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Jen’s House

A Canadian mother whose life was changed by the Karen people built Jen’s House — a living legacy in her daughter’s memory, to provide the opportunity for an education to some of those children.

An hour’s drive from the city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is the town of Thung Siao. Twenty-four ethnic Karen children live here at Jen’s House. The residence was built for them to provide an opportunity to achieve a standard of education that opens doors to a world that would otherwise remain closed.

JensHouseOverview2-300x250The children come from mountain villages in north-west Thailand to attend school.Currently living at the house are six boys and eighteen girls between the ages of twelve and seventeen, along with house-parents Tamla and Chai Ubomo and their two children, a boy and a girl.

The children live in safe, accepting environment, succeed in their studies, and achieve a level of education that allows them to compete for placement in high school and post-secondary education.

Graduate students join the Kleo team as volunteers, giving one year of their lives to the Karen people in areas where their education will be most beneficial and where there is the most need. And so, they continue to be mentors to, and supporters of those who are following in their path.

As you can imagine, a household of twenty-eight could quickly become a chaotic place. Fortunately, Chai and Tamla are not new to parenting large groups of children. Their experience and care has created an environment where children build futures together.

We invite you to discover this inspiring story of strength of the human spirit to survive and thrive in an ever-changing world.

IMG_0141-cropped-355xThe context for the children of Jen’s House

Karen people in Thailand are subsistence farmers and do not have the means to send their children to school. Even if parents are able to scrape together funds by working at low paying labour jobs in the city, there are many problems.

As students near the completion of primary school in their villages, many stop attending class as there is little reason to continue. Karen girls in mountain villages have few venues to continue their education beyond Grade 6. Twelve year old girls are unprepared for life outside. If they do find a way to attend a middle school they live without adequate supervision in substandard dorms.

Karen girls

What is the life of a twelve year old Karen girl in a mountain village? They learn from parents and elders the skills they need to survive in their “real lives.” They care for younger siblings in preparation for motherhood. They learn to weave to provide clothing, and possibly income for their families. They learn about gathering edible plants and roots. They learn which plants will heal themselves and their families. They gather firewood in the jungle for heat in the cold season. 

Understandably, Karen parents must question the value of educating their daughters in subjects that have little relevance to improving and maintaining their daily needs, their approach to life, and their ancient traditions.

Karen boys

In rural areas, Karen boys can enter temples to study. However, education is geared to Buddhist studies. This can limit other areas of education, such as new farming techniques and trades that can lead to higher paying jobs in the city.

The boys learn how to care for the water buffalo and pigs. They follow their fathers into the fields where rice means life and the lack of it sends boys into undesirable means of providing income. 

A difficult context

Prevailing prejudicial attitudes that the Karen contend with present another set of challenges. Every time a Thai farmer joins the hospital line with a sick child a Karen mother in line ahead of him, with an equally ill child, moves further to the back. Simple health problems become life threatening illness due to lack of proper medical attention. Every time the children at Jen’s house walk to school and endure racially degrading comments their self-worth is challenged. “Go home you dirty child, you can’t learn,” and much worse, are the comments they learn to ignore, finding strength in each other and in the security of Jen’s House.

Reconciling this context with education opportunities

Despite all of this, Karen elders realize that it is through education that they will find ways to preserve their ancient culture and bring positive results in their fight for land rights. With increased opportunities for a higher quality education, the Karen people’s chance of remaining intact with the changing world on their doorstep, is certainly at risk and they know it, but there is hope. 

The children’s lives continue to be shaped by the demands of a mountain life. The skills they learn have been passed from generation to generation. They are the fiber that ensure the survival of Karen culture, language and a way of life in harmony with nature, respectful of the land. 

Click to expand > The story of the first Jen’s House graduates

Life at Jen’s House

Tamla-120It is midday and Tamla is in deep concentration, weaving at her back-strap loom. As you enter the room she looks up and greets you with her gentle, welcoming smile. It’s the kind of smile that wraps around you creating a calm sense of warmth in the same way a comforting, gentle hug does. Tamla hasn’t said a word, but as she steps up from her weaving you sense that you have entered a special place.

The twenty four students living at Jen’s House arrive haphazardly through the gates. Home from school, some walk arm in arm, some alone, and some are three to a bike — a common mode of transport throughout Thailand. The chatter, teasing and laughter begins as the children move about their rooms and chores. Some head to the kitchen. They are on prep duty for dinner. Some head out to do their laundry and others head to the showers or their bedrooms to kick back. The troubles of their days are set aside for the moment as they relish in the safety of home. An easy comfort fills the house.

IMG_8362-270pxLiving together

The girls bedroom is full of chatter. It has eight sets of bunk-beds, individual storage boxes, and a common clothes hanging space. In many ways, it’s the heart of the house where, although the girls live in a common room, there are unmarked areas of private space that are not crossed unless invited by another to join an emotional or physical space. Girls do not touch another’s things, (of which there are few), without an OK or direct request and approval. It just is not done, much in the same way that we in the west would not enter someone’s house let alone their bedroom.



Life-long bonds

It’s here that the girls go to cry, to share secrets, to laugh or just to be alone. Alone in their private space within one room of common understanding that only these 18 girls share. It’s a place where an older child comforts a younger one, and where two friends from the same village share their village stories, and news that is not to be shared with the others. It’s a place where ears are kept to themselves and sometimes not, creating opportunities to learn about each other, to trust and other valuable life lessons. It’s here that bonds which last a lifetime are being built.