Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA Thai Burma Border Project Officer, Zoë Bedford, explains why she is so passionate about working with Burmese refugees at the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth (SSSNY).
The students at SSSNY are adult students. They have come from arduous environments – some have lived for a time in Thailand as migrant workers, some are new to Thailand having just come out of Shan State for the program. They are a mix of young men and young women from 18 to their mid 20s.
It is a residential program so the students live and learn together. They are not all from the same part of Shan State and they have different ethnic backgrounds (representing the different ethnicities that make up Shan state). They come to the program quite scarred by their past and the things they have experienced and seen as young people in the war zone of Shan State and as exploited migrant labour.
I am always so impressed by the students. Visiting the school is always one of the happiest parts of my monitoring visits. The students usually have a special session to meet visitors and tell their stories and ask the visitor lots of questions – they are so eager to learn about other places (What kind of government systems do we have? How does the health care system work? How are people educated in Australia? etc.) They are soaking in the knowledge that they have been routinely denied their whole life.
The young men impress me especially. They could so easily be soldiers in either the Shan State North or Shan State South army – and they must have resisted that option at some point in order to get to the school. It is amazing to see these young people truly engaged with a hopeful future rather than just being beaten down by the bloody mess that their country is in. Like the title of one of the school’s recent publications, the graduates really are ‘plants that grow in the fire’.
I really feel that these students are the future leaders of Burma, certainly of the Shan people. And that is a really positive thing. I have been to meetings where these old army guys are still hanging around, with their militant and sexist beliefs – their ways (and that of the Burmese army’s as well!) are outdated and I am hopeful that there will be a future Burma with no place for this constant tit-for-tat fighting. It all starts in places like the SSSNY School.
I don’t think I am overstating it to say this school has a transformative effect on the students. And I do mean it when I say that the graduates go on to leadership positions in Shan and other community-based organisations. Some go back to Shan State to be teachers and take on other roles, but many go on to work for border-based community organisations. The students learn book-keeping, report writing, critical thinking, social theory, history, peace building etc etc. As graduates, they are highly sought after for many roles.
The school turns away more than 100 applicants each year because they are unable to take more than 30 students. Last year, in response to the loss of a major donor, SSSNY tested condensing the program from 12 months to 6 months – with success. In the coming year they are planning to take 60 students for two 6- month programs. This will not cost more than the previous program, making it more cost effective.
The School is so future thinking – when so much of the border was bogged down in past politics this school has really shown the way. There should be more schools like this – for all the different ethnic states on the border.
June 20 is World Refugee Day. Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA currently works with refugee populations in Lebanon, West Bank and Gaza in the Middle East and along the Thai Burma border.
View a video made by the 2012 Social Justice Education Program graduating class from SSSNY on YouTube! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxJAhg8OapY
You can also purchase a book of the stories of SSSNY students from the 2011 Social Justice Education Program graduating class! “Plants That Grew in the Fire: Portraits of Young Activists from Shan State”: http://www.sssny.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=55&Itemid=99