International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Helping Burmese students learn


Burmese students at the Hsa Mu Htaw learning center. Suttida Lalamo (third from the left) said that she wants to stay in Thailand and become fluent in the Thai language. (Photo: Peter Biro/IRC)

By Peter Biro

MAE SOT, Thailand - It’s recess at the Hsa Mu Htaw learning center in Mae Sot, a town in northwestern Thailand. The playground is brimming with energy. Laughing children chase each other, skip rope and kick footballs. Although the learning center looks like any other school in the area, there is one major difference: All of the students are refugees from neighboring Myanmar and the center is not recognized as an official school by the Thai authorities.

Under Thai educational policy, all children living in the country—regardless of their legal status—can attend school should they wish to do so. Yet the vast majority of refugee and migrant children have no access to formal education. Most must settle for under-funded, poorly staffed learning centers or miss out on an education altogether because they have to work to support their families.
 
To help these largely forgotten children, the International Rescue Committee, and its partner organizations World Education and the Thai ministry of education, provide a range of services to 74 learning centers like Hsa Mu Htaw in areas with a large population of refugees and migrants. The support includes curriculum development, teacher training, school supplies and health education.
 
Most Burmese refugee children cannot speak or read Thai. To help address this, the IRC is supporting “school-within-a-school” programs, where a learning center is linked with a local Thai government school.
 
“The Thai schools enroll Burmese students so that they can rapidly acquire Thai language skills,” explains Greg Antos, World Education’s Thailand director. “The idea is to give students and parents a choice: If they wish to remain in Thailand they can access and succeed within the Thai school system all the way through university. If they choose to return to Myanmar, the learning centers will prepare them for the Burmese system as well.”
 
People from Myanmar, a former British colony, tend to speak better English than their Thai counterparts, so in return, a learning center may send its English teacher to a Thai government school to teach English.
 
Twelve-year-old Suttida Lalamo, one of the students playing in the yard at Hsa Mu Htaw, was born in Thailand although her parents come from Karen State in Myanmar. She said she couldn’t imagine returning to a country she has never seen. Her Thai language skills have improved so much that she’s been assigned to formally greet the visiting Thai teacher every morning.
 
“It’s also fun because we can speak with the Thai children in our neighborhood,” she said. “But I want to learn the language perfectly. I would like to become a doctor here, in Thailand.”
 
Lunch break at one of the learning centers for Burmese students along the Thailand-Myanmar border. Photo: Peter Biro
Lunch break at one of the learning centers for Burmese students along the Thailand-Myanmar border. (Photo: Peter Biro/IRC) 

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