H4FA has supported this small Bible College in Ban Surin Karenni Refugee Camp on the Thai Burma border since 2001. Sadly it was completely destroyed by fire in March 2013. A third of the camp was burnt down killing 37 camp residents including a member of the Bible School’s committee, and injuring over 200. Over 400 homes were destroyed. Yet again a fire hit the camp in March 2015, but this time did not affect the College. H4FA sent £400 towards the needs of these latest fire victims.
H4FA, Karenaid, a Finnish Church, the Thai Baptist Church all contributed to rebuilding the Bible College and replacing their lost equipment. The new Bible College was opened on the 2nd July 13 and despite the trials of losing so much, and the sheer hard work of rebuilding, the staff and students have been very happy with the new buildings. Now despite the threat of camp closure the Bible School has taken on new students, there are 36 currently and extra teaching staff, now 12, and is becoming once again full of life and source of comfort and support to the camp population of over 2,727 (Aug.15).
The academic year runs July 15 to May 16 and currently there are 31 students taking a Certificate of Theology course and living on site. There are a further 3 preparing for the new Bachelor of Theology course which began in 2014 as well as 2 preparing for the Licencate of Theology course. The College hopes in the future to be able to support any students going on to continue their studies in Yangon.
The degree course is an ambitious attempt to provide a more affordable alternative to study in the bigger cities of Burma/Myanmar. Academic contact had been improved for the college, by the computers H4FA provided, these were lost in the fire but have now been replaced. Assistance has been offered, in staff, study materials and curriculum advice, by both Thai and Burmese Theological institutions. Travel has become easier. Exams will be taken in Yangon/Rangoon. The College is non denominational but has a strong Baptist bias. They hope to raise £14,000 this year, a large sum in refugee terms, but they tell me they believe that this plan is God's pleasure, and He will bring it about in time. The College’s principal writes”
we need many things since we upgraded our college to include courses in Licentiate and Bachelor of Theology. We need to upgrade our college library, we have few books; not enough for the B.Th programme. Bible commentaries, atlases, encyclopedias, and dictionaries are all needed badly.”
Contingency plans are also in place for the possibility of camp closure, good relations with an existing Bible College in Karenni state will lead to the expansion of this college to include EBS. Baptist churches’ Leaders plan to open a higher level of Bible studies inside the state in the future. Currently, ETBC works closely with four churches on Mae Su Rin Refugee Camp, and 115 churches on Karenni State. In addition, ETBC has connected with Karen Christian Convention in Taungoo and Yangon areas.
Courses are currently taught in the Karen language, teachers have mainly been trained at the Insein Baptist Convention in Rangoon. Apparently there are initial problems with students at the college who can read, but whose written Karen is not good enough for academic work. Consequently the first six months at the beginning of the certificate course are devoted to working on this. For the ethnic nationalities of Burma, ethnic identity is very important, the Burma military regime did not allow ethnic languages to be used in schools.
30 orphans live on the compound. These children were brought to the camp from inside Karenni State; their impoverished families hoped they would gain an education and be fed. Some of the children are related to families who have been resettled abroad. Resettled families only had the right to take immediate family with them, so these children were left behind under the care of the Bible College. Others are genuine war orphans.
A Light in Ban Surin
Students carry out invaluable work within the camp among the most needy, caring for the elderly and visiting the sick, educating the children, encouraging the youth. The college compound is run rather like a medieval European monastery was with income generating projects such as weaving, pig rearing and a fish pond. Despite restrictions on travel their choir is popular locally. The office was formerly well equipped with computers and will be again. Post fire the buildings are new and robustly built and hopes are high for the college to become again a beacon of hope for the dispossessed of Ban Surin.
Life has its problems for the camp dwellers; Karenni Camp 2 or Ban Surin is several hours drive from the town of Mae Hong Son, Northern Thailand, and in a remote area close to the Thai Burma border. Contact with the outside world is difficult, refugees are not allowed to travel, and to obtain a mobile phone signal involves walking up a nearby mountain. Visitors apart from NGO’s authorised by the Thai government are forbidden.
More than a third of the camp’s population has left for resettlement in the US, Canada or Australia in the last few years. Now following peace treaties between the Myanmar government and the Karenni army there are hopes of the camp closing and of the refugees being able to return home and re-establish the college in Karenni State. But still the future remains uncertain, yet the results of the November 2015 elections bring great hope of change.
Karenaid, a UK registered charity, has worked with H4FA in support of the college and regularly provides money to buy enough diesel to run their generator. There is no mains electricity in the camp, and only those lucky enough to have these generators or solar power torches or lamps have proper lighting at night; this is obviously important so that the students can study in the evenings.
Holy Trinity Brussels, the Tokyo Union Church and the Awareness Trust have been steadfast donors through H4FA to the project over the years, although TUC is now focussing on Japanese needs and can no longer support EBS. Those at the college regularly pray for their donors.
The Bible College has appealed again this year to H4FA to help them with the costs of running the college. Their chief expenses are paying staff, and supplementing the student’s and children’s food. The students receive the camp rations of rice and beans but the Bible College would like to provide occasional meals that include meat, and fresh vegetables. They ask for the equivalent of 3p a day per student for this. Other expenses include the cost of books, office costs, events such as the opening and closing ceremonies and Christmas celebrations as well as the “crusades” when the choir travels to other villages and Churches to spread the Good News of the gospel.
The people in the camps believe peace will be slow, and it will be some time before it is safe for them to go home. Meanwhile as for all the camp residents funding is being reduced before any time frame for repatriation has been established.