Throughout my past couple years of college, I remember always seeing people’s faces lit up whenever they began to think back/talk about their study abroad experiences. Nearly 4 months later, I still feel myself gush with excitement and passion every time I think back to my past summer.
One of the things I loved most about the UCEAP public health program I was a part of this past summer was the fieldwork aspect of the study abroad program. Since our courses focused on the health and politics of migrant populations, being able to directly apply what we learned in our lectures to the field was really unique and something that I thought would be crucial to a deeper understanding of the communities we were working with.
We spent around 2 weeks in Mae Sot, a border town along the Thailand-Myanmar (previously Burma) border, and I was part of a team that focused on access to education among migrant children. To give you a brief background, hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrants come across the border to escape active political conflict, pursue higher wages and better jobs, and secure a better future for their families. However, the challenges of living undocumented also means that many of these Burmese migrants are at risk for exploitation, human trafficking, have little to no citizenship rights, poor access to healthcare services, among other negative implications for their security and livelihoods.
In regards to education, many of the Burmese migrant children don’t have access to education-many drop out of school to start working and make money for their families, while others are never sent to school. While all children have the right to an education (under the Education for All policy led by UNESCO), many parents actually don’t know about their child’s right to an education, or are scared to have their children in Thai schools for legal reasons. Instead, they send their kids to migrant learning centers, which gives these Burmese migrant children another chance to go to school.
During our stay in Mae Sot, we got to stay at the mayor’s house!! Super green and absolutely beautiful.
We call this the Thai tea river.
The mayor and his wife were such gracious hosts-his wife would prepare fresh, homemade & THE fluffiest (!!) bread for us every morning, complete with homemade peanut butter.
After a very bumpy road through muddy potholes in the back of a pickup truck through rows and rows of cornfields, we finally pulled up at our first migrant learning center during our stay-Sukhothai Learning Center.
Just right next to the school are some buildings where some teachers live.
One of the biggest barriers in access to education is the proximity to school. Although Sukhothai Learning Center (SLC) provides free transportation for the children to come to school every morning, most still live miles away and continuing on to secondary school would be even more of a difficult option.
At first glance, I was completely in shock of what I saw. The school looked very barren, the buildings were few, and there was not much in sight. Also, since we had come on a Sunday, there was no school, so the absence of kids just made it feel very empty.
No desks or chairs in sight besides a couple in the far back, and one reserved for the teacher. No walls separating the classrooms. SLC teaches grades K-4.
Students roll out tarps to sit on in their classrooms.
Buildings on site where many of the teachers (and their children) will live.
We also did a couple of community visits, where we were able to get a better feel for the local community.
Each neighborhood is named by their kilometer #, so usually a neighborhood/village would just simply be referred to as Km 48. I believe this one was referred to as the Rose Fields village, since there were nearby rose plants that the migrant workers here would grow and collect for sale. Pictured are some of the children in the village currently not enrolled in school.
The community leader kindly welcomed us with a bouquet of freshly clipped roses.
Kids who stay at home are expected to help out with family duties-taking care of younger siblings, washing clothes, cleaning, or helping their parents at work.
David, one of the locals that we were working with during the duration of our trip, suddenly stopped the car in the middle of the tracks, and brought us to a quick stop for…
Also, I managed to find my name twin across the world in a little village tucked away in the corn fields and mountains and hills. His name is Kyaw Lin Tay, but the whole time we just kept hearing, “Joleen! Joleen!” It’s pronounced more like Jaw-lin, but it was close enough to establish solid ground with him. I also let him use my DSLR, so he became a mini-me taking pictures of me taking pictures of him taking pictures of me. It was great.
If I’m remembering correctly, this is actually the village located at Km 48. There are a couple of other neighborhoods in this region, but we spent the majority of our time with this village and getting to know the headmaster and families living here.
There he goes-little professional photographer!!
This is basically what makes up a “neighborhood”-there are other parts of Km 48 with “compounds” essentially, or a collection of houses together.
Kyaw Lin Tay doing a little photoshoot with David the model!
Pictured here is the community leader with his grandchild.
As we piled back up in the truck to head home for the day, it seemed that the kids finally decided to warm up to us and waved us a cheerful goodbye! See you next time!