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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.