Having been in Mae Sot for two weeks now, it’s starting to feel more like home. I’m more familiar with the town; I’ve got the quickest biking routes down (including riding on the left side of the road) and even the waitress at my favorite pad thai place knows me!
Teaching at Minmahaw has been incredible. I’m amazed everyday by the students’ dedication and love for learning. This past Thursday, they had an assembly where students sang, performed a skit, and teachers made some general announcements. The skit started out with a boy, Sike, crying before his parents, telling them “I want to be a girl”. The father responded, saying that everything will be okay. The scene ended and someone ran out to tape a paper to the wall with the message “2 years later”. After a few moments of silence, Sike strutted out wearing a long floral dress and purple sunglasses as the audience erupted with laughter. The skit continued and Sike eventually rode off into the sunset with another boy.
After the skit, Mia, the principal of Minmahaw, stood up to make some announcements. The last announcement was that the school would be closed the following day. A palpable silence fell over the room. It was the first I’d heard of the school closing and Mia went on to explain that teachers should not come to Minmahaw at all the following day and should wait for an email over the weekend. In a matter of minutes, the room full of Minmahaw students and volunteer teachers had gone from uncontainable laughter to dead silence.
It’s moments like these that I realize this place is nothing like the home I’m used to. In February while studying at Whitman, I opened an email announcing that classes had been canceled due to extreme ice – the sidewalks looked like ice rinks. I was overjoyed at the thought of spending more time in my cozy bed and not having to go to class. But here in Mae Sot, the news of school being canceled is anything but good news. Learning is everything; the students look forward to class each and every day. It’s an opportunity that many do not have. Over 200 students apply to Minmahaw School each year, with only 39 students accepted.
The drastic change of atmosphere after the announcement reminded me of the power of this school. Minmahaw allows young people from Burma to have opportunities that I’ve taken for granted my whole life. The school gives students a truthful and holistic education, something they cannot find within their own country. When writing about their dream jobs, all the students in my English class wrote about going back to Burma to help their communities, their neighbors, friends, and family. One student, Mon, wrote about wanting to be a teacher, specifically, in a village since the city is filled with cars and thus too loud. She wrote, “I am very happy to teach because education is the foundation for developing countries to become more developed.” These students are passionate about their home and making it a better place, and Minmahaw is giving them the tools to do that.
After the announcement was made and the assembly disbanded for a health class taught by the Backpack Health Worker Teams, I asked principal Mia about why the school was being closed the following day. She told me that the police were coming to Mae Sot, and when they come, they go directly to Burmese migrant schools. Minmahaw students are in a difficult situation in Mae Sot, since they are here illegally and only possess a school ID card. Phyo, a student manager at Minmahaw who is responsible for planning and preparing meals, told me he was stopped by Thai police while at the market. The policeman recognized he was Burmese so he asked him where he was going. Phyo, who only speaks a little Thai, replied that he was on his way to teach at a school. He was dressed nicely that day, with formal slacks and a button down shirt, so the policeman let him go, telling him to hurry up or he’d be late. Phyo kept telling me “I’m lucky, I’m so lucky”.
The fact that police are targeting students is shocking to me. These students are here to get an education, to help their country, to live their lives. Yet in the face of all this fear, they are the most sincere, hardworking, and caring people I’ve ever met. The stories I’ve heard will continue to help me reflect on the work I am doing here. I am so lucky to be here.