Come last week, we found ourselves leaving Chiang Mai on a bus to drive through the mountainous Thai countryside until our arrival in Mae Sot. When passing through a checkpoint entering the Tak province, Thai authorities in military-style fatigues stopped and boarded out bus. The men walked down the aisles and asked four of us to see our passports. While we have now learned first-hand about how police checkpoints are a part of life in this area, it was nonetheless overwhelming to hand my passport over. While this small experience was just a tad terrifying to me, a student coming from a privileged background in which global travel is legal, the same regulations limit the movement of thousands of migrants and refugees without sufficient documents.
While waiting at the Mae Sot bus terminal following our 5 hour journey, our first observation was that the climate was surprisingly cooler than the striking heat of Chiang Mai! One week later, we can now say that we have been experiencing Thailand’s rainy season, reminding us North-Westerners of home. We have learned to always expect to be soaked, whether it comes from sweat or rain (or some combination of the two), when biking from one place to another which is something that we do quite a lot of. We are lucky to have a house to call our temporary home base in which we spend much of our down time. After a solid cleaning, insect hunt, and Thai grocery store run, we are settling into living abroad for what I’m sure will feel like a short six weeks. While we are all adjusting to living in a setting very unlike where we come from, we are also confronted with the reality that what counts in our books as “roughing it” is hardly “rough” in the context of the Thai/Burma border region.
This first week, we have been busy with our small film project which aims to amplify the voices of the people of this region in order to raise awareness and gain support for organizations working to improve the health and educational opportunities for people of Burma. We have been biking around Mae Sot to interview students and community leaders about their past experiences and hopes for the future. The first place that we visited was the Child Development Center, a school of 900 migrant students, which is associated with the Mae Tao Clinic. Students, not much younger than us, shared some of their educational challenges and goals. We met future translators, doctors, NGO workers, and teachers! Upon its completion, we will publish these stories and others for all to learn from.
In addition to the film project, the main ways we will be spending our time is at Minmahaw School. For those unfamiliar with GlobeMed, throughout the year GlobeMed at Whitman funds a health class taught by backpack medics for the secondary school students. These students come from diverse places along the Thai/Burma border region to pursue largely university preparatory education at Minmahaw after they have graduated from the schools in their home communities. We have an opportunity to shape Whitman’s partnership with Minmahaw by evaluating this project and shaping our relationship for the coming year. We are also learning how to transition from being students to teachers as we are teaching basic health topics, debate, ukulele/music, and English. For the first time, we have been invited to eat lunch at the teachers’ table! While technically we are teaching lessons to the students, we are most excited to really get to know everyone at the school.
In parting, I want to emphasize to all the importance of the work that these organizations do for this part of the world. Although we have only been here a week, the stories and images of this area already directly inspired us to act in whatever way possible to support this community. The reason we are here, for better or for worse, is to use our backgrounds of relative privilege and our social networks to raise awareness and advocate for these communities. Hopefully, we can use our exposure to generate support for an issue on the other side of the globe, an issue all too easily ignored at a distance. From our position as American students, we cannot enact sustainable grassroots development on the ground, but we can play an active role in supporting those who are already acting as positive change agents in their communities. We hope to continue to develop these critical thoughts as we engage with these issues In Mae Sot and get to know new people!
Haley, Anu, Paal, & Rebecca