The Power of Education

The atmosphere at the Backpack Health Worker Team compound has grown even more lively and welcoming since the arrivals of the medic teams for the upcoming 6 month meeting. Having trekked through the jungles, mountains, and across the rivers in Burma for 6 months, these teams of medics have safely made it back to their home base in Mae Sot for several workshops, presentations, and data analysis meetings. As I pedal through the gates each morning, I am greeted by the familiar smiling faces of some medics relaxing on a hammock and eating sunflower seeds outside. While most medics and workers speak very little English or none at all, seeing each other each day around the compound has taken its own form of communication.

This summer, Burma Humanitarian Mission provided 64 cameras for BPHWT medics. On Monday morning, we led a short workshop to a packed room of familiar faces. We showed example photos and videos, and explained how to use the cameras and how to take meaningful photos and videos while in the field. After we handed out the cameras, it was amazing to see everyone unpacking the boxes and trying out the cameras – the room filled with camera flashes and laughter. Seeing footage from the work that these medics are doing in Burma allows the international community a glimpse of their daily lives and the people they are helping. I am so excited to see more photos these medics will bring back!

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Distribution of cameras at BPHWT workshop

After this workshop, Mia and I went to visit a Burmese migrant school, Children’s Development Center (CDC), supported by Mae Tao Clinic. Many of the workers from BPHWT have siblings, children, and relatives going to school at CDC. We went to interview some of these students to hear their stories.

One of the students we interviewed was a 19 year-old boy, who’s sister and brother-in-law work at BPHWT. He is from a village in Pa-an, a region in Southern Burma. In his village, they only offer education for pre-school and kindergarten. After kindergarten, he went to study at a Buddhist monastery until grade 7. He told us how the teachers at the monastery were not very qualified, since the government does not provide any teachers from the city, so all the teachers come from his village. At the monastery, they studied the government curriculum – English, Burmese, math, science, Burmese history, and war history (in Europe). In Burmese history, he mainly studied about Burmese war heroes and soldiers from thousands of years ago. When I asked if he was ever taught about Burmese politics or more recent history of his country, he shook his head, no. He has now been in Mae Sot for five years. He is studying grade 10 at CDC, and the curriculum and teaching is quite different. First, he told us that while studying in Burma, the students were told to learn by memorizing facts from their textbooks. Here at CDC, he doesn’t memorize everything taught to him – he is told to think and ask questions. Additionally, his classes are more integrated. When learning about economics or social studies, his teachers use examples from recent and current events happening in Burma. He told us how grateful he is that he came to CDC, the school has really helped him to develop academically and mentally.

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Students studying at Children’s Development Center

My students at Minmahaw told me similar stories of their experiences at schools in Burma. Not only are they told to memorize everything, students are not allowed to write their own essays. “The teacher writes on the board, and we copy everything. That is how we write an essay,” one student explained. When speaking aloud, students are reprimanded if they stumble or speak slowly. The teachers have them speak quickly and formally, and in a mono-tone voice – “like a robot”. When I asked about learning Burmese history, the students told me they only learn about Burmese kings, and never about their own ethnic groups. In addition, the teachers will change the history of their country – “they change the bad and make it sound good”, they told me. Teachers at their schools distance themselves from the students. A student said, “Teachers have power and they use it, they pick the students they like better and help them first.” The students must cross their arms and bow before their teachers, and they never speak freely to one another. Students must ask permission for everything – to go to the bathroom, to ask a question, to stand up. And the consequences are up to the teacher’s choosing. “Each teacher carries a stick,” another student told me, “they hit you if you do something wrong or make a mistake.”

After talking to students at CDC and Minmahaw, I got a better picture of what education is like in Burma. Hearing how these students were never taught about recent politics of Burma until leaving their country, was unfortunately, not surprising. The Burmese government has a long record of restricting access to knowledge – especially about events occurring within the country. Restricting education and manipulating information in this way is purposefully detrimental. They deprive the students of information necessary to hold their government accountable. Students are told to memorize rather than think. This system is used as a form of oppression by the Burmese government.

Education should be a tool of empowerment and growth, an avenue which allows young people to become thinkers and leaders. These are the values CDC and Minmahaw are fostering in their students. The boy we interviewed talked about wanting to become a general in the Karen army. Another student said she wants to be a teacher, and another wants to be a surgeon. These students have dreams to help their country, and how can they do that if they are not encouraged to think and question and discuss?

It is amazing and inspiring to be in a place like Mae Sot, a town filled with schools such as Minmahaw and CDC. But I am reminded that these students are just a few of the young people from Burma. Those that do not have the opportunity or means to come to towns like this, are left in their villages with little, if any, education. And then this education is restricted, the government curriculum does not provide a wholesome view of the world. They are not taught the truth or given the chance to aspire beyond what it is written in a book.

In two weeks, I’ll be leaving Mae Sot. When hearing this, one of my students at Minmahaw told me how hard it is to have a teacher for a month or two, and then to watch them leave. It breaks my heart hearing this, and I can’t imagine how hard it must be for the students. Minmahaw runs entirely on volunteer teachers, so in one academic year, the students may have 5 different teachers for one English class. “Teachers come and go,” the student told me. I hate that I am one of these teachers, here for 6 weeks, and then I’m on a plane heading back to college. I will miss these students so much and I plan to return many times in the years to come. The organizations I’ve been working with and hearing about will continue to inspire me about the value of being present in communities like Mae Sot. It has truly been an honor to meet these people, and I am so lucky that they have been willing to share their stories with me.

Goodbye Mae Sot, until next time!

~ Bella

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