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A Volunteer's Experience at Baan Unrak

This article by Anne Cheng was provided courtesy of the Go Make A Difference organization.

I completed a week long-stint of volunteering in an orphanage in Sangkhlaburi, a town 500 km from Bangkok, near the Three Pagoda Pass gateway to Myanmar. With the Burmese government taking control of the Burmese side of the border area from the Karens and the Mons, any civilian with any inkling of a connection to the Karens or Mons is automatically suspected of supporting the rebel armies. It was in this village where I had the opportunity to visit a refugee camp that housed 3500 Burmese, Karen and Mon refugees. Many have fled to Thailand with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Desperate and penniless, some see no other alternatives but to sell their children--either in the sex trade or into slave labor. Some work long and hard and don't ever see their wages because they are paying off the police to prevent being sent back to Myanmar.

At Baan Unrak, or “House of Happiness,” I taught English to these children who were unscrupulously taken advantage of, abused, or abandoned. During this 6-day “English Camp,” we visited the Mon settlements (former refugees who are given temporary permits to live and work in selected areas), picked bananas to give to the children in the refugee camp, visited Myanmar and went swimming and boating on the lake. One glance at these children and you would think they are like any other well-adjusted teenagers, but try to get to know them and they will be very guarded about their personal life. These teens are grown-up beyond their age and are very cautious about whom they can trust. However, by the end of the week, they were ready to move back to Canada with me.

Didi Devamala, perhaps the only mother-figure to some children, has opened Baan Unrak to 50 children and 3 women. It was through talking with Didi that I learned about some of the children's pasts. Didi has accepted the children who are in most need of her care, and has had to turn away others due to financial and other constraints. The teenagers who I taught did go to school, but because the schools are already too crowded with local children, my students, intelligent thought they are, are not allowed to go to school full-time. Instead, they can only go 2 or 3 times a week. Thus, they were extremely willing to learn and showed great enthusiasm as had not been displayed by my Japanese students. As well, since we did not teach in a classroom setting, but instead went to various places each day, we actually had much to talk about and we were able to make conversation about the various places we were in. Back at the orphanage, the younger children simply latched onto me instantly. It would be dubious if their peals of laughter weren't heard throughout the entire town.

I really didn't know much about the hardships of living in Myanmar until I visited the refugee camp. Most foreigners are not allowed into the camp, as it is guarded, but because one of the girls knew one of the guards, I was able to slip in. Once inside, everyone was so gracious and friendly. I was given a tour of the camp, and the schools by the English teacher there. He told me that in Myanmar, he was a physician, but he had an outside business in which he dealt with the Karens, since he was half-Karen. Because of his business connections, he was suspected of aiding the Karens, and he had to flee the country.

The experiences I had while at Baan Unrak were simply incredible. I went to so many places I could not have gone to if I was a tourist. I met and talked with people whom I now consider friends, and if offered the opportunity again, I would accept it in a heartbeat. I can say that in my 2 weeks in Thailand, the week spent in Sangkhlaburi was definitely the most worthwhile experience.

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