News, Photos & Video › A new home in the time of need
A new home in the time of need
Children play in the yard of Best Friends School. (Photo: Peter Biro/IRC)
By Peter Biro
MAE SOT, Thailand - Khaing Tha was only 12 years old when she and her younger brother Ago Soo ran away from their Thailand home following months of beatings by their caregiver, an alcoholic and abusive grandmother. After trekking across the hilly outback near the northwestern town of Mae Sot, the children showed up at the gates of the Best Friends School, an IRC-supported center for children who have been displaced from their native Myanmar.
“All they were carrying was a small plastic bag with their few belongings,” recalls Htike Thu Aung, who runs the school. “They were dirty and looked miserable.”
That same day, the children were given food, textbooks and enrolled in English, math and geography classes.
Like most rural areas on the border between Thailand and Myanmar, the hilly landscape surrounding the school is a magnet for poor Burmese refugees and migrants, like Khaing Tha and Ago Soo’s family. Some 6,000 undocumented Burmese live in the district and work for local Thai landowners. Many gravitate towards Bangkok and other larger cities to find work, leaving their children behind in the rural border areas. Nearly a quarter of Burmese children living in Thailand live with a single parent or with relatives. All told, some two million Burmese, refugees and migrants, live and work in Thailand.
When Htike Thu Aung, himself a Burmese refugee, arrived in Thailand in 2006, he was outraged by the injustices he witnessed against Burmese refugee and migrant children.
Children were often forced into exploitative jobs on farms and construction sites and were routinely beaten and subjected to other abuse. Some were forced into prostitution or drug trafficking. Meanwhile, their parents worked in poorly paid jobs with little possibility of sending their children to school, Htike Thu Aung said.
Htike Thu Aung went to work in the fields, teaching refugee and migrant children math, English and the Burmese language in his spare time. But the situation facing his young students was so bad that Htike Thu Aung decided his true calling was working for children’s rights.
“Our children are the future,” he said. “They deserve all the help, support and encouragement we can give them.”
In 2007, Htike Thu Aung realized his dream when he opened the Best Friends School. Located near the Thai border town of Mae Sot, it provides free education to over 400 children and youth, ten percent of whom are boarding students. The school is funded by aid groups Help without Frontiers and Colabora Birmania, with the IRC and World Education providing teacher training and curriculum development.
“Students can get an education here and at the same time be protected from child labor, trafficking and abuse. I want to provide children with a safe place when their parents are in the field working,” Htike Thu Aung said.
In 2011, Htike Thu Aung took a step further and joined IMPACT, a new child protection program run by the IRC, World Education and two local Thai aid groups. The initiative, which supports some 20,000 people Burmese in northwestern Thailand, identifies and trains community mobilizers who in turn educate their communities about how to protect their children.
“Once a child in trouble is identified, the mobilizers link them up with local organizations and government agencies so that they receive proper care and protection,” said Luc Ferran, the IRC’s IMPACT coordinator. “This way we are able to help many children who would otherwise be neglected and forgotten.”
For Khaing Tha and Ago Soo, the future is uncertain. Their parents are kept informed about the children’s situation, but they cannot afford to leave their jobs in Bangkok. Returning to their grandmother is not an option. In the meantime, Khain Tha feels safe in school.
“I like to study the Burmese language,” she said. “Most of all I like to play with my new friends.”
Htike Thu Aung, seen here with some of his students, started the Best Friends School. (Photo: Peter Biro/IRC)