About 20 children from the Karen state in Burma walked for three months in the dense jungle, hoping to make it to Thailand.
Their quest? Merely the possibility of a better education.
The youngest in the group was a 10-year-old girl who lost a leg when she stepped on a landmine during the trek.
The children survived on fruits, bamboo shoots and river water. They had the sun as their guide, soft leaves as their blankets, earth as their bed … and drank in the view of the shining stars overhead for their nightcap.
Their parents, still in Burma, sent them away reluctantly, hoping for the best while knowing they may never see their children again. It was a gamble – either the children would remain to be exploited in Burma, or they could seize the chance of going to a school in Thailand, just like “normal” children.
Luck was with them as they finally stumbled on to a Karenni refugee camp in the forest reserves of Mae Hong Son, in the north of Thailand at the Thai-Burmese border.
In this particular camp, there are about 5,000 Karenni refugees, 1,500 of them children.
“New Star” – that’s the name of the boarding house for these children. A hand-painted white wooden signboard with a star as its logo is perched at the top of a common hall in the boarding house’s compound; signifying hope, perseverance and new beginnings.
There are 61 children in the boarding house, 28 of them girls. The oldest child is 19 years old and the youngest is 10.
Their normal route to school is through an unfriendly, narrow mountain path. During the mid-year rainy season, the path turns muddy and slippery, causing accidental deaths.
“There is not enough food to go around and proper clothing is scarce, especially during the cold months at year-end. Healthcare and nutrition are major problems too,” Chay Shay, the 60-year-old housekeeper, said through an interpreter.
The children get new clothes only once a year, and sometimes they have to share. Fights do break out, understandable given the lack of privacy and personal space: Each room, measuring eight by 12 feet and further subdivided by bamboo partitions, is occupied by four children.
Skin diseases, diarrhea, respiratory problems, malaria and pneumonia are common among children in the refugee camps.
The New Star boarding house receives funds and food from the refugee camp committee, which in turn is assisted by the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), a coalition of international aid groups.
Rice, beans and fish paste, supplied by TBCC, is what these refugee children have been living on for years. Meat is rare and considered a precious commodity. Vegetables are grown in gardens, but some unfortunate families don’t have enough land for this.
The Thai authorities do not allow the refugees, including the children, to leave the camp. Thus, many do not have any source of income and are cut off from the outside world, subsisting on handouts.
Their only mode of communication is via battery-operated radios, which receive Thai and Burmese stations, and a Burmese community paper called Kantarawaddy Times, circulated among Karenni refugee camps in Thailand. A few have managed to smuggle mobile phones into the camp.
Some spend their time staring lifelessly into the distance. Others, traumatised by their flight and plight as refugees, take it out on the children, who suffer emotional or physical abuse at the hands of parents or relatives.
Some parents have taken their own lives.
The brave and able ones sneak out of the camp through a “back door” – by walking for at least five hours through steep and dangerous jungle paths, they go looking for jobs at surrounding Thai villages.
The education grail
While many of the children were sent here to seek a better education, those who made it still face an uncertain future. The syllabus at the refugee camps, up to Grade 10 (17 years old), is not recognised by the governments of Thailand or Burma, nor by any international organisation.
In this Karenni camp alone, there are around 200 Grade 10 students.
Most do not have a good grasp of English and thus face obstacles in pursuing higher education or vocational training. Even if they could be admitted into institutes of higher learning, they would face problems like a lack of finances or proper identification – they have no passports or identification cards.
However, the Permanent Secretary of Thailand’s Ministry of Education Dr Kasama Varavarn remained optimistic on the prospects of educating non-Thai citizens.
When contacted, she told the Asia News Network that the ministry’s recent education policy includes provisions to set up learning centres at all nine refugee camps in Thailand by the end of this year.
The project hinges on a Bt9-10 million (US$218,230-242,480) budget being approved by the Security Office.
Dr Kasama expects to know the outcome of her proposal within a month. The budget will be used to set up the learning centres in the refugee camps, as well as to operate them during the initial stages.
“We are now seeing a concerted effort. The learning centres will teach refugee children basic Thai and include an equivalency programme from primary to secondary levels. These centres will also provide vocational training to adults,” she said.
Her target is to reach the 65,000 children living in all refugee camps in Thailand. At the moment, there is only one such learning centre located in Mae La and it is not known how successful it has been.
Dr Kasama estimated that the learning centres would need about 10 to 20 volunteer teachers.
She said her challenges were promoting the Thai language among the refugees, mobilising her people to implement the programme, and motivating the refugees to communicate in Thai.
However, she stressed that these learning centres were not being established to assist refugee students in entering universities.
“We can help them get into universities whenever there are requests. We’ve heard there are problems when admitting them as some are not good students,” Dr Kasama claimed.
While certain refugee communities have pinned their hopes on the Ministry of Education’s new policy on educating non-Thai citizens, which was announced in July, critics were quick to point out that it is not addressing the real problem of allowing refugee children to further their studies.
Critics also wonder how teachers would be able to gain access to the refugee camps as most are in the deep jungle where there are no proper roads. The squalid living conditions in these camps are also another point to consider.
While the change in the Thai education system for refugee children may take years to reach its goals, Myo Htoo,15, and Soe Min, 16, said they just want to improve their command of English to get jobs.
Former Burmese child soldiers who are now separated from their parents and living in the Karenni refugee camp, the two managed to escape from the Burmese military while on assignment about eight months ago.
Soe said he doesn’t have any job preference as long he’s earning enough to support himself.
Myo’s dream is to be resettled in a third country. When asked what his ambition is, he said matter-of-factly, through an interpreter: “I want to be a driver. I want to earn money … it’s hard to dream of a high position.”
(Note: The children’s names have been changed to protect their identity.)