Visiting an Orphanage in Mae Sot

Last weekend, I traveled to Mae Sot, the largest town in Tak Province, Thailand. Situated on the border with Myanmar, Mae Sot is home to an estimated 100,000 Burmese refugees and immigrants – a number equal to the official local population. The purpose of the trip was to visit an orphanage and secondary school supported by some of my Singaporean friends.

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The trip had a powerful impact on me and in the week since, I have spent a lot of time pondering how I can best contribute to improve the lives of these children. Perhaps the best way to share this experience with you is to post some pictures and write some explanatory thoughts.

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Mae Sot is not a particularly large town. Nestled next to the border, it is common to see Burmese script on many signs and plenty of people are dressed in traditional Burmese outfits. The mountains of Myanmar are on the horizon and the gathering storm clouds seem to speak to the challenges that people on that side of the border face.

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The orphanage is located in a residential neighborhood on one side of town. It is a typical Thai-style wooden house, built on stilts and with open windows for lots of ventilation. It cannot be much larger than 100 square meters (about 1000 square feet). The upstairs includes the kitchen, a small dining area, and two large rooms that are used as a multipurpose area and the girls’ dormitory. Downstairs, part of the area below the house has been bricked in and serves as the boys’ dormitory.

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Approximately 60 children live in the orphanage, ranging from just under one year old to about thirteen. Technically, children could stay until age eighteen but they currently have no children that old. The orphanage is run in a very organized manner. Here, the children neatly line up their flip-flops on the concrete pad at the base of the stairs. As with all houses in Thailand, you do not enter with your shoes on.

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The orphanage is run by a Chinese-Burmese couple who spent many years living in Singapore, which is the connection with my Singaporean friends. Perhaps their sense of organization comes from having lived in Singapore! With no children of their own, the couple and four hired helpers take care of the orphans. While there are chores to be done, there is also time for fun. “Papa” plays the guitar and leads the children in songs and dancing.

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Extra effort is required for some of the children including the four youngest (all at just around one year old), two children who have polio, and a few children who have some developmental disabilities. While the amount of work may seem daunting, the systems in place allow the orphanage to operate efficiently and all of the children seem satisfied, cared for, and know they are loved.

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The details of the systems and processes intrigued me. Here, a row of toothbrushes are laid out in preparation for the after-lunch tooth brushing. While they are a bit worn out, each child has his or her own brush (names are written on them) and good hygiene is stressed.

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An important part of the process is that the older children help with chores and take care of the younger children. Two of the boys – brothers who are nine and ten years old – are responsible for ensuring that each child brushes his or her teeth and they help the younger children who have not yet learned how to brush. Time and time again, I saw children who were only six or seven stepping up to care for a crying younger child without anyone having to ask them. It made me realize that children in higher socio-economic situations are generally spoiled and not asked to contribute very much to the family in comparison.

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The children do have a play area, protected from the sun and with a good breeze. Many toys have been donated so there are plenty to choose from. Interestingly, I did not see many arguments or disagreements about toys. The children seemed to share pretty well.

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One macabre sight was the rows of stuffed animals hanging from the ceiling, like the victims of political violence by the Cartoon Network. The couple explained that while there are more stuffed animals than there are children, the stuffed animals resulted in possessiveness with children fighting over them. Instead, they are now suspended from the ceiling so everyone can see and enjoy them but nobody can claim them as their own.

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While the older children (starting around age five) attend the local Thai public school, the younger children remain home all day. After their afternoon nap, they received a snack of crisps. They were generally quiet and reserved without the loud volume you might expect from a group of toddlers.

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The second afternoon there, we rode in the back of the orphanage’s covered pickup truck to collect the children at school. This is done in two batches since there isn’t enough room for everyone in a single batch. This two-batch method works okay because the younger children finish school about thirty minutes before the older children. This young boy with the two lunch boxes was especially cheerful, a constant giggler. While almost all the children were friendly, they were also a bit shy and some would sit in the corner and hesitate to play. My impression is that their life experiences may have led to some emotional damage and they may hesitate to connect with others for fear of abandonment. Perhaps I am over-psychoanalyzing, though.

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We also attended what could best be described as a day care. The couple responsible for the orphanage also set up a small outpost (a house and covered porch) on the other side of town, designed as a place to teach Burmese migrants to be community teachers. Most of the lessons they teach are Biblically-based but also include general life skills such as budgeting, parenting, etc. What they noticed was that children from the nearby families (all of whom are migrant laborers) would hang out at the covered porch and use it as a play space. So they engaged some volunteers to work as teachers and try to educate and feed the children every day.

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Since one of my Singaporean friends is a comic artist, he conducted a class for about forty children, teaching them to draw cartoon rabbits. The children enjoyed drawing and despite a lack of a common language, the instruction went well.

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All of these children speak only Burmese. Since their parents are mostly undocumented and are itinerant laborers, the children have no opportunity to attend school and, as such, will likely face a life of labor themselves. Not realizing at first that they didn’t have any formal schooling, I tried speaking to them in Thai but that wasn’t any more helpful than speaking to them in English. Here, I struggle to help one student sharpen his pencil with a cheap plastic pencil sharpener.

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The third place we visited is a secondary school or, more accurately, an official “learning center”. The school serves about 100 students, all of them the children of refugees or migrants. While licensed by the Thailand Ministry of Education, it isn’t an official school because they teach outside the proscribed curricula. Classes are conducted by five teachers in English and Burmese. A series of volunteer teachers also visit for month-long stints from universities in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

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The school boards all of its students. It is located on the outskirts of the city, past an immigration and police inspection checkpoint. Most of the students are undocumented so it is not practical for them to come to school each day so, instead, they just live there. The teachers prepare food for three meals a day. Here is a large batch of fried rice, a very simple lunch. Most weeks, there is the budget to only have meat – chicken bones, for example – about once a week.

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The school, along with the orphanage and day care, runs on a very tight budget. This picture is of an enameled metal bowl that is used in the school kitchen. It has been used so long that it has literally worn through in spots. Speaking with the schools’ volunteer director, a young European woman who has been there three years, the list of “nice to haves” include things like new bowls, plastic hangars, and sponges, but that they generally only have the money for necessities.

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On the afternoon of our departure, several of the older children from the orphanage rode with us to the airport, a chance for them to see an airplane and wave goodbye. As for me, I think it is not “goodbye” but “until next time” because I plan on returning soon.

More importantly, I am going to look for ways to help, whether that is by gathering funds and supplies or by raising awareness. Yes, the world is full of people who need help. These three places seem to be very well-run, doing good work with minimal (maybe even non-existent) overhead, and strike me as a good place to try to make a difference.

 

19 thoughts on “Visiting an Orphanage in Mae Sot

  1. Chris, your have eloquently described your journey! Your photographs are, as always, amazing! Even though your are famous for concise and succinct written descriptions, I could feel the many emotions you experienced and the thoughts about this orphanage that you continue to ponder. Thank you for sharing this. I want to learn more!

  2. Such a profoundly impressive entry Chris. We have an orphanage in Chennai too and I don’t know if you remember, I had gone there a couple of times to help out with physicals and medical supplies. That orphanage is much larger and has their own elementary and vocational school and the children are of varying ages from just a few months to seventeen and eighteen years old.
    I am so happy that you want to be involved with this orphanage. It is so gratifying to be there and feel that you can help, don’t you think? I know that all those kids loved you, and were most impressed with your camera, your height and the color of your skin. Bless you my dear friend for being so compassionate.
    Sending you snail mail this week.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Dr. Z. It is profoundly satisfying to spend time with the children and also profoundly heartbreaking. It is kind of like drowning, knowing that the need in this world will exceed your ability to help a million times over.

      • Hi Chris when I saw the alert on my email about a new comment on this post, I thought that perhaps you had received my letter. I do not see why it is taking so long for the letter to reach you. Anyway, I hope it will eventually get there.

  3. Places with minimal support often neglect education. Los Angeles is sort of debating the need for pre school education which might be a way to raise education levels of students.

    I wonder would it be better to view different orphanages and see which one would be more likely that you can make a difference. After all different orphanages do certain tasks better than others. (then again I can see you are now hooked towards this particular orphanage.

    • No doubt that there may be some orphanages that would be more suitable. Given limited time, though, I’m pretty confident that this is a good organization. The Singaporean friend who has pretty much left his job and is setting up a foundation to support several places has done a lot of research so I trust his choice.

  4. Hey Chris,

    how are you doing? I was referred to you by Max from UCLA, I am a friend of max who sold all my stuff from the U.S. and working with orphans all over south east asia. ive been working in vietnam for the past 3 months and now working in Koh Samui with a school. i would be interested in working with you and your youth. for any information please contact me!

    Respectfully,

    Tony Dang

    • Hi Tony – good to hear from you. Why don’t you connect with me through facebook at username “Christao408” and we can talk more about what you are looking to do.

      Chris

  5. Hello and first I want to say that it is so good to see you. Welcome to WordPress.
    These are such beautiful children and thank goodness you are bringing awareness to plight. The smiles on those little faces, and those beautiful eyes touch my heart.

      • Yes they do melt my heart and I bet they melt the hearts of everyone who sees those beautiful smiles.

  6. Sixty children in a 1000 sq ft, that takes some organizational skills. I cannot even imagine living with our nine in a thousand sq ft. Makes me weep and so thankful there are souls so willing to invest into the lives of these beautiful children.

    Sadly, the reason for disconnect in some of the children can be from rape, with such a wide spectrum of age living together. Breaks my heart.

    Thank you for taking the time to see, to touch, to invest and consider how you will continue to be part of these children’s lives. If you decide to gather funds, please do not hesitate to let us know.

    • Thanks for your kind and thoughtful words. My hope is that as my Singaporean friend establishes his foundation, I will be able to publicize this orphanage and school and help raise funds for it. Being able to visit it first-hand, I am very confident that it is being run well and the children are being taken care of as well as possible.

  7. Hi there,
    I found this blog on a google quest for volunteeing in Mae sot, your experience sounds just luke what my partner and I are looking for, could you maybe give us some pointers? We are in bangkok right now and headed north
    Thanks!

  8. Would this be a place where a small group of adults from my church could come to help, probably for 1-2 weeks?

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