Story highlights

Glyzelle Palomar, 12, asks Pope why street children face drug abuse and prostitution

"She is the only one who has put a question for which there is no answer," Pope says

He hugs Glyzelle and Jun Chura, a boy who recounted foraging for food in garbage

CNN  — 

A few years ago, Glyzelle Palomar was begging for food on the streets of northern Manila. This week, the 12-year-old girl was on a stage in front of tens of thousands of people, asking Pope Francis why God lets children suffer.

“There are many children neglected by their own parents,” Glyzelle said Sunday at a ceremony at a 400-year-old Catholic university in Manila. “There are also many who became victims and many terrible things happened to them like drugs or prostitution.”

“Why is God allowing such things to happen, even if it is not the fault of the children?” she asked the Pope, breaking down into tears as she spoke.

Living off ‘what I can find in the garbage’

Another former street child, Jun Chura, told Pope Francis about his struggle to survive without a home.

“I was feeding myself with what I can find in the garbage,” said Jun, 14. “I did not know where to go, and I was sleeping on the sidewalk.”

Pope Francis hugging two former street children at a ceremony in Manila, Philippines, on Sunday.

“When I was in the street, I witness also things I don’t like, terrible things that happened to my companions in the street,” Jun said. “I saw that they were taught how to steal, to kill also, and they have no respect anymore for the adults.”

Pope Francis responded to Glyzelle’s question and Jun’s testimony by giving the two children a big hug.

“She is the only one who has put a question for which there is no answer and she wasn’t even able to express it in words but in tears,” the 78-year-old Pope told the crowd.

‘The terrible things that can happen in the street’

Glyzelle and Jun are both in the care of Tulay ng Kabataan Foundation, a non-governmental organization that looks after Manila’s street children.

The foundation came across Glyzelle and her older sister a few years ago, said Alexandra Chapeleau, the group’s communication manager.

The girls had left home – where their impoverished parents were unable to support them or get them an education – and were fending for themselves on the street, she said.

They first attended one of the foundation’s drop-in centers before moving into a residential facility and starting to attend school. In November, their younger brother joined them at the foundation.

Glyzelle is still in touch with her mother and goes home to see her at Christmas, Chapeleau said.

The foundation’s center where Glyzelle lives is home to about 40 other former street children.

“Most of them are victims of the terrible things that can happen in the street,” including physical and sexual abuse, Chapeleau said.

‘We need to see each child as a gift’

But Glyzelle’s tears in front of the Pope on Sunday were apparently prompted by the intensity of the moment, not because of her own experiences.

She asked the question “on behalf of all the children we take care of,” not because of “something personal regarding her own story,” Chapeleau said.

The Pope touched on the street children theme again later Sunday when he celebrated Mass in a Manila park with millions of people, despite the soaking rain.

“We need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected,” he told the enormous crowd. “And we need to care for our young, not allowing them to be condemned to a life on the streets.”

‘I realized that not all people have no heart’

The Pope had visited the center where Glyzelle and others live on Friday after celebrating Mass at Manila Cathedral, and reportedly said he was “very moved” by what he saw.

There are estimated to be more than 1.5 million street children in the Philippines, about 70,000 of them in the Manila metropolitan area, according to the He Cares Foundation, another group that cares for them.

In his account, Jun described seeing some of his friends sniffing glue and taking other drugs. He said he learned to be wary of adults offering money or help because it was often a trap to exploit the children.

He initially declined an offer of support from Tulay ng Kabataan Foundation but later found out that the organization was genuinely trying to help him.

“I realized that not all people have no heart,” he said.

Storm shortens Tacloban visit

The Pope left the Philippines on Monday, waving as he boarded his plane at the end of an Asia trip that also included time in Sri Lanka.

In the first visit by a Pope to the predominantly Catholic Philippines in 20 years, Francis paid a visit to Tacloban, the city ravaged by Super Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013.

Francis had to cut short his time there at the weekend because of the approach of another typhoon.

But it didn’t stop him from donning a slicker to celebrate Mass in Tacloban on Saturday for hundreds of thousands who gathered despite the stormy weather.