“What’s your name?”
“Kim.” (Her real name will not be mentioned)
“Where are you from?”
“I am from Myanmar.”
“What grade are you in?”
“I am in grade 7.”
“How old are you?”
“I am 18 years old.”
I stopped, realizing that there are actually two 18-year-olds in the classroom. One of them is sitting in a desk among the other 7th grade students. The other is standing in front of the classroom. One is a student. The other is a teacher. One dreams of receiving a high school diploma. The other knows she will receive a university degree. One is from Myanmar. The other is from the USA.
My student and I are the exact same age. We are both 18 year old girls. We have the same likes, the same dislikes, the same pet peeves. In every way, I am similar to this girl. And yet, in every way, we are worlds apart.
It’s difficult to put into words just how I feel about teaching Burmese migrants. Their lifestyle is so unfathomably different to the way I live my life in America. I grew up in a country that has been hammering education into my life since the day I was old enough to speak. The word, “school” has been ingrained in my daily routine for the past 13 years. From elementary school to middle school to high school, everything I have ever known was related to or because of school.
I come to Thailand as a high school graduate with plans to return to the States and continue a higher education. I come as a teacher with no experience, no certification, and no college degree. When I arrived, I initially felt insecure about the fact that I had few qualifications to teach. I started to doubt myself. What in the world am I doing? I’m only a high school graduate. That’s barely an education, right? A high school degree wouldn’t land me a job anywhere in the States. Why did they even bother hiring me here?
A lot of the time, a high school diploma can mean nothing. People don’t think much of it. Of course, most people have one as it is quite attainable in the States. For the most part, we as Americans, are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to receive a high school education and continue on to the university level.
That would be a dream come true for a Burmese migrant. Unfortunately the life of a Burmese migrant is much different from an American; it consists of instability, vulnerability, and heartbreaking reality.
Instability – This is due to the unpredictable lifestyle a Burmese migrant lives. The political repression, ethnic conflict, and economic issues in Burma are all forces that have driven citizens out of the country in search of a better life. Most of the time, families are split when the father and sons leave Burma to search for work, hoping to send money back to the family. When a family is lucky enough to stay together, they live a nomadic lifestyle, traveling from place to place in search of work. Most of the time, they work on the rubber plantations. When the season to tap the rubber trees is over, they are forced to leave in search of other work, creating an unstable and unpredictable lifestyle. This makes it difficult for a child to receive a formal education.
Vulnerability – When in Thailand, Burmese migrants are extremely vulnerable to exploitation because many remain undocumented as illegal workers. What they offer to Thailand’s economy is simple: cheap labor. Thai employers take advantage of these undocumented migrant workers who offer a cheaper workforce and live in fear of deportation, jail, and abuse. These migrants are forced to work the undesirable jobs that are dirty, difficult, and dangerous. They remain extremely vulnerable to the dangers of human trafficking, especially in the fishing boat industry.
Heartbreaking reality – The reality is this: most Burmese migrants will not receive a formal education. They will spend their life working an underpaid, laborious job that keeps them stuck in the continuous cycle of poverty. All they really want to do is go back to Burma. They want to live in their own country, in their own home. They want a life free of military repression and financial barriers. They want to feel safe in their own homes, away from the dangers of trafficking and exploitation. The reality is harsh and heartbreaking.
Most children do not have the opportunity to attend school because they must work to earn an income for their families. Luckily, FED is here to provide an education for the migrant children who enter Khao Lak. Unfortunately, the migrant children live such unpredictable lifestyles that they might only attend school for one year and then leave. Another issue could be that they have never attended school, thus ending up in the lower grades, such as my 18-year-old student in grade 7.
I find it astounding that the only reason why I am set so far apart from my fellow Burmese 18-year-olds is that I was born on different soil. I was born in a different country. Thanks to the lovely Bruce Springsteen, I am happily reminded that I was “Born in the USA.” A country that just happens to be a free country, allowing for a safe workforce and equitable learning environment. If I was born in Burma, I would be sitting right there in the desk beside Kim. Perhaps if Kim was born in America, she would be standing in front of the class teaching me.
I was fortunate enough to be born into a country where I can achieve these dreams. It breaks my heart to see these kids who were born into a different country probably never achieve any of their dreams.
Why does life have to be so different just because one happens to be born somewhere else? Why are some people born into a fortunate life? Why are others born into poverty? I want so badly to see my students receive everything that I have been given in my life. I want them to go to high school, to perform in musicals, to participate in sports, to have ambitious dreams of the future. I want these kids to have the same opportunities I was given. Why was I the one who was born into such privilege? Why couldn’t it have been Kim? Why do I get education handed to me on a golden platter? Why can’t she get the same as me?
We take high school diplomas for granted in the States. I know that now.
All I really want right now is to see my 16-year-old, 17-year-old, and 18-year-old students enroll into a high school. I will most likely never see them earn a diploma as they will enter the workforce (along with many of my 13 and 14-year-old students) in March. And the cycle of child labor continues…but they have no choice. They must work to provide for their families.
I hate being on the sidelines while watching 18-year-olds sit in classrooms full of 13-year-olds because they haven’t had anything like I have had. I hate watching my 14-year-old students drop out of school to work on construction sites because their parents are too ill to work. I hate hearing my students talk about how badly they want to come and visit me in America, but immediately turn down the idea by saying, “No, Teacher. I cannot. My family is very poor. We have no money.”
Teaching English to them is not enough. I want to find them an opportunity. All it takes is one shot; one opportunity to change a life. Whether it be a scholarship to study overseas or an internship in a field of their choice, opportunity should be equally available for everyone. If these students are given just one opportunity to take a leap in their education, they will soar. That’s all it takes.
All it takes is one person to find an opportunity for them.
I really wish I could be that person.
I paused for a second, stumbling over my words after I realized that Kim was the same age as me. I continued interviewing her:
“What do you want to do….when you grow up?”
“I want to go to London and study fashion design.”
I smiled. Wouldn’t it be cool if her dream actually came true? All she needs is someone to give the opportunity to her. All it takes is one person to change another person’s life. We don’t know who that person is just yet…hopefully, in time, we’ll know.