A New Light for the Angels of Maesot
April 18, 2006
From February 16th to 23rd, twenty Korean volunteers from the Goriul Youth Center and Bucheon Migrant Workers House visited Maesot for cultural exchanges with Maetao High School students. Also, another purpose of the trip was to learn about the conditions of the Burmese refugee camps and I accompanied them as an assistant interpreter.
However, not until we arrived there at Maesot, did I know anything of the region, nor its location, and had no clear idea of what kind of place it would be. Maesot is a small city near the border Myanmar and Thailand, and the residents are mostly Karen and Burmese who have escaped from the severe oppression from the Myanmar government.
Meanwhile, of the many special students of Maetao High School, there was one boy who particularly attracted my attention. I first met Myat Min Ko when we were all making mural paintings together and decorating the walls of a new miniature library at Maetao High School. While the others were gaily splashing paints all over, there was a boy sitting alone in one corner of the room, quietly concentrating on his own small painting.
As I slowly approached him, I began to notice that this boy was somewhat abnormal and had an inborn artistic talent. I personally know nothing of art, but with only a few color markers, he was indeed creating a masterpiece. I silently sat next to him, gave a short compliment about his drawing. At first, he seemed not quite sure how to react, but then giving a shy smile, said a short “Thank you” and went back to work. The teachers proudly introduced Myat Min Ko the pride of the school, who won almost every prize from every local art/sketch contest. However, later on I came to find that this shy 15year old boy had a tragic family history and was practically no different from an orphan, as his father had died early and his mother had left him at the school for she had no ability to support her family. Yet, Myat Min Ko seemed to be the happiest and most fortunate boy in the world once he started to set his hand on blunt colored pencils and rough sketch papers.
One week stay was way too short, and I was only able to have a very short glimpse of the reality of Maesot and Maetao High School, but what I learned most clearly is that Myat Min Ko is not the only case that is frustrating and heartbreaking to watch. More than 18 thousand youngsters in Maesot are not able to receive proper schooling, and only 2,000 students are being educated at the 20 schools in that area. Many students in Maesot are orphans like Myat Min Ko or are children who can not get appropriate care at home for their parents are “illegal” migrant workers or refugees, on the verge of starvation. These orphans, and the children who have parents but are no better off than the orphans, go to boarding schools such as the BMWEC (Burmese Migrant Workers Education Center) and are allowed to reside at their schools. Certain orphan students at Maetao High School would virtually live with the head master at school, sleep in classrooms at night and wash up in the school bathrooms, which have no showers. Meanwhile, youngsters who live within the Burmese refugee camp, or Maela Camp, can only receive primary education, and only a few lucky ones proceed to Middle schools. Most colleges and universities refuse to accept refugee children on account of lack of facilities.
Education indeed is the only hope for these Maesot teenagers. And still, the reality is not on their side and the Maetao High School students must face reality in the near future, for even when they graduate from high school, they have nowyhere to go. As most of them are refugees, IDPs (Internationaly Displaced Persons) or children of migrant workers, they are not eligible to go on to Thai universities. Trying to get into Burmese universities is not much better, and applying for foreign universities is an extremely difficult task as most are not willing to accept them, and moreover it is very hard for them to obtain visas.
Nevertheless, despite such drastic conditions, our friends at the Maetao High School seemed extraordinarily bright and sincere. There smiles were not artificial, but natural and genuine, and their spirits and interests were ever so pure. As we sang altogether a Burmese song, “Eieentae”, which means literally a new light--a new hope for education-- I found their eyes twinkling at the hope of education.
These students had an exact reason to study and had all the more reason to succeed. The future of Burma depends on them, and they are determined to bring back life to their people and the nation. Here I felt a guilty feeling surging within me as I thought of how we Korean teenagers live an extravagant life compared to these Burmese children, and how we are still complaining of various minor inconveniences. In contrast, all Maetao High School students had personal dreams of their own, and they were trying their hardest to obtain what they were desperately longing for.
In the final analysis, this is a task given to them and us both. Right at this moment, there are kids out there in other parts of the world who long for the minimum opportunity of education but can not even go near the school doors. We should no longer treat them with prejudice and regard them as isolated vulnerable people whose rights are being violated, but we must go out there to hug these friendly neighbors with beautiful minds. It will be hard and a long way till our friends at Maetao High School reach their ultimate dreams, but it is a dream that must be fulfilled one day, and a dream that the world should also share.