Ban Rai Dorm, Mae Hong Song Province – December, 2014

There are currently sixteen students living at the Ban Rai Dorm ranging in age from fifteen to nineteen years. The purpose of my 2014-2015 first visit was to connect with the students, open a dialogue about their lives over the past year and meet the new dorm-parents. Kolohtoo’s, (Ban Rai’s Administrator) sister, Hser Poe was very direct in her evaluation of her first year working as housemother and the challenges over the past eight months. Although we have just met I believe we are off to a strong start in building a long-term relationship towards our goal of providing improved educational opportunities for the students who will call Ban Rai home. A home that offers a nurturing attitude along with the privileges, responsibilities, and expectations that come with it. I’ve enjoyed her straightforward attitude. DSCF5490

The students living at Ban Rai Dorm have had very little supervision over the past three years. The pastor who was in charge of their care did not have time to adequately supervise the students and some of the students are resentful of the limitations that a full time caring housemother present. Some are not obeying the rules and often leave the premises without permission. After three years of finding their own way and making their own rules it is understandable however, unacceptable with the current changes that are being made. At the beginning of the year Hser Poe met with the student’s parents, outlining the rules and her expectations. The parents were unaware of the lack of supervision at the dorm, as was I.

The majority of the students, eight girls and four of the boys are trying to make the transition, two are struggling, while two are in a last chance situation and may have to be asked to leave at the end of this semester. As difficult as this is it must be done if we are to be successful in our efforts to create harmony and mentorship that will fulfill the higher expectation that Hser Poe is now fostering.

The children from villages in Mae Hong Song province attend low-level grade schools in their villages with no thought of further education. Their parents cannot afford the living costs to send them to middle school. Their meagre income is just enough to survive. Many young boys and girls go to the cities and work for factories where they take the lowest jobs with little pay. The situation in their villages is deteriorating because young people are not working in their own communities. There is no education in community development available in these changing times. Once again I find myself in a situation where the very identity of the Karen people is at risk. Far from any major centre there is little optimism.

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After completing middle school many students at Ban Rai Dorm entered three years of high school in the only post secondary facility available to them, the Training College in Mae Sariang. Karen students must attend high school there to ensure a spot for the three year college courses that are available. At this time it is to geared to the trades, electrician, mechanics and information technology. If they do not meet the high school requirements they go home. I met with the students, Kolohtoo, and Hser Poe to get a sense of the student’s attitudes. We started with introductions followed by some simple questions. Why are you here? Why do you want an education?

It was not surprising to hear, with one or two exceptions that the students were unable expand on, “To get an education.” “Why?”  “To get a better job.” they mimicked in a tone much younger than their years. “What steps do you have to take to get a good job?” resulted in only one response, “Study hard.” The answers sound comparable to the responses we would receive from children entering high school in the west. It was the Ban Rai student’s naivety and innocence about the possibilities and opportunities education provides that was revealing.

Restricted by lack of information and means it is currently unrealistic for the people in this area to imagine positive change or progress. Students in the refugee camps with the influx of international workers have a broader view than the Karen mountain people in this part of Thailand. One of the students at Ban Rai is studying IT at high school. When I asked him why he chose IT, he told me it was to improve his village. I asked him how IT would improve his village, he didn’t know. There is no electricity in his village. Another girl told me she came to Ban Rai to get experience, “To see what it was like to live in a dormitory.”

The question then becomes what kind of community development do the Karen in Mae Hong Song want and what is appropriate to their lifestyle and why. How do they see their villages evolving or are they resigned to continuing with their future being managed and their destiny controlled by outside influences? Do western ways have any place in their lives? All these questions are worthy of consideration. These are the questions that I will ask this month.

Hser Poe and I will visit the parents in their villages, at the end of January to discuss their ideas about education and encourage them to make an appeal to their children to adjust to the new expectations at Ban Rai. Hser Poe feels that if the parents are able to speak with me they will feel a stronger sense of support and make an informed, influential  request to their children to make the necessary adjustments.  

Ban Rai Dorm can nurture positive attitudes towards hopefulness, much in the same way that Jen’s House has. But, it will take a steadfast approach. Offering possibilities, and planting ideas for the students to consider with an immense dose of encouragement is the first step towards change.