Back in Mae Sot
When we began planning a service project trip to Thailand, we knew from past experience that if we went there with the aim to give, we would find people who could benefit from what we had to offer. Eighteen years ago we made our first trip to Thailand after being invited by a service-oriented order of Catholic nuns to help them with their programs for the poor and handicapped in the northeast. We brought with us our skills in construction, American ingenuity in problem solving, the ability to make good California-style spaghetti (which proved very popular in the convent), various individual talents ranging from ballet dancing to computer skills, and loads of good will. All of us who were on that trip (about 25 people participated) fell in love—with the Sisters, with the rice paddies and the water buffalo, and with the Thai villagers we came to know. This was not surprising, as blessings appear to come generously to those who put themselves in a position to serve.
Our heart-felt connection to Thailand, the dire circumstances of the Burmese who have fled their own country due to political repression and violence, and the necessity we felt once again to give some of our time, energy, and resources to people born into circumstances so much less fortunate than our own, prompted our recent trips to the Thai/Burmese border in the fall of 2007, and again in 2009. We sent two advance scouts to the border town of Mae Sot, where thousands of Burmese live as illegal migrant workers and refugees. The scouts’ assignment was to find housing and to scope out possible service projects for the rest of our group, who would arrive several weeks later. Given the tremendous need of the refugee population, we had no trouble finding opportunities to help in so many wonderful ways, including constructing a new building at a medical clinic, offering art and English classes, providing playground equipment, shoes, winter sweaters and blankets at several schools, performing magic and puppet shows, creating a sewing program for girls, and turning a cow shed into an elementary school.
Once we were settled in Mae Sot, several times a week three or four of us would load up our supplies and head out to one of the Burmese migrant schools to teach Art and English.
We would plan art projects or activities before arriving and arrange to meet with different grade levels on different days. We usually worked with about 40 students each time. When the children saw us coming, they knew they were in for a fun and interesting time! Upon our arrival, they would run up to us, full of excitement and insistent on helping us carry our supplies. The children were very curious to see whatever idea we would present for the day and incredibly enthusiastic about learning something new. One of their favorite projects was molding clay. First, we would mold an example for the children to see, then pass out a few colorful chunks of clay to each child and watch them go wild creating! It was incredible to watch how creative and focused they would be and how much fun they had. Some days we would bring colored beads for making bracelets and necklaces, on other days we would experiment with paints and paper projects. We also discovered some fun ways to teach some English with puppets, songs, and simple line dances.
In addition to teaching classes, we did our best to find out the needs of the schools and provide necessary supplies such as water tanks, school uniforms, wood flooring, metal roofing, basic school supplies, as well as white boards, chairs, and transportation funds. One teacher asked if we could please bring milk and hard-boiled eggs for the children when we came. It was a real treat when we would arrive to teach classes bringing milk and 100+ eggs to the patiently waiting students.
There was so much need, whatever we could contribute was so appreciated. With each thing we did, it was clear that we brought a little more light, joy, and relief into their lives and . . . certainly, deep emotions and lasting beautiful impressions into our own
THAI 09 CLASS PHOTOS GALLERY HERE
About a month before we headed to Thailand, someone came up with the absolutely brilliant idea to give away puppets to the Burmese children. We solicited donations from a puppet company we’d dealt with previously, Folkmanis—“the world’s largest manufacturer of plush animal puppets,”—and they graciously gave us boxes of many beautiful puppets. When the puppets arrived and we started playing with them, we had such a blast that someone had yet another brilliant idea to create a puppet show for the children. We had a raucous time putting together a story that continued to grow and expand the more we rehearsed. We added live characters—a magic woman, a sad clown, a singer, a dancer—to interact not only with the puppets but also with the children in the audience. We also included a song, “Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes,” to get the children on their feet, moving and laughing.
Once in Thailand, we performed the show in a number of schools and clinics in the Mae Sot area. At the last minute, we added a narrator and found someone to translate the story into Burmese because we wanted to make the sure the story was as easy as possible for the children to understand. Many of these kids had never seen a live performance, or puppets, or Americans even, so they were the perfect audience. They were over-the-top appreciative. At some schools they were so excited to see us and they showered us with so much loving attention that we felt like rock stars as we arrived and left. It was a bittersweet feeling, knowing we had brought some joy and excitement into these children’s lives and yet also realizing that we were leaving them to such an uncertain future.
When we arrived in Mae Sot, we didn’t know who we would meet and where our efforts would be focused. As we began looking for projects, a Sister from the Daughters of Charity, with whom we have maintained contact since our first trip to Thailand in 1981, introduced me and my friends to Wai Minn, principal of the Farm-House Primary School. After seeing the school’s need and assessing our own capacities, we decided it was a match.
The Farm-House primary school currently ran its classes in a 20’x 20’ bamboo hut with teak leaf walls and roof, through which the sun and rain sometimes entered, and a bamboo floor that sagged and bounced when you walked across it. Our group decided we would make possible their dream for a new schoolhouse by funding and helping build the new building if they could get a 5-year lease from the landlord of the cow shelter that was the proposed site of the new school. My friend Koda and I, and Wai Minn, and his Thai wife who acted as a translator, met at the home of the landowner, a leader in the small Muslim refugee community where the pupils lived. We sat down together over tea and sweets to hash out the details of the lease. I watched with fascination what transpired . . . Because of our presence, this young, exiled Burmese Ph.D. student-turned-primary school headmaster with such high hopes for bettering the lives of poor migrant children through education, and the successful Muslim leader who had, perhaps, initially been skeptical of sending the local Muslim children to a school run by a Buddhist, but who had come to trust and admire Wai Minn, were joining forces to make something wonderful happen: a new school with a playground would be built, and the children would benefit. My eyes filled with warm tears as I tried to express what I perceived. We came from opposite corners of the world, represented several different religions, spoke three different languages, and led very diverse lives, but we found ourselves sitting at one table with one united heart full of hope for a common aim.
What followed over the next month was, in Wai Minn’s words, a symphony of hammers and nails, bamboo poles and machetes, with small Burmese school kids and their exiled teachers working side by side with our unorthodox American construction crew. By the end of our stay in Mae Sot, the former cow pen had been converted into a new five-room schoolhouse with a concrete floor, latrines, a water tank, and a playground. The Burmese migrant children were the beneficiaries of our service project, but the sweetness and adventure of our time there are ours to keep.