Where The Interest in Teaching English Can Take You

We first had set out to explore options to provide educational assistance in one of the large UN run Karen refugee camps along the Thai Burmese border, until we were advised by the Thai military contacts who had provided us access to one of the camps that the major NGOs were already addressing the needs, and we could be of greater help at one of the numerous villages within the restricted military zone along the border.

Thai Military Escort with UEC Consultants before the Trek to the Spring

Thai Military Escort with UEC Consultants before the Trek to the Spring

Karen Village Project Details

Nestled on a hill directly across the border from Myanmar (Burma):

  • No electricity, scarce drinking water, no phone signal available
  • No medical services available for the approximately 600 villagers
  • Health issues include ringworm, malaria, intestinal infections & parasites
  • The Thai Military does their best to support the villagers
  • The small school provides Thai elementary education for the Karen villagers

Access to Karen Village

Once we had received permission from the Thai Military authorities, we were able to gain access to a village far in the hills overlooking the border to Myanmar. The steep dirt road had been carved out of the reddish clay in the jungle and would turn into a 4×4 requirement come rainy season, but our initial trip during the hot and dry months enabled us to reach the traditional stilt house village of about 600 inhabitants by car.

Karen Open Kitchen

Karen Open Kitchen

We were warmly greeted by the Thai military contingent stationed on top of the hill, in stone’s throw distance from the first village stilt houses. Since there is no telephone signal, and electricity is only available via solar power, with inferior batteries holding the charge for a maximum of two days, communication with the outside world is scarce and our arrival provided a welcome change in the routine of the military, there in charge of border security and to address the wide spread problem of illegal logging and deforestation.

Valley After Illegal Logging and Slash and Burn Clearing

Valley After Illegal Logging and Slash and Burn Clearing

The village school has about 250 K-5 students and teaches all subjects according to the Thai national curriculum.
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The teachers at the small school were motivated but let us know that the biggest hurdle they were facing in education was the transient nature of the village population. With a border that is difficult to secure around the clock, many Karen make the dangerous trek from Myanmar to resupply in Thailand for their armed struggle in the jungles across the border, or cross the border from Thailand to visit or stay with family members who reside on the Burmese side.

Karen Teenage Mothers

Karen Teenage Mothers

The Karen had to flee their country due to continued fighting against the Burma Army regulars, and schooling is not a high priority for these displaced families. The fact that Karen children do not speak Thai with their parents nor in the village, but instead one of two Karen languages, further creates a difficult learning and teaching environment for both learners and teachers.

The more we learned about the situation, the more we realized that English language education was not how we could be of use or help.

The wonderful news was, however, that it was still education that would get the villagers to a better state, we just had to change our expectations from teaching English to community development, and learn plenty in the process!

The most urgent issue in the village was the lack of clean drinking water.

Testing Water Sources

In order to better understand the situation regarding the potable water quality and availability in the village, we invited a professor from Buffalo State, SUNY, with a colleague to test the water sources, and high levels of e-coli contamination were found in the unprotected drinking water wells.

Introduction Of Clay Water Filter

Introduction Of Clay Water Filter

Start of The Rainy Season
As the rainy season is upon us now, the dirt road to the village is impossible to travel without a 4×4, and a seasonally larger number of infants is suffering from waterborne diseases, as wells are full of water, but remain not covered, allowing for contamination from roaming livestock and insects, aside from human and animal waste surface run-off from the field latrine facilities located in higher elevation than the wells.

Water Testing Project with Thai Military Water Testing Project with Thai Military

The greatest challenge is to initiate a shift in the traditional ways the community used to deal with personal illnesses, hygiene, animal husbandry and potable water sources. Fortunately, there are many excellent universities and outreach programs available in Thailand to aid in the transition. Connecting the appropriate organizations to address the needs in that community is something that has been an educational and worthwhile experience for all of us.

The Ailing Karen Twins

September 2012
When we went on the seven hour drive from Bangkok again last week, we were not sure if we could ever reach out to the community in a way that would provide the type of engagement from community members needed to make a difference.

It was when we started speaking with the owner of a very modest food stand, that we started understanding how we could be of service, if only immediate.

Lying on a plank next to the food vendor was an infant, wrapped in cloth, and a gaunt looking woman was sitting further in the back with another infant in a sling, whom she was nursing. When we asked why the children both had an herbal paste mixture on their heads, we were told that this Karen medicine was to cure the eight-month old twins of intestinal problems.

As we kept asking questions, it came to light that the gaunt woman had given birth to the twins eight months ago, each newborn weighing 1.6 kilos at that time. By eight months, they weighed six kilos, which was still under weight. Both infants had been suffering from diarrhea for two weeks, but the mother was not able to get to the health care for lack of transportation and funding.

The mother and her two children were surviving on 500 Thai Baht (roughly 13U$) per month in a remote part of Thailand where people were planting their own food, which she could not, or people have pay more for groceries than in larger villages or towns. The money she had was sent to her every month by her husband, who had been drafted into the military and was stationed in far away North Thailand. Since giving birth to the twins, she could no longer work in the fields to make additional income, so she was trying to make due on those funds, which was next to impossible and left the twins and her undernourished and in dismal shape.

Karen Village Store

Karen Village Store

We drove the three to the medical clinic in Mae Ramat, the nearest town, then had a quick meal before buying essentials to improve the health and hygiene of the family, ranging from baby formula, antiseptic soap and laundry detergent to a larger tub for bathing infants or washing clothing.

Upon returning to the village, our female colleague, a mother of two who had been carrying one of the sick twins throughout the day, proceeded to give an impromptu workshop on infant health and hygiene to the neighborhood mothers, including demonstrating how to properly bathe infants. This proved to be the first bath the two eight month-old babies had ever received in their lives. Before fleeing from the advancing Burma Army in Myanmar to the safety of Thailand, the Karen mothers would cleanse their children without giving them a (perhaps traditionally Western style) bath, so this experience was both new and something that had to be repeated to be learned.

Other women and children from the neighborhood came and observed the training, and the initial distance between the villagers and us had decreased.

This was a surprise and very welcome break in our attempts to make inroads into the community’s hearts and minds, and we know that only time will reassure the people that we neither want to sell them on a religion nor get them to lose their culture or exploit them in any other way, but simply strive to provide them with the skills and knowledge to maintain their ways while surviving in today’s world.

Karen Children Learning Handicraft

Karen Children Learning Handicraft

Our next step is to meet again with the community leaders and learn more about their needs, wants and desires, and to see how we may be of service. We at UEC are not funded externally nor have the backing of any other organization, but we are simply a small and eclectic group of idealistic professionals wanting to make a positive difference as best we can, and whenever necessary.

Burmese American Help

The next visit was conducted by our Burmese American colleague, who went to the village with a Burmese doctor and a Karen translator. During this visit, one of the assistant village heads explained that there was a dedicated Malaria medic in the village with about 18 volunteers to assist him in the prevention of malaria.

Karen Village School

Karen Village School

The malaria prevention team is working to insure the community increases its awareness regarding standing water as potential breeding ground for mosquitoes. The World Health Organization had just released information on anti-malarial medication resistant malaria strains, first discovered in mosquitoes along the Thai Burmese border, so the need is urgent to spread awareness among the villagers, and insure that proper netting is used for sleeping.

Health Improvements

October 2012
After the younger of the twins had been fighting diarrhea for more than two months, she was taken to hospital for one week, where she finally vomited up some intestinal worms. She was put on appropriate medication and had started eating more and gaining strength, catching up with her sister. Both infants had been put on a supplementary diet of infant formula along with their mother’s milk to help them in regaining strength and enable them to grow up.

Donations from colleagues in Bangkok for the family included soap for washing clothes, dishes for improved hygiene, as well as a Cambodian clay water filter purchased at Resource Development International in Phnom Penh. This simple yet highly effective clay/carbon gravity filter was met with initial doubt and suspicion but then used with great enthusiasm as it provided e-coli free water without the need of boiling the water. We are looking at providing more of these effective filters to families in the community. We also left cold weather sweaters, bedding and towels for the babies, mother and grandmother.

Healthy Karen twins and happy mother

Healthy Karen twins and happy mother

We met the village head, who showed great interest in improving his community and working with universities to provide vocational training for the villagers, which we are arranging.

Donations from colleagues in Bangkok included 185 cold weather sweaters for infants and young children, two large barrels with lids, shoes and clothes for adults, plus a box of Thai schools books for prathom level, which were handed over to the assistant village head.

In further discussions, the creation of a traditional weaving workshop was something that the villagers were interested in pursuing. That way, funding could be generated through sales of traditional Karen weaving, which in turn would keep these traditions and skills alive and instill pride in the local artisans.

Traditional Karen weaving patterns and colors

Traditional Karen weaving patterns and colors

In more good news, all six water tanks in the village had been completely filled with water by the villagers, showing that water is being actively collected for the hot and dry season to come. The malaria team was looking at creating covers for the tanks to prevent mosquito breeding.

With the help and assistance of Thai experts in agriculture, micro-economics and social development, our wonderful donors providing the funding for us to get there and make a difference, the situation is slowly and steadily improving.

UEC continues with more endeavors in this village, and thankfully, individuals with a variety of skills have contacted us to be of service and make a difference in this remote part of this wonderful country. We feel privileged to have the chance to meet some terrific people in this village and while in the pursuit of improving others’ lives.

Education for Karen Children

Education for Karen Children

If you are interested in supporting this project further, please contact us via our Donation Page. Any help and assistance is greatly appreciated and it will make a significant impact in the lives of these families, trying to create a new life for themselves.

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