A long journey

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The stories of four Burmese refugee students

Kay Niedermayer
Contributor

Over the years, the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) Regina chapter has sponsored refugee students to come study at the University of Regina through the Student Refugee Program. On our campus, these students are sponsored thanks to a student levy that is collected every semester. It is an important opportunity for many young refugees who would be unable to continue their education without sponsorship like this.

Since 1982, WUSC have sponsored 49 students from refugee camps around the world. This year, we were fortunate enough to sponsor four students from refugee camps in the Thai-Burma borderlands. This year’s students have taken the time to share their stories in the Carillon:

Kin’s Story

My name is Kin Pwonglay and I came from the Ban Mai Nai Soi Karenni refugee camp in Thailand. This is one of nine camps along the Thai-Burma border for Burmese minority groups. I have lived in refugee camps throughout my entire life.

My family came from Burma. Burma gained independence from the British in 1948. The junta military government took power in a coup d’état in 1962. The junta has been violently attempting to control the population since then. There has been ongoing conflict between the military government and the seven ethnic minority groups. Many minority groups have been killed, and many people were forced to leave their homes. Our people could not bear to live under this military government. For this reason, thousands of Burmese ethnic minority people are born in refugee camps.

My family is Karenni, one of the ethnic minorities in Burma. My parents fled Burma in 1991 because of a civil war between the junta and armed ethnic groups. The junta burned their village and tortured the villagers. They took all their money and raped many women. They abducted many men and women and forced them to work as porters, transporting supplies for the military.

My parents came to the Mae Sarin Refugee camp, where I was born. When my parents divorced in 2003, the UNHCR transferred my mother, my sisters and me to another Karenni refugee camp, located near Mae Hong Son. My biological father often came to visit us and bought us some clothes, but after my mother remarried, the camp committee did not allow my father to visit us unless my mother agreed. I could not see my father after that.

It is hard to get an education in the refugee camp. My mother and stepfather are both uneducated and lack work opportunities in the camp, we always faced financial difficulty. My parents could not leave the camp to make money or the Thai police would arrest them, and no one would hire them inside the camp.

For this reason, I encouraged myself to be an educated person and to look after my family. I was dreaming to get an education since I was young but I didn’t see a path to achieve my goal because the camps only offer us up to a high school level of education. My dream to attend an international university was not possible if I stayed where I was.

However, I did not give up my dream and I finished my schooling from primary school to post-ten level in the camp. I worked hard to pass high school with distinctions to attend a Karenni Post-Ten School, which took two years to complete. I tried hard to complete my lessons. After finishing school, I taught science in one of the refugee camp high schools. Although I was just newly graduated, I had to teach the camp children because there were not enough teachers.

Now, I want to study economics because I want to help my county in reforming the state’s economy. The military government is destroying the economy in Burma, and this affects people’s lives, including my family. Without a good economic system, I don’t believe our country can develop into what it should.

Although Burma is rich natural resources, it will not last long if today economy system is going on. After my graduation, I will deliver my skills and qualification at the school I attended. Then, I will help my community as much as I can.

Wah Wah’s Story

My name is Paw Wah Shee and my friends call me Wah Wah. I was born in the Karen state of Burma. My father passed away when I was just one month old so I don't have any brothers or sisters. When I was seven, our family moved to the Mae Ra Moe Refugee Camp on the Thai-Burma border because of Burma’s civil war. I stayed together with my mother and went to school in refugee camp.

In the camp, I could go to school and study but if I wanted, but without and ID card it was almost impossible for me to leave and pursue and education. In the refugee camp we lived under the Thai authorities, who would prevent us from leaving without and ID. Some of the students were very smart, but unfortunately they didn’t have any chance to further their studies outside of the camp. For many, life starts and ends there.

My parents tried to look after their family but their jobs didn’t earn the money required to support our family. NGOs provide some community work within the camp right now but it is not enough because there are too many people there.

In the camps we got rations and free health care. There are many NGOs who help us. Sometimes foreign doctors and teachers come to help us for a short time. Now, their situation is getting worse because education isn’t free any more. Parents have to pay half of the school fees for their kids and help the teachers in several ways.

Life in a camp is very boring and difficult. I don't know what will happen to new generation. Even if we have our basic needs met, we still have no right to do what we want.

There are a lot of local Thai-Karen villages around the camp. Sometimes they come and sell local vegetables and they are familiar with the camp and the people there. They offer the jobs to the Karen refugees, but working outside of the camp is illegal. When the police catch people who do so, they punish them.

As refugees we were often blamed for doing things that we didn’t do. Every summer, the forests near the camp are burned down. Although we have no idea how this happens, the Thai authorities usually blame us and force the people in the camp to pay for the damage.

Life in the refugee camp was very difficult and we did not have many opportunities. Before now, I have never been to a city. I felt nervous at first but now everything is okay. I am grateful to be sponsored by WUSC.

Sayra’s Story

My name is Naw Say Ra Thaw. I’m Karen and I was born in Thailand. I have four brothers and one sister and I am the youngest among my siblings. My father passed away when I was three months in my mother’s womb. Now my family lives in the Mae Ra Moe refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border.

My parents originally lived in Burma. For many reasons, my parents left Burma to Thailand as refugee people. Before they left, they faced many problems with the junta, who destroyed many houses, fields, and paddies. There was not enough food in the village. They often arrested men and forced them to become porters. My parents had to move to another place every time the soldiers invaded the village. The children had no chance to go to school because of this horrible situation. There was also a lot of disease, but no medicine to protect the people from dying. The government caused all these problems for my ethnic group, and my parents did not have any protection from the authorities in their country.

When we were in Thailand, we were not afraid of enemies, but we knew that we couldn’t do what we wanted to do in the camp. We were no longer in Burma, but we didn’t have Thai citizenship either. We had a chance to go to school, but there was no higher education in the camp, so the education level is very low. Most students want to continue their education, but they don’t have the opportunity. There are not enough teachers, and some of the teachers don’t have the level education needed to teach the students. We also have post-ten schools, which is a two-year course. After that, many students want to continue their studies but can’t, so they become teachers. They can’t find a job to make a lot of money, just a little and it’s usually not enough for their family.

I can say that I am lucky because I can continue my studies and set goals for my future life in Canada. In the future, I hope to study business administration and I hope one day I will be able to do something for my people who really need my help. I really appreciate the WUSC’s sponsorship program; it is a very good program for youth students who live in refugee camps.

Dayday’s Story

My name is Baw Meh, but people call me Dayday. I was born in Hwen Pu Ket, a Karenni long neck village in Thailand. My family moved to the Mae Su Rae refugee camp when I was two months old. I lived in there for 19 years. I went to school in the camp, and when I finished school, I worked in an office at the refugee school. My mother, father, and five sisters are still living in the refugee camp.

The refugee camp is very far away from the city. Mountains surround the camp and the river flows through it. In the rainy season, the river starts floods and destroys many of the houses there. The rations in the camp are supplied by an NGO called TBBC (Thai Burma Border Committee). There is a medical clinic supported by the U.S. government, called the IRC (International Rescue Committee). It supplies basic medicine for people in the camp. There is also a school supported by a European NGO called JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service). The JRS supplies note books, textbooks, and teachers’ salaries.

When I was a child in this camp, I knew nothing about life. I just knew to play, eat, and sleep. This was my daily life when I was a child in the camp. When I grew up, I felt something strong in my heart and in my brain. I was a refugee, with no nationality.

The one thing I surely know is, our government is not good. The government is lead by a dictator, and they want all of the ethnic groups in Burma to live under their rule. I want to know when the dictatorship will end. There is no free speech and no peace in Burma.

Now everything is changing in Burma. The Burmese government is making a peace talk with the ethnic minority armies. There is now a plan for the UN to eliminate the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border within five years. Because of this, the rations provided in the camp are being cut. Now, there is less support for the refugees in the camp. The plan is that after the peace talks, refugees will leave the camp and return to Burma or stay in villages in Thailand. But I still do not trust the Burmese government, because the Karenni state tried to have peace talks with the government two times before now and none of them worked.

When I was in the refugee camp, I found out about the WUSC sponsorship program from a previously sponsored student who returned to the camp to share applications. This is the first time WUSC came to our camp, and it is the only program for students to leave the refugee camp. I applied and had many entrance exams. I was surprised when I was accepted, but very grateful for this opportunity. It is the only opportunity for me to continue my studies. I felt nervous when I first came to Regina, but it is like a dream come true. Now I dream of becoming a doctor and returning to Burma to help the community there.

More information about WUSC Regina can be found online (wuscregina.ca). If you would like to learn more about refugees and life in refugee camps, please come check out the Mock Refugee Camp that WUSC will be putting on from Nov. 26th-30th in the RIC Atrium.

Photo courtesy WUSC

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