffered from polio and was trafficked as a child to beg in Thailand poses for a photo during an interview in Singapore April 29, 2016.
By Alisa Tang
SINGAPORE - When Longdy Chhap was five, polio consumed his body, leaving him confined to a wheelchair and rolling around to play outside in his village near the seedy Cambodian border town of Poipet.
By his own telling, his family became poor because of him, so when a broker came to his neighborhood and offered wayward or disabled children easy money begging across the border in Thailand, the choice was easy for Longdy, who guesses he was about eight at the time.
Holding his hand to one ear, he said one voice told him "a disability kid makes a family poor". In the other, he heard the broker's voice: "You will have good money to help your family."
So Longdy became one of hundreds of children trafficked from Cambodia to beg on Thailand's streets.
There are at least 1,000 trafficked child beggars in Thailand, most of them from Cambodia, according to the Mirror Foundation, a Thai charity that spreads awareness about child trafficking and rescues about 50 children each year.
Children like Longdy beg on pedestrian overpasses and busy shopping streets in the Thai capital Bangkok and other cities.
Longdy spent years sitting on sidewalks and streets as a child beggar, learning to navigate the police system so well he later could plan to get arrested when he missed his family and wanted to be deported back home.
Now 27, he told his story after speaking on a panel at Trust Forum Asia, an event in Singapore last week on trafficking and slavery hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"NOT MY WORLD"
As a child in Poipet, Longdy helped with his parents' noodle and spring roll shop, waking at 3 a.m. to chop vegetables and meat with his four siblings as their mother cooked.
When seasonal rains poured down on the dusty neighborhood roads, his wheels got stuck, caked in mud, stranding him at home where he watched as other children headed to school.
His father once asked him if he wanted to enroll.
"I really wanted to, but I saw them all play with their two legs, and I thought no, it's not my world," Longdy said, sitting in a hotel lobby in Singapore, his crutches at his side.
When the broker came to his home, she was full of promises. "You just sit and ask, and Thais give you money," he recalled her telling him.
So one day, he was loaded into a car with other children, covered with a tarp and smuggled into Thailand.
As the smugglers neared checkpoints, the children would get out of the car and walk through the jungle, someone pushing Longdy in his wheelchair. When they passed the checkpoint, they would meet up with the car and get in again.
The first few weeks the children were well fed and free to watch TV - a treat for Longdy considering there was only one TV in his village, which he could watch by paying the owner shots of cheap local brew.
But then the children began long days begging, dropped off at 5 a.m., picked up at 6 p.m., and warned not to move.
If Longdy did not collect enough money, he would not be fed. The broker said she would send all his wages to his family, but Longdy's mother received only about a third of his earnings.
"FROM ZERO TO 10"
The last time he was pulled off the streets, Longdy was referred to a shelter run by the International Organization for Migration in Battambang, a Cambodian city southeast of Poipet that was far away enough to keep him off the streets.
After three years there he moved at the age of 13 to a shelter run by the aid organization Hagar International in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
He described hitting other children and flying into a rage, breaking the television, electric fan or chairs.
"Some staff really hated me because of my behavior. Even now, the staff that hated me say, 'Unbelievable that you changed,'" Longdy said in his gentle voice, crediting them for turning his life around. "Hagar changed me from zero to 10."
At first he did not want to meet with the counselor, but the counselor lured him with candy, cake and Coca-Cola. As their relationship warmed, he opened up, and life got better.
He helped Hagar staff in the office, and later became a mentor for the boys programme. When he finished 12th grade at age 23, he decided to never give up on his studies.
He is halfway through a bachelor's degree programme in psychology, studying on a scholarship at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. He is also learning English.
In his spare time, he volunteers as a counselor for Flame, a local organization helping children from slums.
He hopes to get a master's degree, or even a doctorate, and to help children like himself who have suffered traumas.
"I want to share my expertise, experience," he said.
"I don't look down on myself anymore. Some people may look at me and laugh, but I don't care. I know what I have to do. I know my background: I was a beggar. But now I'm a counselor."