Rhian Morgans is a teacher at Salesian School in Surrey. Every year the school takes a group of students to visit projects in Thailand. Here she gives an insight into school life for some of the vulnerable migrant children in the care of projects on the Burma border.
Mae Sot is situated on the border of Thailand and Burma. Many people suggest this town feels more like being in Burma than in Thailand, with approximately two-thirds of the population being Burmese. There are many reasons why people have tried to escape Burma, including religious conflict, discrimination and to search for employment amongst others. Mae Sot homes many of these migrants, some who have legally crossed the border and others who have not and have no documentation. Approximately 15,000 people cross the border illegally each day. There are 18 different illegal gates to cross at, where migrants pay just 20 Thai baht to cross rather than 1000 Thai Baht over the Friendship Bridge legal crossing. For many families, their key priority is earning money and as such children cannot always be supported or cared for adequately. These vulnerable children are supported by Thai Children’s Trust at various projects in the area.
Hsa Mu Htaw School schools 280 children, 45 of whom board there. Although I imagine this is normally a vibrant and buzzing place, it was very quiet upon our arrival due to it currently being the school holidays. There were some children staying at the school over the holiday whose parents were continuing to work away from Mae Sot.
This is a school for migrants, who are not be entitled to a Thai education. These children come from poor families whose parents tend to work in factories or on plantations. Their income is very low, and the parents work extremely long hours- often 7/8am until midnight. As such, the children are often left at home unsupervised. Schools like this are therefore the primary place for children to learn how to socialise, be disciplined, learn routines, be fed and also be given the chance to discover new opportunities in life.
The teachers here will often go around the community in the morning to round up any students roaming the streets. It has been know that the head teacher may have to argue with parents to convince them to allow their children to be educated. Parents may prefer that their children join them at work in order to increase the household income. Factories, particularly in Bangkok, will have plenty of opportunities for migrants, legal or illegal, working them long hours and offering extremely low pay.
This school, like others is crucial to provide these children with extra opportunities. When they finish here they will be able to go on to university. Many are highly ambitious, one boy I spoke to whose parents both worked in Bangkok hoped to go on to study engineering.
The children realise how lucky they are to be coming to a school, an opportunity that some migrant children don’t have. Being a teacher myself, it emphasised how values and attitudes are the most important thing in a child’s learning - not the structure of the building. The classrooms here are merely a breezeblock shell.
What is imperative to help the children focus and concentrate is food. Something we all take for granted, however something these children have often been lacking in the past. Thanks to a brilliant cook on site (we tasted some of her delicious Burmese food) and the support of the TCT, these children are now being given a nutritious lunch every day. Many of these children arrive at school having had no breakfast and do not have parents at home to cook them their evening meal. This means that for most their school dinner will be their main meal of the day. There is also a nursery on site, which TCT provides nutritional snacks for.
This is a school for around 250 migrant children, 80 of whom are orphans that live at the centre. Like many of the migrant schools in Mae Sot, Agape has seen dwindling sources of funding over the past couple of years and is currently facing a risk of closure.
Agape can only be described as wooden shacks in a large dusty compound. The sheer scale of poverty here is clear to see. The dorms hold simply a few wooden bed bases for dozens of children to sleep in. The school is currently without a head teacher, vital to take ownership in a situation like this.
It is hard not to feel overwhelming emotions here, seeing the young children sitting around the grounds. These children are not experiencing any kind of childhood in the format that the western world knows it. For them getting food is a priority not what their next toy will be - they simply don’t have those.
The situation at this school can only really be described as one of extreme desperation. TCT are providing funding for lunch for the children here daily, however this alone is not enough for the school.
Coming from Agape, it was refreshing to see a migrant school that is being led by a head teacher with a clear vision. It is going from strength to strength and shows what can be achieved through good leadership and support.
The New Blood migrant school has 487 students, approximately 200 of these board whilst their parents work away from Mae Sot in factories. The students range in age from 3 years old in the nursery to 15 years old. 36 of the students are orphans.
The school comprises of several different buildings. Most classrooms are basic breezeblock structures. Sleeping quarters are what can be described as wooden shacks, holding about 50 students per room. Cramped and basic at best. Yet these students are being given as good an education as they can be in the conditions and they all have real focus and a drive to succeed.
Around 50 students make up each class, often being taught by ‘teachers’ who are former students themselves, 16/17 year olds. We saw a Thai class, where a 15 year old girl was teaching 60 younger students who were chanting different phrases after her. A similar situation was going on in an English lesson.
The older students were in smaller classes. They were learning core subjects such as maths and sciences. There are of course no facilities to teach practical science lessons as in Western schools, but the focus is on a rather traditional textbook based style of learning.
What surprised me was that these students were studying in English! Although many were unconfident to speak English to me, on paper, they were happy to write in it. Their textbooks were very old and shabby many without covers, obviously donated years ago. Yet these children knew their stuff and were studying very hard for their exams the next year.
A small computer room holds eight machines that have all been donated. The older children are learning how to type. I observed some completing a program where they had to retype a document in order to practise their keyboard skills, skills many of them will never have used before.
The older students were being prepared to sit Burmese national tests. 25 of them were due to go to Burma to sit these in March. These tests qualify students for entry into local universities. If they succeed, this will provide a hope for them to reintegrate into Burmese society. Additionally, in order to help them integrate into Thai society should they not return to Burma, migrant students at New Blood are also being taught Thai.
Sadly, with funding for migrant schools disappearing, the head teacher recognises that New Blood could be forced to close down within the next couple of years. If the students can speak Thai, and get funded, they could potentially go to a Thai school. TCT are budgeting to try to send around 100 students currently at New Blood to Thai schools next year.
At present, TCT pay for lunch for all students at this school every day and for all food for the students who live there.