|08 June 2010||
As part of the Social Innovation Internship of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Anushri K. Alva took part in the MOEI programme. The MOEI programme included 10 students from HKU, nine from six universities across the UK, two American Fulbright Scholars and one journey of a lifetime, says the graduate of International Politics and Sociology.
We reached Mae Sot, a quiet border town, one late June evening, all rather naive. We were trained for a week by a brilliant teacher, Mr Hugh Cory. He had a twinkle in his eye and the warmest smile a person could have. He taught us that learning a language can be fun and easy, provided it is taught well. And he taught us to respect our students. He showed us how to be bigger than ourselves. He inspired us.
Each of us had two placements that lasted three weeks. Each day we taught for about four hours on average. My first placement was at the Mae La camp for Temporarily Displaced People. I find the phrase "temporarily displaced people" amusing because many people in Mae La have been there for more than a decade and the situation in Myanmar has only worsened in that time. Every morning two of my group and I would wake up early to catch the 7.30am tsong tao (local taxi). After about two hours we would reach the camp. Home to more than 50,000 refugees, Mae La camp bears an uncanny resemblance to my hometown in India. It had the charm of a quiet, scenic village - the chickens protecting their young ones, the pigs and their nonchalant manner, the bamboo huts and the muddy road were all so familiar. Life in this camp would almost seem normal if it weren't for the armed guards who wandered around and the jeeps belonging to various international organisations.
Before coming to the camp I had read about the atrocities the military junta was committing against ethnic minorities in Myanmar. But it was only after coming to the camp that these statistics assumed faces - beautiful, eager faces.
I taught a Karen (the largest ethnic minority in Myanmar) class of 21 students, ranging in age between 18 and 22. The school was made of bamboo with a tin roof, as were all structures in the camp, and my class was separated from the next only by a curtain. Noise was an integral part of daily lessons. Dogs would walk in and out but that just made class all the more fun. My students were enthusiastic, respectful and musically talented. They greeted me every morning with their bright smiles and a bucket of water - because after slipping and sliding up a muddy hill, I was in dire need of that bucket.
However, behind those smiles were traumatic stories. I remember we would play a game where one student would stand in the middle of the circle and say: "Everyone who is wearing a red shirt stand up and change places", or something similar. One time, one of my students said: "Everyone whose mother is dead, stand up and change places." A statement that disturbed me terribly seemed to be so normal to them, and I watched them laugh and scramble to change seats in a matter of seconds.
A week before I left, one of my students told me teachers at the camp "are like the weather, they keep changing". He wasn't angry with me; he was just stating a fact. Many of them had no idea where there family was anymore, and they had escaped from Myanmar years ago. Being abandoned was part and parcel of life for them. I went back in January to visit, and the day I was leaving, they desperately began to grab my hands and say 'Teacher, please don't forget us. Please come back'.
After our return, we felt we owed our students so much more. Several restless e-mails, phone calls and meetings later, Myanmar week came into being. We decided to sell products made by Myanmese women living along the Thai-Myanmar border who had been tortured by the military government. It made us happy every time someone decided to drop a few dollars into the donation box, yet the joy of people reading our display boards and asking us questions about our students surpassed the happiness that a full donation box brought. Raising awareness was one of our key aims and after the week we felt we had managed to at least make people aware of the existence of Myanmar. The day of the forum was probably the most overwhelming in terms of student response, as we had a full audience for more than an hour and a half, which at HKU is a rare occurrence. Being able to spend some time with the Myanmese students at HKU during the week and hear their stories was also something each of us appreciated immensely.
We raised $5,000, which might seem disappointingly low, considering the fundraiser lasted a week. But for us it represented a small triumph, in a place that, prior to Myanmar week, most would not have been able to locate on a map. In the near future we hope to set up a Myanmar Concern Group on campus and widen the scope of awareness and fundraising activities that we organise. Since the MOEI programme along the Thai-Myanmar border will take place every year, the number of students who will feel inclined to join the concern group will rise, sustaining the group even after we have all graduated.
"The MOEI programme consisted of people from different countries and ethnic backgrounds. But by the end of it all neither race, colour nor country seemed to matter anymore. We were all very similar people, trying to make sense of the world around us."
Anushri K. Alva