Visiting Mae Sot’s Karen hilltribes
We took a carload of donated items including boxes of toothpaste, clothes, shoes, dry noodles, cereal, salad dressing, soap and talcum powder up to Mae Sot over the last weekend. It was six-hour drive from Bangkok, although the last 80 km of bends and curves up and down the winding mountain road seemed to last forever! It’s one of those things that’s enough to convince one to take a quick Nok Air flight up to Mae Sot next time around!
Well, as I was with my son, I decided to make an object lesson out of the uncomfortable moments, telling him how LIFE is like such a journey – with many bends and curves along the way. What we sometimes think is such a big disappointment, is often not the END but just a BEND, in the road. When life throws you a curve, know that it won’t last forever. However. most importantly, you need to keep your focus on what’s ahead. Physically, you have to keep looking up and ahead so as not to get carsick. Similarly in life, we can’t look down at the dismal situations in life, but look up to the potential and possibilities that can happen if we just hold on a little longer. Alas, this was a deep discourse that distracted me from getting sick in the car.
Oh yes, I would add, take deep breaths now and then…. We finally got to the Feed My Lambs centre run by a Karen lady named Amy (true identity cannot be revealed for security purposes) whom we’ve known now for almost nine years, since we met during the tsunami of the south in 2004. She has a total of 32 children there – all from the displaced people’s community in Umphang where she has, for years, been ministering to those who have escaped the cruelties of the Burmese ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the persecution of the Karen tribespeople. These are farming families who have trekked days over hills and rivers, to get on Thai soil where they cannot be attacked and enslaved by the army and other enemy forces. Some of the children are orphaned, and others are there because their families have no other options to provide for them, or even to give them an education.
It was such a relief to arrive. We emptied our car of just about everything, unloading a good 100 kilos, and seeing the car chassis spring back up to its normal position. The kids quickly swarmed around the car, as they cheerfully helped to carry and put away the boxes. We were then given a brief tour of their dormitories in a simple wooden longhouse. They sleep on mats (not mattresses) on the floor, with their bags neatly next to it. Boys in one section and girls in another. The children are divided with each older child given charge and responsibility over two younger ones. Acting like a parent, they have to ensure the little ones’ safety, cleanliness and general care. When they finish school at 3pm., that’s when work at the center swings into motion with the caregivers and volunteers there helping the children with their homework and lessons as they keep up with studies in four languages! Here in this FML shelter, the children are given accommodation, food and an opportunity to learn. They attend a migrant school nearby which provides them schooling in their mother tongue of Karen, but their national Burmese language as well as Thai, for their survival in Thailand plus English for their future.
Meeting students from Por 4 to Por 6 of a migrant school, I saw that though these kids face quite a challenge in learning, I noticed a strong determination in them to strive — undistracted by the lures of video games, TV, the internet, shopping malls, commercialism and all the temptation and time-wasters that their counterparts in the city have. We were invited to do an interactive English program at the Elpis Centre school of about 300 children. The whole school is a labour of love, where teachers receive just about 1.500 baht a month! The kids were happy to be there, they all seemed happy to learn. As I taught them some English action songs, I was amazed how quickly and confidently they repeated and sang these songs with me – loud and clear! I recall my experiences teaching the same songs to other kids and it would take a lot more repetition to teach them certain phrases, and to encourage them to sing out loud. Over in another room, across from where I was teaching, I heard the little kids learning ‘Where is Thumb-man’ in Burmese!
It was refreshing to see such enthusiasm from the young Karen teachers who are there, seeing their love and desire to teach their younger countrymen. We had the opportunity to also meet with Rachen — an amazing man with a heart of gold. Born of a Cambodian mother and a Burmese father, in Thailand, he is fluent in all three languages plus English. A truly Asean product! He goes on his sturdy little motorbike to mountain communities to bring them provisions, assistance and to help lift their spirits with hope. As the communities suffer during the rainy season, when they don’t have enough rice, he has started a rice bank in a couple of the communities. Instead of giving them the donated rice, he “lends” out the rice, and the farmers “pay back” their rice loans when after the next harvest. This bank has lessened the time of desperation and eased the hardship during the difficult rainy months when the rice is growing. Teaching them self-sustenance and planning has been a help to these communities. That first evening, after our meeting, we went with Rachen to one of the ‘boarding’ community homes for more orphans and displaced children. There were 55 children here from ages 7 to 17. We interacted with them, sharing with them thoughts on their identity, how each one of them is special, also giving them an assurance of their hope and potential.The highlight was when they all lined up to say goodnight!
After the first couple of handshakes, I decided to give them all a hug and after a few hugs, I thought I’d teach them all to say, “I love you!” My heart just went out to these kids and it felt really good to just give them those hugs! The next day, when we visited Elpis, we were pleasantly surprised to see some of these same kids! After our program, we presented the school with a set of bilingual English-Thai VCDs which use graphics, songs, dances, stories, puppets to teach children wholesome values, vocabulary, social studies, health/nutrition – a positive tool in edutainment. We also gave them a set of story books filled with positive, moral lessons presented in several “Dino’s Tales” – a set with an English hardcover with a CD embedded, along with a complementing Thai hardcover version. We also gave sets of the VCDS and books to Rachen and Amy for use with the communities they teach and minister to. With their desire to make a difference in these lives, we know the tools and the children are in good hands, headed for a good future. The following are some of the needs by these two special caregivers: Both of them say that volunteers are always needed.
1. For the rainy season now and the spread of dengue, they desperately need MOSQUITO NETS
2. RICE – the communities can use the basic essentials of any food but rice is a basic
3. Umbrellas or rain coats would also be useful now during the rainy season
4. The kids sleep on mats, so funds to get floor mattresses
5. Blankets, Sweaters for the upcoming ‘winter’ season in October.
The students have to pay 1,400 baht a year to study at the migrant school. So far, Amy has raised money for 22 of the children. She needs sponsorship for another 10 kids, a total of 14,000 baht. Please let us know if you can help in any way!
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