More like a small town rather than a grave, the graves of this cemetery in northwestern Manila are dripping from the recent torrential rain. Multi-storey single graves are slotted in beside larger mausoleums with roofs and iron gates. But this cemetery is not merely the resting place for the deceased – it is also home to the living. Crystal (17) has experienced living in the cemetery first-hand. During the early years of her life, she lived and worked here and on the streets of the surrounding area. Crystal is walking through the cemetery today recounting her memories and her journey away from life on the streets.
Her parents still live in this cemetery. A macabre and dangerous place to live for a person of any age, let alone a small child, Crystal describes walking around in the pitch darkness at three years old, with her younger brother, back to the grave above which she lived with her parents and siblings. Drug- and gang-related violence are just two of the common dangers for the cemetery’s inhabitants.
“Living in the street – I can compare it to a cage. [But now] We’re finding freedom to speak the feelings of street children”
Although many children speak of the streets as offering freedom from violent or oppressive circumstances at home, Crystal’s reflections on street life seem somewhat different. Consumed by concerns about safety, her next meal and providing for her family, the freedom of a normal childhood eluded her. At the age of six a firebomb was thrown into the grave that Crystal was sleeping in. Thankfully after receiving hospital treatment, this tragic event led to her rescue from the cemetery and coming to live at Mango Tree House. Provided with the love, security and education she has received at Mango since moving to live there over 10 years ago, Crystal says she has experienced the freedom to be a child like all children should.
Now with a maturity beyond her years, Crystal dreams of being a social worker – but first of all representing the Philippines in Brazil in 2014. She is a powerful advocate for children who still live on the streets in Manila. Sitting in the same desolate cemetery where she spent her first years, she reflects on how thankful she is that she escaped the streets and shares how she views her responsibility to help others who were not as fortunate.
“Some of the street children need to speak. So I’m here speaking as a street child, to help them – not only me. Because I know that I can have a better life, but I want to help the other people too. We want to say that we need help, support, proper food, and an education. I feel that I’m their voice, speaking their feelings, because I feel what they feel.”