Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Karen Refugee Camp Village

Karen Hill Tribe Village
The interest in teaching English or how we have ended up working as community advisers.
 We first had set out to explore options to provide educational assistance in one of the large UN run Karen refugee camps along the Thai Burmese border, until we were advised by the Thai military contacts who had provided us access to one of the camps that the major NGOs had the situation and educational needs pretty well under control, and we could do more and better at one of the numerous villages within the restricted military zone along the border.

Karen Refugee Project Details

Nestled on a hill directly across the border from Myanmar (Burma):
  • No electricity, drinking water, or telephone signal available in the village
  • No medical services available for the approximately 600 villagers
  • Health issues include ringworm, malaria, intestinal infections & parasites
  • The Thai Military does what they can to support the villagers
  • The small school provides elementary education and Thai lessons

Access to Karen Village

Once we had received permission from the Thai Military authorities, we were able to gain access to a village far in the hills overlooking the border to Myanmar. The steep dirt road had been carved out of the reddish clay in the jungle and would turn into a 4×4 requirement come rainy season, but our initial trip during the hot and dry months enabled us to reach the traditional stilt house village of 600 inhabitants by car.

karen hill tribe refugee camp un 300x138 Karen Village on the Thai Myanmar Border

Karen Hill Tribe Refugee Camp

We were warmly greeted by the Thai military contingent stationed on top of the hill, in stone’s throw distance from the first village stilt houses. Since there is no telephone signal and electricity is only available via solar power, with inferior batteries holding the charge for a maximum of two days, communication with the outside world is scarce and our arrival provided a welcome change in the routine of the military, there in charge of border security and to address the wide spread problem of illegal logging and deforestation.
The village school has about 250 K-5 students and teaches all subjects according to the Thai national curriculum.
The teachers at the small school were motivated but let us know that the biggest hurdle they were facing in education was the transient nature of the village population. With a border that is difficult to secure around the clock, many Karen make the dangerous treck from Myanmar to resupply in Thailand for their armed struggle in the jungles across the border, or cross the border from Thailand to visit or stay with family members who reside on the Burmese side.

karen girls 300x138 Karen Village on the Thai Myanmar Border

Karen Hill Tribe Girls

Therefore, nobody knows for certain who is in the village at what time, and schooling becomes difficult. The fact that Karen children do not speak Thai with their parents or in the village, but one of two Karen languages, further creates a difficult learning and teaching environment for both learners and teachers.

The more we learned about the situation, the more we realized that English language education was not to be the main challenge for us to work on.
The wonderful news was, however, that it was still education that would get the villagers to a better state, we just had to change our expectations from teaching English to community development, and learn plenty in the process!

The most urgent issue in the village was and still is the lack of clean drinking water.

Subsequent Visits

In order to better understand the situation regarding the potable water quality and availability in the village, we invited a professor from Buffalo State, SUNY, with a colleague to test the water, and high levels of e-coli contamination were found in the unprotected drinking water wells.

karen water supply 300x138 Karen Village on the Thai Myanmar Border

Water in Karen Village

August 2012

As the rainy season is upon us now, the dirt road to the village is impossible to travel without a 4×4, and a seasonally larger number of infants is suffering from waterborne diseases as wells are full of water, but remain not covered, allowing for contamination from roaming livestock and insects, aside from human and animal waste surface run-off from the field latrine facilities located in higher elevation than the wells.

Some simple community driven measures can prevent major disasters such as the drowning of a child, a cholera outbreak, or major increase in malaria infections, but there is the issue of a necessary paradigm shift in the thinking of the community, and the realization that it does not take money to improve the community, just cooperation and united attempts at improvements.

The Karen Twins

September 2012

When we went on the seven hour drive from Bangkok again last week, we were not sure if we could ever reach out to the community in a way that would provide the type of engagement from community members needed to make a difference.

It was when we started speaking with the owner of a very modest food stand, that we started understanding how we could be of service, albeit immediate.

Lying on a plank next to the food vendor was an infant, wrapped in cloth, and a gaunt looking woman was sitting further in the back with another infant in a sling, whom she was nursing. When we asked why the children both had an herbal paste mixture on their heads, we were told that this Karen medicine was to cure the eight-month old twins of excessive gas.

As we kept asking questions, it came to light that the gaunt woman had given birth to the twins eight months ago, each newborn weighing 1.6 kilos at that time. By eight months, they weighed six kilos, which was still under weight. Both infants had been suffering from diarrhea for two weeks, but the mother was not able to get to the medical clinic for lack of transportation and funding. The mother and her two children were surviving on 500 Thai Baht (roughly 13U$) per month in a part of the country where people were planting their own food, which she could not, or pay more for groceries than in larger villages or towns. This money was sent to her every month by her husband, who had been drafted into the military and was stationed in far away North Thailand. Since giving birth to the twins, she could no longer work in the fields to make additional income, so she was trying to make due on those funds, which was next to impossible and left the twins and her undernourished and in dismal shape.
karen trash kids 300x138 Karen Village on the Thai Myanmar Border

Hygiene in Karen Village

We took the three on a drive to the medical clinic in Mae Ramat, the nearest town, then had a quick meal before buying essentials to improve the health and hygiene of the family, ranging from baby formula to antiseptic soap and laundry detergent and a larger tub for washing infants or clothing.
Upon returning to the village, our female colleague, who herself is a mother of two and who had been carrying one of the sick twins throughout the day, proceeded to give an impromptu workshop on infant health and hygiene to the neighborhood mothers, including demonstrating how to properly bathe infants, which proved to be the first bath the two eight month-old babies had ever received in their lives. Before fleeing from the advancing Burma Army in Myanmar to the safety of Thailand, the Karen mothers would cleanse their children without giving them a (perhaps traditionally Western style) bath, so this experience was both new and something that had to be repeated to be learned.
Other women and children from the neighborhood came and observed the training, and the initial distance between the villagers and us had decreased.
This was a surprise and very welocme break in our attempts to make inroads into the community’s hearts and minds, and we know that only time will reassure the people that we neither want to sell them on a religion nor get them to lose their culture or exploit them in any other way, but simply strive to provide them with the skills and knowledge to maintain their ways while surviving in today’s world.

Our next step is to meet again with the community leaders and learn more about their needs, wants and desires, and to see how we may be of service. We at UEC are not funded externally nor have the backing of any other organization, but we are simply a small and eclectic group of professionals wanting to make a positive difference as best we can, and whenever necessary.

Burmese American Visit

The next visit was conducted by our Burmese American colleague, who went to the village with a Burmese doctor and a Karen translator. During this visit, one of the assistant village heads explained that there was a dedicated Malaria medic in the village with about 18 volunteers to assist him in the prevention of malaria.

karen trek up mountian 300x138 Karen Village on the Thai Myanmar Border

Karen Trekking up a Mountain

The younger of the twins was still fighting diarrhea, at this time for more than two months, while the other had started gaining weight. The mother’s father was, by diagnosis of the Burmese doctor, in the final stages of throat cancer, which was preventing him from being able to swallow or turn his head at all. This diagnosis was kept from the mother of two and her mother, since no hospital in the vicinity could treat this situation, nor was funding available.

Karen Mother and Donations

October: All of us managed to carve out time between work assignments to go up to the Karen village and check up on our mother of two and any developments regarding the water situation.
The weaker of the twins had just returned from a week in the hospital, where she had vomited up some intestinal worms. She seemed in better health and had started eating more. Both infants had started supplementing mother’s milk with the offered bottle and milk powder. The mother ‘s father had been taken to hospital for testing, and in other bad news, the mother stated that after numerous arguments, she believed her husband would likely not return. We gave her 3 liters of soap for washing clothes, dishes for personal hygiene, as well as a Cambodian clay water filter we had purchased at Resource Development International in Phnom Penh. This simple yet highly effective clay/carbon filter was met with initial doubt and suspicion but then used with great enthusiasm as it provided e-coli free water without the need of boiling the water. We also left cold weather sweaters, bedding and towels for the babies, mother and grandmother.
karen twin baby 300x138 Karen Village on the Thai Myanmar Border

Karen twins with mother

We met another asst village head, who stated that on the second of every month the village head would come up for a meeting and we could meet him then.

We delivered 185 cold weather sweaters for infants and young children (2nd hand for 1900Baht, Patcharin found and purchased them), two large barrels with lids, Ms Noi donated shoes and clothes for adults, a box of Thai schools books for prathom level and handed them over to the assistant village head.

We asked the asst village head for an exact count of families with infants and he said he would find out. We also explored village weaving projects, which he said he had organized elsewhere before and could do again, if there was interest.

former thai prime minister abhisit 300x138 Karen Village on the Thai Myanmar Border

Former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit

In more good news, we checked on the six water tanks in the village, and all were filled to the rim, but still none were covered, so we are contemplating creating 70 by 70 cm covers from hard but preferably unbreakable materials.

As a result of the new information, we started discussion on how we can keep the mother with her children and her mother in the village IF her husband should disappear. Income opportunity could be the responsibility of intel gathering and basic clerical and training skills, once taught, to supply her with a 1000 Baht monthly income.

A duck enclosure behind the school and close to the water tanks can be converted to be a goat shelter.
Next visit likely in the beginning of December, to speak with school and village head re goat, water coverage, water filters for the village, English and health camp for the kids, first aid training for a teacher with sponsorship.

karen children 300x138 Karen Village on the Thai Myanmar Border

Education for Karen Children

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