October 28th 2016
Emmanuel School is a small primary school in Mae La refugee camp. The camp which has a population of 38,559 (August 2016 figure) is the largest of nine camps strung along the Thai-Burma border. It is about 40 km from the town of Mae Sot on the Thai side of the “Friendship Bridge” over the river from Burma/Myanmar.
The school is nominally Anglican, but is open to children of all religions and includes Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Animists. It originally became crucial to integrating new, often traumatised, arrivals from the war zones on the other side of the border. For some of these “internally displaced persons”, this was their first experience of formal education, something prized by the Karen. The school grew from a Sunday school attached to Emmanuel Church, into a primary school to accommodate the overflow from existing camp schools of the new arrivals. This was at a time of an escalation of the civil war within Karen State. Since January 2012 peace negotiations with the Burma Army have been ongoing. With the NLD’s landslide victory of 2015 and the recent “Panglong” conference there is hope of peace and a federal government. However despite these hopes, fighting recently broke out back home in Karen State between the Burma Frontier Guard Force and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in September 2016 and many civilians fled.
Over the years security has become tighter; leaving the camp is strictly forbidden, visiting difficult and rations have been cut. A teacher at the school wrote “Living inside the camp is like house prison for me and I would like to be free.” The people in Mae La camp live with the insecurity of impending forced repatriation hanging over their heads; knowing that they are not wanted in Thailand. Home may not be safe yet due to landmines. The land they farmed may have been taken over by the Burma Army. Refugees await the outcome of the NLD’s triumph in the elections and political dialogue, hoping conditions back in Karen State will improve. A small first group of 38 refugees were officially resettled in Karen State recently with full co operation between the UN, the new NLD government and the Thai government. Perhaps a small beginning.
Despite this atmosphere of political turmoil Emmanuel School continues to have a name for excellence and peace in Mae La. Some children walk an hour and a half each day to get to the school from other sections of the vast camp and the school is now bursting at the seams with 177 pupils. Exam results have been excellent; exams are set externally by the Karen Refugee Education board, and Emmanuel School children scored very highly. There is a thriving parent-teacher organisation.
H4FA has supported Emmanuel School since it was founded in 2002. The next door Church is a simple bamboo frame with roof shingles made of leaves. Church and school stand on a hill half a mile from the main gate of the camp. We have helped the school to build more robustly against the rainy season and the searing heat that follows it; an additional classroom was created last year and further structural improvements followed in 2015/16. Following strong winds and heavy rain that caused damage, we financed a new roof for the main classrooms. This reduced the sound of heavy rain and kept students and teachers cooler in the hot season.
Currently there are nine teachers, all of whom have received extra training through Save the Children and have at least five years experience. Over the last four years a new headmistress has made changes to the curriculum and teaching methods are now based on current teaching practices. The children have a much wider range of subjects including art, handicrafts, gardening, music and dance. This is in addition to the basic subjects of Karen, English, Burmese, Maths, Geography, Religious knowledge and Hygiene. Emmanuel School has an enthusiastic and successful football team and H4FA has provided the team with team colours and the cost of entering the football competition in the camp. Because there have been ration cuts in the camp H4FA has encouraged the school to provide healthy snacks for the children and occasional meals.
In camp schools, generally, teacher salaries have been cut along with food rations as donor fatigue has set in, and in some schools, these can be as little as £8 a month. Parents are asked to contribute 40p per child, per year, but since refugees are not allowed out of the camps to work, even this can be hard to find. Parents at Emmanuel School are not asked to pay and we ensure that our dedicated teachers are paid generously by camp standards.
Apart from the collection plate on Sundays, and money sent back by those now resettled abroad, we have been the school's main source of funding for some years. Extra money has been given for the school’s water supply, for Christmas celebrations for the children, including presents for teachers, extra school equipment and stationery. This year Albany Church in Australia has shared some of the costs with us.
We are proud of the way in which the school has really flourished. The happiness of the children is evident, and they shine like little candles the teachers tell us. Improvements to the buildings, and additional subjects have added variety and a platform for creative expression to the children’s experience of school. It was impressive while visiting to see how hard the teachers work. The classes are tightly packed close to each other and the noise means teachers need to shout. The headmistress would like to limit classes to 25 for this reason. As the children still learn by rote there is a great deal of noise! Some children at the school sadly are living with untreated sight, mobility and speech difficulties, medical care in the camp is very stretched.
Rations have been reduced from 12 kilos of rice to 9 kilos per month, and refugees are means tested. One refugee writes:
“my rations are 9 kilos of rice, 0.5 litre of oil, 5 kilos of charcoal, 1/2 kilo of fish paste (a mixture of chilli and dried fish to mix in with the rice) and 1 kilo of beans per month. Salt - 1kilo for per year. For building our homes we need 200 leaves for roofing and 20 bamboo poles. But this year, 2015, I cannot have both, I have to have one item leaves or bamboos. Leaves and bamboos have less quality now, they don’t last a year. If the bamboos are not mature the insects eat them and this produces bamboo powder. When I sweep the house floor it is like white dust. When the bamboo powder gets inside your eyes it itches and I get red eyes. All this has become normal for Karen refuges living in the camp. A normal bamboo house like mine costs around 8,200 Thai baht (£170). It needs to be renovated every year and I change the roof leaves after 3 years. For the whole house I need 700 leaves and 250 bamboos for the roofing frame 100 leave costs 400 baht (£9), and a bamboo pole 20 baht (40p).”
Food prices for beef and chicken have almost trebled in five years, for those who can afford to buy extra food on top of rations. The fear of fire breaking out and spreading and above all an uncertain future is ever present. We can only hope the transition from camp to Karen State, will be well organised, and the political future of their country will include a federal system.
The children will one day be able, so much more effectively, to contribute to the rebuilding of their homelands when the world’s longest running civil war is finally over. This had always been the hope of the Karen and the motivation for all the hard work that has gone into making Emmanuel School’s pupils so successful, and our donors so generous. H4FA would like to make sure the transition from refugee camp on the Thai Burma border, to Karen State village is as smooth as possible, and thanks our donors for their support.