MANILA, Philippines – In a small, narrow alley at the heart of Ermita, Manila, is a row of shanties.
On the road, a smattering of stained, ratty mattresses are laid out in the hot afternoon sun, kids and adults sprawled atop, napping. The sun is unforgiving. But it is cooler out here than inside their homes, where there is no electricity.
Daniel Dejapin, 19, lives in one of these shanties.
What Daniel considers his house is no more than 20 square meters in size, a square space where he, his parents and his 4 other siblings live. It’s located on the bottom floor of an old, abandoned building and sits right by the side of the road, separated from all the other shanties by a mere curtain, their door. The tiny box is the bedroom, kitchen, living room all rolled into one.
The area – consisting of dwellings made only of light materials – are a clear fire hazard.
“The first time it burned, in 2010, we were able to recover because we asked help from relatives,” he said. “But the second time, in 2012, everything was gone. We had nothing left. So we had to sleep on the streets again.”
Sleeping on the streets is not foreign to Daniel. As a child, Daniel considered the Baywalk by Manila Bay – where he used to sell flowers – his home. This, as well as street corners of closed-down buildings, benches, parks, or wherever he could find to spend the night.
Daniel lived half his life on the streets of Manila, and the other half on the alleyway he now considers home.
But starting in August this year, he will live the next two years of his life in yet another place.
For the first time in his life, Daniel will sleep on a real bed every night, and enjoy electricity every day.
In August, Daniel is headed to The Robert Bosch United World College in Germany, where he received a full scholarship.
Daniel Dejapin moves quickly, an agile walker with a gentle voice. Thin and short, he does not look a day over 15. He wears eye glasses – which he often wipes sweat underneath from – and a perpetual smile.
He is warm and friendly, and a talker once you get him started. He speaks careful but unbroken English. It is easy to tell he is smart. He speaks with maturity and talks about a wide range of topics including politics, about his city’s Mayor Joseph Estrada, Janet Lim Napoles and the new K-12 law passed by the Aquino administration.
He walks through Manila with expertise, pointing out historic sites in Intramuros and Rizal Park, rambling off history, sharing the secrets of the streets he has embraced as home.
“Did you know jeepneys were used by the Americans to store ammo? But Filipinos, with their ingenuity, expanded them and made them passenger vehicles after the Americans left,” he tells this reporter.
As a 6-year-old, Daniel said he hated the chaos in his house. His father, a carpenter and electrician, and his mother, a street cleaner, were separated then, and he was upset about his alcoholic mother, who cared little for his needs, engulfed by her own problems. So he left.
He roamed the streets, played with friends, spent the nights laid out on the cold cement floor, refusing to come home. He sold roses to tourists on the Baywalk, and fed himself with the money he earned from tips.
As a young child, Daniel left his home, but he never left school.
He was forced to repeat kindergarden and 1st grade when he was still distracted at home, but once he left for the streets, “I never stopped going to school,” he said.
Even without his parents urging him to go to class, Daniel did so voluntarily, explaining he liked being with his friends and enjoyed learning.
Flowers meant money
Daniel started selling flowers at age 6, after a certain “Ate Carla” found him crying on the streets one day, and taught him how to make money.
“She asked me, ‘Do you want to sell flowers?’ I said, ‘How much would I earn?’ She told me I could keep half the commission. I said okay, and they taught me how to ask for tip as well,” he said.
He would sell from 8 pm up to the wee hours of the morning. At 4 am, he would walk over to Aurora Quezon Elementary School where he studied from 1st to 6th grade, and slept on the benches there until 6 am, when his classmates started coming in. He always went to class, he said, fighting the urge to fall asleep.
Daniel says he owes staying in school to the kindness of his teachers. When he was in 3rd grade, his teacher, Mrs. Catubag, spoke to her fellow teachers and convinced them to tutor Daniel in the afternoon so he could sleep and rest for more hours before selling flowers on the streets. She even welcomed him into her home.
Daniel graduated from 6th grade with honors – a feat even his own mother couldn’t ignore.
“She started changing for the better every year, starting when I was in 6th grade. I guess my parents saw my progress, because they didn’t really realize before then that I was about to graduate… I was never given much attention because I was on the streets when I was just 6 years old. They didn’t notice prior to that, that I was getting awards,” he said.
Daniel, who would come home once in a while to see his siblings, said his mother started showing concern about whether he had eaten, and began ironing his clothes.
Seeing the shift in his mother’s behavior, Daniel decided to leave his life on the streets.
He came back home when he was 14 years old, after 8 years on his own.
Passion for learning
Out on the streets, Daniel was drawn to makeshift classes set up by street educators from Childhope Asia Philippines, a non-profit organization committed to educating and helping street children.
“I was jealous of the other kids. I remember I was crying. I was 6 years old. That time, I was selling flowers, like roses in Baywalk… I saw the session in the street,” he said.
“I met Ate Claire, one of the values formator. I was crying, ‘Ate Claire, let me join you.’ Then she said, ‘You could join but only as saling pusa.‘ Eventually, as I grew up, they got me for the scholarships there. When I was 9 years old, I became a mentor to the other kids.”
Christian Undajare, one of the street educators, remembers Daniel as a curious child. It was easy to see there was a spark in Daniel even at a young age, he said, and he was right.
“I didn’t mind him much when he was 7 because at 7 years old, no matter what we teach them, they are too young. But as he grew older, when he was 8, we started to integrate him in the lessons. And we saw he had potential to be a leader,” Undajare said.
“You can tell when a child has leadership. He helps, he waits for you. He calls out other kids when they’re wrong, and they help carry things. Even something as simple as carrying things, you can tell they have the initiative to help.”
Daniel stuck with Childhope over the years and later became a junior health worker, teaching kids on the street about hygiene. He also started directing street theater plays, which he performed in public places with children he gathered from the streets.
Theater is Daniel’s passion.
“Theater somehow helped me express myself. Personally, I don’t talk to people about my personal stories. In theater, I can make things easier to say, in the lyrics or in the script. Even though it’s a scripted scene, somehow I can express my emotions and what I feel,” he said.
It was hard to ignore Daniel.
So when the Aguinaldo International School (AIS) in Ermita partnered with Childhope to look for children on the streets it could reach out to, Childhope chose a group of 8 kids, including Daniel.
At that time, AIS was launching its Kidz In Action (KIA) program, which aims to engage less advantaged children in various activities like art, drama, sports and cooking. At the end of his sophomore year at Manila High School, Daniel joined KIA’s first-ever summer program for less advantaged children – which allowed him to use AIS’ facilities to develop his talents. He stood out.
Daniel was offered a scholarship to AIS by the end of the summer, to finish his last two years of high school at the exclusive private school.
From Manila to Germany
Canadian Tim Boulton, who brought the idea of KIA to AIS, is the school’s superintendent. As Daniel neared his high school graduation, Boulton suggested Daniel apply for a United World College (UWC) scholarship, thinking Daniel would be a perfect fit.
UWC is a global movement, which aims to unite kids from all over the world to promote peace. The Robert Bosch UWC in Germany is one of 14 UWC colleges globally. It is the newest college of the movement.
Boulton told Daniel about the scholarship just 3 days before the deadline.
“He told me we should try it and that if I don’t make it, at least I tried… so I started my essays. He said he would take care of my recommendation letter as long as I did my essay,” Daniel said.
“There were 4 essays with word limits of 200, 300 words. I kept on editing and editing and editing… It was so rushed. But I didn’t let that day pass.”
Three weeks later, Daniel received an email. He had made it to the second round.
The second round invited the top 20 applicants to a full-day interview with a panel and an activity session with each other, which included a talent-sharing session. After that day, Daniel said he was convinced he wouldn’t get the scholarship at all.
“The other candidates, they were valedictorians, honor students. They were 16, 17 years old. I was the oldest,” he said.
“They were all so good. They spoke English so well. I was amazed by their English and I told myself, if I don’t get in, I will accept it because they were so good. They played the violin, even an electric guitar.”
But Daniel blew the competition away. For his talent, Daniel performed a 3-minute skit re-enacting a scene from when he was 9, his “weakest point,” he said, selling flowers and dealing with depression. His peers thought it was fictional – and were shocked to learn it wasn’t.
A few weeks later, Daniel got a text.
“I woke up at 4 am. I was shocked because it wasn’t even a formal text. It said: ‘Hi! This is from UWC and you are one of the scholars.’ I thought I was dreaming. I read it again and that’s when I realized… I scrolled down and it said I was a scholar. In Germany,” he said. “I was so excited I read it over and over. I kept on re-reading it because I couldn’t believe it.”
That day, Daniel treated himself to Jollibee to celebrate his achievement.
Daniel is one of 3 Filipino UWC scholars this year. The other two, both from Bicol, will be heading to Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.
Boulton recalls how he found out about Daniel getting the scholarship. He too got a text message on his cellphone, this one sent to him by Daniel.
The text simply read: “I’m in.”
Daniel knows he is lucky to be given the opportunities he has received, but he is the first to give credit to those, he said, that helped him along the way. He lists their names: Ate Claire of Childhope is atop the list, along with Ate Carla who taught him how to sell flowers, and so many more teachers and mentors and friends who saw his potential behind the grimy clothes and Dangwa roses.
“I never stopped because of the people around me, who always said, ‘You could do it. This suffering will end once you finish school and find a job. You will be able to buy whatever you want, and you can provide for your family. You’ll be able to leave the squatters area,’” he said.
Those who know him are quick to point out however, that more than anyone, Daniel is where he is because of Daniel.
“What’s really in Daniel is optimism, determination. He’s a kid that doesn’t quit. He’s a kid who looks at the positives and the opportunities. I describe Daniel as a very likeable person who is succeeding because of his attributes,” Boulton said.
Abigail Tomsits, the Program Manager of KIA, agrees, adding Daniel got the scholarship because of his “hard work and wonderful personality.”
At AIS, Daniel said he had his share of bullying, of being misunderstood by the other kids, but said he was never ashamed of where he was from. He finished high school among the top of his class last April, and took home the Leadership Award.
Today, he is nervous about leaving, about the winter, about being far away from his family, about everything he has yet to do: his visa, the packing, the adjustment. He also wants to find all his teachers and mentors before he leaves, to thank them personally and tell them the news if they haven’t heard it yet.
Daniel’s parents, who were initially hesitant, are now giving their “full support,” said Daniel. At first, his mother was saddened her son was leaving after she had missed 8 years of his childhood, while his father was concerned about expenses there before he realized the scholarship would cover everything.
Their fears have since been quelled, and both are excited for their son. Daniel says he overheard them talking about pooling all their savings together and working double time to buy him a new cellphone as a parting gift.
As for Daniel, he says he is excited, for 4 things in particular: to ride a plane for the first time, to see a different country, to experience snow and to meet new people.
When the fire hit Daniel’s home in 2012, it took with it his most prized possesion at that time: his grade school diploma, which he had wrapped carefully and kept safe in a briefcase he found in the trash dump.
“I cried because I lost my diploma… I dug through 5 feet of debris but it was gone,” he said.
He has yet to claim his high school diploma, and has opted to keep it at AIS in fear of it suffering the same fate.
At UWC, he will work to earn yet another valuable piece of paper, the International Baccalaureate Diploma, a European-based program which prepares students for global universities. After that, he will go to college. He dreams of majoring in Psychology, so he could be a social worker, he says, and help those like him chase their own dreams.
Many UWC graduates earn scholarships to prestigious colleges in the United States.
Daniel knows his scholarship to UWC is much bigger than himself.
For organizations like Childhope and KIA, Daniel is an affirmation for its workers that the work they do – of providing education and opportunities to those like Daniel – is impactful, life-changing and essential.
The children too who know and work with Daniel, have now learned to believe, said KIA’s Tomsits, that there is life outside Manila.
“It gives amazing inspiration for us all, especially for example, the other kids in KIA,” she said. “The message, what it means to them, it means that ‘Okay maybe one day I can [also] go somewhere.'”
But Daniel is mostly grateful, because he says he can help erase stereotypes about those like him.
“I was never ashamed of my background. I tell them, ‘I am a street child too.’ But when you’re a street child, people really look down on you. ‘He’s a thief, a snatcher.’ I’ve started trying to change the term ‘street child.’ I said, ‘I don’t like being called a street child. Just ‘child,'” he said.
“I want people to know that street children, if you give them an opportunity to develop their talents… they change because with every opportunity you give a child, especially a street child [they grow]. They just really need to gain confidence, and faith. And they will change. Like I did.”
“If it weren’t for people who helped me, I will still be one of those kids selling flowers on the street.” – Rappler.com
For any in-kind donations you would like to make for Daniel, please contact the Aguinaldo International School at +632 5212710. Daniel needs things like winter clothes, luggage, shoes, boots, a raincoat, a hat, and an old laptop. You may also visit this website for ways you can help.
If you are in Germany and would like to help Daniel in familiarizing himself with German culture, feel free to email him your tips at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are living in Freiburg and are happy to give a helping hand to Daniel, please don’t hesitate to contact him.