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High school maths teacher training (Oliver White/ JRS)

The challenge of providing education in Ban Mai Soi Camp

Mae Hong Son, 1 January 2011 – Mu Reh has an infectious smile. Finishing her post-secondary education in leadership training, she beams at the thought of someday becoming a community leader.

But she is aware of the challenges.

"It is difficult for women to be leaders in the camp because men are considered to be brave and women are considered shy and less than men", she said.

In northern Thailand's Ban Mai Nai Soi Camp, where mostly Karenni refugees from Burma live, there seems to be a lack of leadership.

But Mu Reh isn't ready to step up yet. As a young woman, she says she isn't educated enough and thinks she is still far too quiet for anyone to listen to her. A thin, teenage Karenni girl with long black hair and brass rings around her neck, Muh-Reh may be soft spoken, but her presence is loud.

Mu Reh went to school until her mother passed away. She had just started secondary school. From that point on she became responsible for her siblings.

Despite this hurdle, she continued to educate herself and was accepted into a post-secondary leadership school. After she graduates next year, she hopes to continue her education. Rather than applying for a place in a resettlement programme in a developed nation like the US, Muh-Reh chose to stay in the camp.

People from Burma began settling in this area in 1989 after violence erupted between the Karenni people and the Burmese military. Seven years later, JRS began working with the Karenni Education Department (KnED)

Thirteen years ago, in partnership with the Karenni Education Department (KnED), JRS began working in this camp, focusing mainly on helping refugees to provide education services.

While KnED, managed by Karenni refugees, is responsible for providing education to the entire camp, JRS sponsors teachers, provides supplies, and facilitates teacher training workshops. JRS and KnED work together to solve some of the challenges in this ever-changing environment.

One of those changes is the ongoing resettlement of teachers and students throughout the school year. Service providers try to cope by reducing the teacher training to two weeks. Consequently, some teenagers, who have just completed five years of secondary school, are responsible for teaching their peers. Needless to say, dropout rates are increasing

"It is difficult to teach students who are the same age. There is no respect for teachers", said Christina, a high school math teacher.

Still, JRS continues to face these problems head on, restructuring with KnED to meet the needs of the students and teachers.

Lack of motivation

There are few options for one living in this refugee camp. People will either be resettled to a new country – usually the United States or Australia – or will remain in the camp. Returning to Burma is almost never an option.

Over the past 20 years the population of this remote jungle camp has increased to more than 15,000; many of whom are not registered as refugees since the Thai government put a moratorium on asylum claims in 2006. As they officially do not exist, these new arrivals are excluded from applying for resettlement.

People are not allowed to leave the boundaries of the camp. As high school diplomas are not required to obtain a decent job, most students see little point in finishing school. Some continue their education, while others drop out and either find work with community based organisations or NGOs, or remain unemployed. This cycle is continuous and nothing changes.

"Many parents are not educated. They don't support their children because they don't understand the value of education", said Marcel, the coordinator at a high school.

However, after having taught high school English for six years, Marcel understands the importance of parental involvement.

To address this, KnED started a home-school liaison programme in 2005. Each school has one staff member who makes home visits and meets with students and their families to discuss absences and other concerns.

Staff members are trained to investigate the home life of students of concern. The camps' child protection forum and child protection advocacy officer for Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR) are informed about any student under the age of 18 who drops out of school.

Mu Yain, the home school liaison manager, has begun to hold workshops to educate parents about parenting styles.

"Most parents think of the material needs but exclude the psychosocial needs", she said, explaining that parenting should goes beyond food and clothing, and include helping the child discover who he or she is.

This programme along with the newly formed KnED Parent Teachers Association is working to teach parents about the importance of parental involvement in education.

One of the challenges NGOs face is how to empower refugees in an environment that relies heavily on outside assistance. NGOs have done their best to provide support; but many believe they do too much. For instance, NGOs occasionally pay people to do what would be considered the community's responsibility.

"If we are to promote education, then everyone in the community should take responsibility …Many NGOs talk about rights, but often forget responsibilities", said Khu Bue Reh, high school headmaster.

Others, however welcome all of the assistance from NGOs. And both community leaders and NGOs seek partnership.

They should help us ensure that the development of their communities is sustainable, said JRS Project Director in Mae Hong Son, Joe Hampson SJ.

Accompaniment today and tomorrow

Since 2004, KnED has trained special education teachers to accompany children to school and help them participate in their classes. Students with severe physical and mental disabilities receive home visits and lessons.

Unfortunately, financial constraints have forced providers to cut special education teacher training from four months to two weeks. Nevertheless, the teachers are still passionate about assisting families and are optimistic about how the programme has overcome prejudice in the camp.

"Before this programme some people in the community had many prejudices about children with disabilities. This programme has helped them to be more tolerant", said Khu Bue Reh.

While special education teachers assist students, JRS continues to accompany refugees both individually and camp wide. While JRS and KnED face major obstacles, both are dedicated to remaining in the camp and working with people who are also dedicated to improving their community.

"Many NGOs stay for two or three months but JRS has been here so long. If there is a need then JRS will stay. JRS will be here until the last refugee leaves", Marcel said.

Oliver White, regional advocacy communications officer & Molly Mullen, assistant regional communications officer, Asia Pacific