Thoo Mwe Htee Ger Ni School is located in a remote village in TAK province, close to the city of Phop Phra, about 50km south of Mae Sot. From Phop Phra a winding street goes down a hill towards the river that marks the border with Myanmar. That’s where Muluchin Village lays, a charming village of about 500 souls, all of them Burmese migrants. Most of the migrants fled from neighboring Karen state, so they belong to the Karen ethnic group.
The primary school is situated on the church compound right in the middle of the village. Until about 9 months ago teaching was done in two larger bamboo houses a little up the hill, but thanks to the efforts of BMWEC and its supporters the children can now enjoy a concrete construction as their learning environment, well equipped with sanitary facilities, a well and a water-filter system that provides free drinking water to the school.
8 teachers are responsible for around 172 students who are enrolled in the school, containing nursery, KGB, KGA, which are the pre-school levels, and Grade 1 to 4, each located in their own class rooms. The gender ratio is about equal while the age distribution is very disproportionate. There are children as old as 9 years in pre-school and teenagers attend Grade 4. But when considering the live situations of these children it becomes clear that some were not able to go to school at standard age because there simply was no school in their previous surroundings inside Burma, or because they had to help their parents on the fields or attend their younger siblings or because they were escaping the fightings instead of being able to sit in a classroom. The class size ranges from 19 students (in Grade 4) to 32 (in Grade 2) which is also a relatively normal in migrant schools as drop-out rates are rather high due to the reasons described above. Most of the classes are taught while the students are sitting on woven bamboo matting on the floor as it is common in Karen culture where chairs are a rarity. The school hours run from 9 am to 4 pm with only a one hour lunch brake when most students eat their packed lunches and use the time to play.
The migrant learning centre was established in order to ensure that unregistered migrant children in the village are getting access to proper education. But the radius goes far beyond the children of the village. Due to its proximity to the border the school attracts students from Myanmar as well, walking as long as 2 hours one way every day to be able to attend education.
Furthermore, about 25 students live in the boarding house which is located in the former school building as their families live further inside of Burma and they do not have access to proper education in their surroundings.
It is incredible to see how eager and willing to learn these children are. All of them are sweet, nice and do have a very polite, respectful attitude which provides a comfortable environment for teaching which is completely different than the Western world. Not only are they great to teach, but they are also unbelievably enjoyable to be around. With beautiful smiles plastered to their faces, they were always joining in every exercise with enthusiasm, and despite their unfortunate circumstances they are the happiest children we have ever met.
One of the things we learned at the very beginning of our teaching experience is that English is the fourth language that children learn in the migrant schools and that they start to learn English in KGB. This was real news to us as we haven’t been acquainted to the fact that the Karen ethnic group uses their own language as well as scripture which is not even similar to Burmese language and scripture. Next to these two languages they also learn Thai and English. The familiarity with all of these languages ensures that the students can take advantage of the possibilities the future might hold.
We understood that being the first volunteers in this school also meant that some of the students might have never seen foreigners and were not confident with using English in conversations. Our appearances seemed to intimate some of the students in the first few days. But soon their eagerness to compete and show off was discovered as a way to teach them English by playing team games.
Singing songs that involved actions turned out to be the greatest fun even for the younger children and the most successful memorizing technique at the same time.
Although the school is provided with good English teaching material, we wanted to focus on basic conversations and tried to have the children speak individually. Our efforts were not always successful.
When we were asking for example “How are you today?” they were answering by just repeating our question in unison.
We learned quickly that learning by rote is the common technique in Asia and that we could not write a word on the board without provoking an unison (and absolute perfect) spelling.
The live-in experience
One aspect that we loved about our experience was our living situation. As there is no such thing as a hotel or guesthouse in this simple village, mainly made up of bamboo houses, we lived in a family home.
Although we were lucky enough that the house had certain amenities, such as a large living room, that the majority of our neighbors did not have, we were immediately immersed in the culture.
We could take advantage of the living space provided to us by holding evening classes after dinner in the big living room of the house and also used the large TV to show some English learning movies. The evenings were a great success and by the last time we could count over 50 children in the house!
After we played a couple of games and sang English songs we were also shown traditional Karen dances and songs which was a great pleasure for us.
We have enjoyed every moment with the kids and the teachers of the school who took amazingly good care of us. They took turns to invite us for dinner and are incredible, friendly persons who provided assistance and help wherever and whenever needed which made the stay even more fun.
They showed us around the village were we could observe and learn about weaving, a typical activity carried out by the women in the village, swim in the river and play cane ball, a very popular Burmese ball game resembling volleyball. They made also sure that we learned some Karen expressions and gave us amazing and thought-provoking insights into Karen culture and their view of the current situation.
What they still need
Despite the new school building with the freshly installed water-filter system there are still some problems the school is facing. Even though the village is connected to Thai electrical and water systems, fresh running water is not available throughout the week and stored water as well as well water contaminates quickly in the heat. Furthermore, the school’s location is not ideal as there is not enough space for a playground and sports field which the children would dearly need to balance their long schooling hours.
Unfortunately, the school does not have a partner school or other donor by contrast to other schools run by BMWEC. Regular donations could ensure the school’s planning and are mainly used on regular and appropriate teacher salaries. A secure financial situation would lower the turnover rate of teachers who at the moment are more or less volunteering at the school.
With 3 of the 8 teachers being pregnant at the moment the amount of teachers could decrease significantly for the next academic year which is starting in June. A secure financial situation would also allow more parents to keep their children in school when the school can keep high standards of teaching by being able to keep experienced and determined teachers. Regular donations could also ensure the continuation of the boarding school which is currently at risk.
All in all the time at the school was a genuine experience for us and it was an immense pleasure for us to help support the school and students’ learning. It was so special for the smiles that you can put on the faces of the children. The major lesson we have learnt is that family, friendship, health and education are by far the most important things in life and that you can live satisfied and happy with little or nothing.
Last but not least we would like to say “thanks” to the BMWEC staff for taking such good care of us during our stay in Mae Sot and Muluchin Village and for the organization’s endurance with making education possible for migrant children in this area.