Sometimes, when relatives and friends come to visit children at Baanunurak Orphanage, in Sangkhlaburi, Thailand, near the Burma border, 13 year-old Parama watches them with curiosity.
Always, however, it makes her sad, even bringing tears to her eyes.
Orphanage records show Parama was dropped off at Baanunurak in 1998 by her mentally-ill mother, when she was just seven months old, after being born in the town’s hospital.
"I don't know who I am," Parama said.
“I don’t know who my parents, my mother or father, or any relatives are, or where they came from.”
As an infant, Parama was cared for by a staff member until she was two years-old. Then, Naw San Aye, another staff worker, entered her life, raising her as if she was her own daughter.
"I only know Naw San Aye as my mother. She has taken care of me. She is the only mother I have known," Parama added.
However, Naw San Aye said it was difficult to tell Parama the truth about her life because it made her very sad.
Parama realized she was living together with other children in an orphanage when she was 7 years old and that Naw San Aye was not her real Mom at 8. She continually asked her adopted mom about her birth mother after that.
"I love her like she is my own daughter and take care of her. I do sympathize with her. I kiss her. I do whatever I can for her because she is very fragile emotionally," she added.
“I live in Pha Pya village in Kyar-Inn-Seik-Gyi Township in Karen State. When I visited my home, I brought her with me. She was very happy to go with me because she thought she was going to see her parents. However, when we got home, she asked about her parents. I explained to her it's my home; it's not your real mother's village. She was very upset and began to cry," Naw San Aye remembered.
Parama’s biological mother was an illegal Burmese migrant worker, thought to be from Yangon. She was unable to care for her daughter because of circumstances beyond her control and because she suffered from mental illness herself, so, she was forced to place her infant daughter in the care of the orphanage.
This heart-breaking drama has played out over and over again in the tiny border town.
A Burmese broker who arranges for migrants to enter Thailand illegally, headed for destinations such as Bangkok to find work and start new lives, said in an interview an average of 200-500 illegal Burmese cross the border every month at Three Pagoda Pass, in Kyar-Inn-Seik-Gyi Township, in Karen State, to Sangkhlaburi Township, in Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand.
He also said Thai police deport an average of 200-300 Burmese migrants back to Three Pagoda Pass in Burma every month.
"Some people don't have enough money to go further than Sangkhlaburi. So, they have to live temporarily in the border area. Then they face many problems such as lack of food and no money to buy things. After that, parents blame and fight with each other. Then they divorce. Some men leave their pregnant wives. These women have no place to live, nothing to eat and no place to give birth to their child. After they do give birth, they cannot provide for their child. Some women suffer from depression and psychological disorders. So, the best thing is for these women to leave their child in an orphanage. It's a safe place and their child can go to school," the broker said.
PHOPHTAW News has learned the number of orphanages in Sangkhla has increased from 2 to 12 since 2004. The number of children under their care has jumped from 50 to over 600 today.
Di Di Devamala, is in charge of the program at Baanunurak orphanage, which is also called Di Di Safe House. She said in a recent interview there are nearly 130 orphans living under the care of 20 staff at the facility. The safe house was built in 1991 and has two offices in town as well as the orphanage.
Unfortunately, she and the staff say there are at least 15 orphans living at Bannunurak safe house, who, like Parama do not know their birth parents.
According to Naw La May Htoo, or Sou Phar, who works at Di Di safe house, there are more girls than boys among the orphans.
She said most orphans arrive at the safe house because their parents are very poor and cannot afford to care of and feed their children.
Others cannot care for their children because they are sick themselves and cannot work.
And, she said some migrant workers left their child in the care of the safe house which gave them the money they needed money to cover the cost of transportation to other parts of Thailand to find work.
The number of migrants coming to the area has been steadily increasing because people in Mon State, Karen State and the Tanintharyi Region, in southern Burma near the border with Thailand, have faced severe economic hardship because of the government’s ineffective policies and have to flee from the ongoing civil war between the military regime and ethnic armed groups.
Some migrant workers were sold by human traffickers who sometimes left them half way to their intended destination. Sometimes, migrants didn't have enough money to cover transportation costs all the way to their destination. Some migrants divorced when they were on the way to Thailand. Some men left their wives and baby. Some migrants became sick and could not afford to provide their children. For these reasons, women arrived at safe houses and left their children there.
Others want their children to have an opportunity to attend school, which the parents know they cannot afford to provide for them.
Bannunurak safe house secures funding and arranges for orphan children to study in local Thai schools. These orphans can learn to speak Thai and English. So there is no problem for these orphans to study in Thai schools.
Two bright orphans already graduated from Thai Universities. And, many have finished 12th grade.
Vision Trust supports provides funding for the children’s education in several orphanages in Sangkhlaburi.
"We see many children in poor countries who get a low level of education. So, we focus on education for children as a means to decrease poverty by improving their standard of living," Ko Min Oo, from Vision Trust, said in an interview.
According to Naw Paw Lu Lu, every safe house is struggling financially. Generally, funding and other assistance has come through Christian organizations and the UNICEF. However, all the orphanages in the area have struggled under budget cuts of 25% this year.
At the same time, however, orphanages need more land and buildings and need more food and clothing for the increased number of children.
According to Naw Paw Lu Lu, from Huay Malai Safe House, only 2% of the children are returned to their parents.
Luckily, however, some orphans have obtained a Thai ID card, which makes it easier to find work.
And, many, who are over 18 years-old, leave the safe house after the get married.
However, continued funding problems mean some orphanages are hesitating to accept new children and staff are worried about who will care for the children if they close their doors.
Meanwhile, Parama, and many children still dream about being reunited with their parents and families.
“When my friends ask me ‘Doesn't your mother visit to you?” I reply to them, ‘Mother San Aye is my mother.’ But, I have known for a long time she is not my biological mother,” Parama said.
"Who is my mother? I have never seen her but I really want to know my mother," she asked.
"I think about my real mother. I miss her. My tears fall from my eyes after I know my life story," she said sadly.
“I also want to know why she left me in this safe house. I repeatedly asked to Mother San Aye about my real mother because I want to know her," she said.
"I am worried how I will live as I grow older. Where should I live? Where Should I go? I am not very interested about education. I am so worried about who will take care of me and where I should go. I am also worried my biological mother cannot find me if I leave this safe house because my real mother put me here.”
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