A group of students are walking on a hill under the fog of morning. They are on their way to school, which is located in the Ban Don Yan Refugee Camp on the Thai-Burma border.
Shine Moon and his friends are walking up the hill, but they show no signs of being tired. Walking at a quick pace to make it to class on time, they manage to joke with each other on the way to their school, which is a primary school operated by PAB-POC (Persons Admission Boards - Persons Of Concern).
Ban Don Yan Refugee Camp is located over 20 kilometers away from the town of Sankhlaburi in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi Province. There are currently about 4,300 refugees from Burma living in the camp. Karen, Tavoyan, and Arakan people, as well as Burmese Buddhists and Muslims, all live together. They all left their homelands to avoid the civil war in Burma.
The schoolboy Shine Moon is 14 years old with a slim body. He is studying in the fifth grade. Shine Moon does not live in the refugee camp, but rather in Halokhani Village, about three miles away from the camp, on the Burmese side of the border. Displaced people from Burma’s Mon and Karen States populate the village. Shine Moon’s parents work in Thailand as migrant laborers, and Shine Moon lives together with his grandmother.
Before moving to Halokhani, Shine Moon lived in Nabulae Village in Yayphyu Township in Tennaserim Division, southern Burma. He arrived to Halokhani Village in October 2010.
Even though he is living in Halokhani, where he is surrounded by displaced people, he has a strong desire to become an educated person.
"I don’t want to be like a blind and deaf person who cannot read, write, or listen. I want to get knowledge to help my future," he said.
"I have to get up early in the morning at 8 am because I have to arrive at school on time. I have to walk one hour to reach my school," he explained.
"Even though fifth grade is highest level at my school, I won't give up. I have studied in this school for four years already. I am used to walking like this every day to school, so it's not a problem for me," he said.
According to Shine Moon, facilities in his school are very poor.
"When rain comes, it falls directly into our classroom because some parts of the roof are collapsed. We have to move from place-to-place in the classroom when rain comes. But we are so happy to learn in school. My grandmother and my parents encourage me to study hard in school," Shine Moon explained.
According to Shine Moon, he respects his teachers because they teach and explain all subjects well in the classroom.
"Even though my teachers get a very low amount of salary, they teach us well with kindness and patience. They explain to us until we understand lessons. For this year, our school has faced a lack of facilities because the school cannot afford to improve the roof," Shine Moon said.
"There are six permanent teachers and one part-time teacher in the school. It has five classes from first to fifth grade," Ko Tun Lwin, a school committee member, said.
"School teachers got a salary of 500 baht ($16.60 US) per month in 2005 and 2006. Then they started getting 800 baht ($26.60 US) per month from 2007 to 2010. ZOA, an American NGO operating in the camp, provided the salary of teachers, but it had to cut off payments in 2011," Ko Tun Lwin added.
"We still operate this school even though we don't get any support from NGOs. This school opened in 2005 and is led by political refugees in the camp," Ko Tun Lwin explained.
According to Ko Tun Lwin, the school uses the same curriculum of current Burmese schools in Burma.
"The school has faced extreme problems since the beginning of this academic year. We lack pencils, pens, and notebooks for students, and salaries for teachers. The committee of the school has sought donations from our friends. We operate the school with the help of our friends resettled in third countries," Ko Tun Lwin explained.
Ko Peter, a permanent teacher in the school, said, "Sometimes we get salary when our friends in third countries donate money to school. But mostly, we don't get salary. It's sure that we are volunteer teachers in this school."
According to Ko Tun Lwin, the school needs more material support, even though the Mon Education Department under the New Mon State Party donates some materials like notebooks, pens, and pencils.
"This year, we cannot make enough roofs for the school. So, when rain comes, water falls right into the classrooms. Students have to learn while wet from the rain. In addition, some floors are damaged," Ko Tun Lwn explained the situation of the school.
According to Ko Tun Lwin, some of his friends suggested that he begin collecting school fees from the students’ families. However, it is impossible to collect money from refugee parents because they do not have any extra money, and they already face many problems. Therefore, the teachers train the students to use learning materials with discipline in order to conserve the scarce resources.
"We only give a new notebook to a student if the student's book has no space left to write. We only give a new pencil to a student if the student's old pencil is impossible to use further," Ko Tun Lwin explained.
"We have attempted every way possible to get funds for this school. We have asked our friends to donate money. Sometimes we get donations from them, but not always," Ko Tun Lwn added.
"If we cannot teach our children in their young age, it'll affect our country negatively,” Ko Peter explained when asked why he perseveres teaching at the school.
"ZOA Refugee Care ended its projects on the Thai-Burma border because of financial difficulties resulting from a shortage of donated funds. That's why we cut off support to this school, which provided learning materials and salaries for the teachers," an official from ZOA said on condition of anonymity.
According to teacher Ko Peter, more than 70 students currently study at the school. The figure is down from over 100 last year.
According to Shine Moon, he wants to be an educated person because there are important differences between educated and uneducated persons.
"I want to continue my studies because education makes a difference among people. For instance, educated people can work in administration offices and get good salaries. Uneducated people have to work hard as laborers, but get low salaries. That's why I want to study in school. I want to work in an office and want to get a good salary," Shine Moon explained.
According to Ma Nge, her children receive many benefits from learning at the school. Ma Nge is 42 years old and the mother of three. She arrived at Ban Don Yan Camp in 2004 for political reasons.
"A few years ago, nobody in my family could read or write. Three or four years ago, we would have to request someone to read for us when letters came for us. My oldest daughter now studies in the fifth grade. If a letter comes for us, we don't need someone else to read our mail for us because now my daughter can read. We have got a fruitful benefit from sending our children to school," Ma Nge explained.
"I have three children. I send all of them to school. Education is very important. I don't want any of my children to be an uneducated person like me," Ma Nge continued.
"I am very happy to be a teacher in this school. I am satisfied. It's because there are many children who have very little opportunities to study in school. They are refugees like us. I feel I am helping them to have a better future. Some students come to school from three miles away. I don't have any problems, even though I don't get a salary. I am so happy and satisfied by listening to the sound of the children reading in class," Ko Peter said.
Twenty students from IDP families who live three miles away from the refugee camp are studying in the primary school in Ban Don Yan camp. In this school, the class schedule is the same as is used in Burma. Classes start at 9 am and finish at 3 pm. There is an additional Mon language class for students who are interested in learning Mon from 3 pm to 5 pm.
In this school, teachers teach Burmese, mathematics, English, science, history, and geography.
There are a total of three schools in the camp: one high school, one middle, and one primary school. All schools in the camp lack learning materials and furniture.
There are many refugee children who want to study in school like Shine Moon.
If political conflicts and civil war continue in Burma, these children will not be able to have a bright future. If they can resettle in third countries when they are at a young age, they can continue their studies in proper schools.
Even though there are many obstacles for studying in the camp, Shine Moon refuses to give up his ambition to study in a school.
"I will continue my studies in other schools when I finish in this primary school. If I cannot read and write, my future will not be good. I want to be an educated person in my future," Shine Moon reiterated.
We all know that Shine Moon is living in a refugee camp, and that there will be many obstacles on his future educational path. We may feel unable to do much for him or other students in his situation, but we all should seek ways to do what we can in order to ensure the future of Burma and its peoples is not as bleak as the recent past.
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