I was introduced to Karenni Social Development Center (KnSDC) through RIJ where I was a volunteer for 2 years while working in Tokyo. RIJ has sponsored the programme for some years.
I contacted KnSDC and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work and live there for 3 months in 2012. I was teaching non-violent social change and advocacy and campaign to young Karenni refugees at the Center.
In 2014, exactly 2 years after I first stepped into the classroom at KnSDC, I returned to visit and found little had changed. Other than new chairs and fresh faces, the school nestled beside the stream and the rice fields, at the foot of the mountains dividing Thailand and Burma, was as I left it.
Ku Myar Reh, the principal of KnSDC, told me the school is growing – the number of applications received for each intake is at least triple the number of places offered, and they are planning to take on 50 students in the next intake (an increase from the current 30) in an attempt to cater to the demand. The thirst for knowledge and lack of education opportunities make KnSDC a competitive pathway for young Karenni refugees seeking to break the cycle of food rations and listlessness, and play a part in rebuilding their communities.
Graduates of KnSDC often find employment in local community organisations and international NGOs on the Thai-Burma border, while others choose to return to Burma to work as mobile trainers. In 2013, 6 KnSDC alumni were selected to travel to Yangon to engage in roundtable discussions on the rule of law and constitutional reform, and were given a platform to voice the concerns of their local communities.
In revisiting KnSDC this October, I was most excited to see my former students. Those who still remained in the area came to meet me, and over Karenni wine and Lephet Thoke (Burmese green tea salad), we talked about what they and their former classmates are now doing. It did not surprise me that many of them are working for community organisations in and around the border areas. To name only a few, Nga Meh and Poe May Lin are working with Karenni Inside Education Program to help preserve Karenni culture and improve education standards in the refugee camps and inside Karenni State; Tu Reh and Nga Kyi are liaison officers at Karenni National Political Party; and Nan Ree and Aye Aung are promoting a new youth engagement program in Karenni State. A few other students have secured further education opportunities in specialised areas such as law, gender studies and economics.
In witnessing the transformation of the students, from their shy beginnings to their current confident and eloquent selves with the ability to express informed opinions about issues affecting their communities and take on positions of responsibility to tackle these issues, I came to fully realize the power of knowledge. For my former students, the knowledge gained at KnSDC brought awareness, hope and opportunities. For the wider community, KnSDC is cultivating a generation of young people actively engaged in addressing environmental and social issues and erecting structures to safeguard their culture and human rights.
For me, the time I spent at KnSDC was immensely rewarding – other than friendships and memories, it gave me exposure and perspective on the protracted displacement situation along the Thai-Burma border, and allowed me to experience first-hand how the work of RIJ translates into real and sustainable results that directly benefit entire refugee communities.
It was with more hope and less of a heavy heart that I once again said farewell to my students on the Thai-Burma border. I know I will see them again, and I am confident that, however slowly change may occur, the graduates of KnSDC are doing their part to rebuild a peaceful society underpinned by the principles of the rule of law and human rights.
To read more about Lynette’s volunteer experience in 2012, see http://sdcthailand.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/lynette-nams-volunteer-experience/