On Monday, Kyle and I went to observe English classes at Thai Freedom House. TFH works with Shan refugees in Chiang Mai, giving them a refuge from a hard life full of difficult circumstances. They offer English, Thai, and Shan classes, in addition to art and guitar through a partner organization. The Shan are an ethnic minority in Burma that have been persecuted, forced to move from their homes into refugee and IDP camps, and banned from teaching or learning their native language. Thousands have moved across the border from Burma into Thailand, although sadly once they arrive here their lives aren’t a lot brighter. Racial discrimination in Thailand against the Shan forces them to work for pennies, keeps their children from going to school, and because many are without documentation (of any kind – no birth certificate, let alone passport or visa) they have to live under the radar and hope they aren’t deported back to Burma. Thailand refuses to give them refugee status, hoping not to create waves with Burma by recognizing the atrocities that led to the situation in the first place, so there aren’t any kind of government services provided to the population.
Hearing all about the organization and the people they try to help is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Many of the Shan kids can’t go to Thai public schools when they arrive (since they lack documentation and don’t speak Thai) and the adults have a hard time finding work that pays a decent wage/isn’t dangerous/has normal hours, so catching them up in Thai and English is crucial to getting them on track. That’s where we come in! I’ll be working with the beginner class starting on Monday. My students age from about 8 to 40, and it’s so cool to see them all working and learning together, and helping one another. I haven’t had a regular volunteer position in a long time, since I’ve been volunteering with groups who do different projects in different places from time to time, so it’ll be nice to get to know one place well.
One of the girls at TFH has such an incredible story, and the more I hear about her the more I want to cry/raise all kinds of money for her so she can do amazing things/tell everyone I know about her. So here goes. She came to Thailand when she was 11 or 12, and took it upon herself to try and sign up to go to school. After being turned away because she didn’t speak Thai, she started coming to TFH every day and studying on her own. When she tried to apply again, they told her she couldn’t attend because she didn’t have a birth certificate. Public schooling in Thailand cuts off at 13 or 14 years old anyway, so they considered her too far behind and too poor to pay to go to the private high schools in the area (or the “public” ones that are kind of like prep schools). However, they did offer her a job – selling fruit outside the school, to kids who should have been her peers. Eventually, she started working as the chef/manager in the cafe at Thai Freedom House, which gave her more financial stability and better hours, and a position with more dignity. She speaks good Thai and English and Shan, which is incredible when you think that she essentially taught herself, with only a few hours of formal classes at TFH each week. She’s 17 now. She got married last year (not uncommon here, and we have been assured that her husband, who is 19, is a good person). With the right support and training, she could eventually be running the organization. She could get her GED, go to college, do whatever she wants with her life. Hearing her story has given me a boost and a drive that I haven’t felt about a cause in a long time, and I’m going to do everything in my power to help her and all of the students at TFH succeed.