Two Months in Thailand
This has been an exciting year, with Hillary Clinton’s visit to Aung San Suu Kyi (read more about the effects of Hillary’s visit at this link http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=22662); Suu Kyi saying she will run for the Burmese parliament at the next election, and peace overtures being made by the Burmese government toward ethnic groups. Regarding the perhaps “pseudo” peace overtures, you can read more at this link: http://www.bnionline.net/index.php/news/kic/12301-burma- army-ignores-thein-seins-no-fight-order-.html
Aside from the political events noted above, the three highlights of stay thus far have been: 1) spending Shan New Year―based on the Buddhist calendar and in November this year―at a monastery/orphanage for Shan children and other ethnic groups in northern Thailand; 2) bringing Western friends to visit the Pi Mok Migrant School, which we have supported for six years; 3) spending Christmas at the Shan orphanage where Shan hero and advocate, Charm Tong, grew up (see the chapter titled “Charm Tong and the Girls” in my book.)
The Schools of Hope orphanage is located at a monastery in the northern Thai town of Nong Ook. The director, 23-year-old Noom Hkur, acts as a father as well as a headmaster to the children in his care, who fold their hands respectfully and say “My soong kha, Ba,” (Goodnight father) when they go to bed or leave the school at night. There are 46 children now living at the orphanage, plus 5 who are now at boarding schools. A friend bought gifts for all of the children and I had the pleasure of distributing them (teddy bears and cane balls). It was touching to see 17-year-old boys choosing teddy bears over balls. I will insert a couple of photos, one with Noom Hkur and all of the children and several of individual children. Schools of Hope is not “our” project. That is, their main support comes from a group in Singapore, but I try to bring gifts to such children, as well as to the children whose schooling we support.
Above I have included a photo with two former refugee students who have turned their difficult lives around and now have jobs doing wonderful things for other refugees.
Pi Mok Migrant School: In 2012, it will be 7 years since we started this school, but it may be closed this year. The migrants who live here are supposed to start work at a new site. If they don’t move too far, our teachers will follow them and start a school in the new work camp. The new worksite couldn’t be worse than this one―at least I hope not.
At this site, the plastic sheeting and bamboo shacks of the workers are crowded within inches of each other; the toilets should have been replaced five years ago; and there is an overpowering stench of urine in the camp. The school is as temporary as the housing, because of cost and because we knew it would all have to be pulled up and rebuilt one day. That has already happened once on the same site, as the workers built fine homes for middle-class Thais around their huts and the construction boss squeezed the workers into an ever-smaller space.
This year I brought to the school several friends who have been working to support the children: Diane from Canada, who made a storyboard with pictures of the school for her church, her friend Kelly, and Erika from Sweden. All last year Erika knit warm socks for the children. In addition to the socks, we brought them hand-knitted teddy bears,furnished by a group of women from Ireland who knit for a group that calls itself “Teddies for Tragedies.” And Diane brought expensive chocolates. The strength of the head teacher’s―the young man writing on the whiteboard―devotion to the children was shown when he turned down a chocolate so a tiny visitor, a child not yet in school, could have one. Having seen this teacher devour chocolates at other times, I know it was a real sacrifice. I have inserted a few photos. (Notice the little girls showing off their new socks above.)
My next visit was to the orphanage where Charm Tong grew up, which is known simply as “Teacher Mary’s School,” but should more accurately be known as “Iron Mary’s School.” She is one tough lady. Two years ago Teacher Mary suffered a stroke. She stuck to a therapy routine, is now nearly totally recovered, and rules the place with a smile and an iron backbone. (We all do what she says!)
We were there over the Christmas holidays when Teacher Mary, a Shan Roman Catholic who was abandoned at a Catholic orphanage as a baby, organizes a feast for the entire village, all of whom are Buddhists. The orphanage children decorate everything in sight, helped by willing Buddhist monks who are full participants in the celebration. I will include photos of the primary Christmas tree, which is a native pine of some sort, of Teacher Mary, Charm Tong, and me (dressed down in my warmest clothes, which included long underwear and a heavy wool sweater―it’s cold in the foothills of the Himalayas). I will also include a photo of Teacher Mary and me with the visiting monks. Women’s heads cannot be higher than that of a Buddhist monk, and it was with great effort that I folded my metal knees into a semblance of a respectful position.
Between the visit to Pi Mok School and the visit to Teacher Mary’s School I had mini- backpacks made for the teddy bears fashioned by the good women who knit for Teddies for Tragedies. The kids loved them! These children got teddies knitted by Vania, surely the best dressed teddies in Southeast Asia with their perfectly coordinated clothing and neck scarves. I’ll insert a few of those photos.
Dear friends of Shan Refugees:
Conditions in Burma are abysmal. The military is waging open warfare against people protesting the takeover of their country. It is not just the protesters who are in danger: Loi Kaw Wan, an encampment of Shan displaced persons, on the urma/Thai border north of Chaing Mai, has been shelled and residents cannot farm their land for fear of attack.
In the past, we supported six orphans at this site, and I am deeply saddened by the plight of their people. https://myanmar-now.org/en/news/myanmar-military-artillery-shells-explode-near-shan-idp-camps. Below photo is with young women who lived at this encampment.
You can read more about the military coup here:
The Burmese military blocked internet service for more than a month. When they still had it, a former student wrote simply, "Scared, Teacher."
NEWS FROM THAILAND AND OUR EDUCATION PROGRAMS:
Thailand is having a resurgence of COVID cases, and only 1% of the people have been vaccinated.
Our schools have been closed for some weeks and are tentatively scheduled to reopen in early June. When in session, they accomplish amazing things. Here is some information we gleaned from the last report from Shan Youth Power, SYP, which manages the education
programs, wrote about several outstanding students. She studies as Secondary level, grade at Nawamin Payap High School. Nong Tida always has a passion for working at social work organizing, and leading the students in the community for activities
such as organizing reading books, decorating the school to be clean, leading the students for environment activity, encouraging the community to reduce plastic by collecting the money and buying plates, spoons for using in community, such as birthday party. She always happy to join social activity workshops or camps that are provided by Shan Youth Power. She has a strong heart to help the community and wants to see migrant people have better future.
Nong Tida may not be outstanding in language skills such as English but she is an excellent in social work. In SYP, we are not just developing in academic studies, we guide them to be who they are, to follow their dreams. We believe people have different talents, which means that although we cannot be outstanding in everything, at least we do good for people, for society.
Noung Shwe Kyar is one of the outstanding students from KarnKanook2 Migrant School. She has been studying at Chiang Mai Vocational College as a first-year student in Design, academic year 2020.
Her words: I am one of the students who has received a scholarship from Bernice [ie, Schools for Shan Refugees]. I got scholarship since elementary school until grade-9. I knew about this scholarship from one alumni student who is living in the same camp with me. We learned at Migrant school together. I thought that I had difficult circumstances and my family had very low income. This scholarship can provide for food expenses at school or tuition fee. And volunteer teachers from Shan Youth Power also come to teach at our camp. Therefore, I got the scholarship. The difficult thing I have faced is the cost of passport and visa extension fees. There are 4 people in my family and we all are using passports as well... this year there is an additional blood test and covid-19 test. Due to Covid-19 pandemic many people had lost their jobs and it is hard to find a job.
My mom works as a housecleaner during this period it hard for her to get a job too. Especially, if you are migrant workers. Because some employers are afraid of migrant workers. They think that they will get infection with Covid-19 from migrant workers.
For example, we went to clean in a house but they did not want us to enter the house. As for my father, in the past he had many jobs and it was easy to get a job to work. Now, there is not many jobs like before so, it is hard for him to get a job too. And he has to work to pay for food day to day and no savings. In the past, migrant workers like us wouldn't study until high school. They would only study till middle school then start to work. [Our program is extending the education of Shan youth.]
We are completing a report about our teachers—five of whom were migrant camp students and got scholarships from us, some, like Nong Shwe Kyar, for as many as nine years. I will forward it soon.
In the meantime, we are hoping to keep the schools and scholarship programs afloat. We are ever so grateful to those of you who have donated. That money is in safekeeping until the education programs resume. If you have not donated this year and wish to do so, scholarships range from $30.00 per year for elementary students to $100, $200, and $300 per year for older students, attending vocational schools. Donations can be made through Pay Pal at our website: www.shanrefugeeschools.org OR you may write a check to Schools for Shan Refugees and send it to
Mary Worner , Treasurer
28424 Water Street Road, Underwood, MN 56586
Many thanks to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Underwood for their continued support in the form of an annual grant. We are grateful. The Shan youth are grateful.
If we remain COVID free into fall, we plan to hold a 3-course Shan dinner fundraiser in Minneapolis. Hold the date: Saturday, October 9!
Bernice Johnson, Vice President Schools for Shan Refugees, Inc.
Ready to help us make a change?
We greatly appreciate your financial contribution to our important work. Click the donate button to submit your donation securely via PayPal.