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Education in exile

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On World Refugee Day Hayso Thako, a refugee living in Mae La camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border, explains the importance of schools to improve refugees’ opportunities and promote democratic values.

Who am I?

I was born in Karen State, Burma. Due to the intense fighting between the Karen National Liberation Army and the Burmese military in early 1980, my family had to move to a refugee camp in Thailand. Refugee camps have been home to our family since we crossed the border.

My last refugee camp is called Mae La refugee camp, home to more than 40,000 refugees. I came to Mae La in 1995 with my family. I was 15 years old then.

It was a difficult situation for me and I believe for all refugees who live in the camp as well.

We were not allowed to go outside the camp. Indeed, the camp is fenced with barbed-wire.

We were provided with rice, cooking oil, charcoal, chilli pepper, and salt. We were also provided with thatch leaves, eucalyptus poles and bamboo to build our own house. Warm clothes, mosquito nets and blankets were provided occasionally.

Going to school was hard, because we had no adequate teachers or learning materials. We were not allowed to study beyond nine o'clock at night due to the security concerns. After the curfew, I remember having to study under my mosquito net with my candle lit inside a small tinned box to avoid attracting people's attention.

All I wanted was to pursue my education

After finishing high school in 1999, I didn't know what to do and where to go. Like many of my friends, I also had the feeling that there was no hope for us. Many of my friends ended up marrying or simply staying at home: there were no job opportunities or higher education programmes to apply for.

As I thought about the outside world, where opportunity and privileges seemed so abundant, I was discouraged. I was the students' leader in high school and started getting involved with student working groups after high school, but what I really wanted was to pursue my education further. After working with the student network group, I got the opportunity to pursue further studies with a full scholarship from the Brackett Foundation.

My only dream after completing my studies was to help my community: I want to see unprivileged young men and women get the same education that others in the world are entitled to.

I have always thought that education expresses our life: it should serve to make us conscious and liberate us. This idea gives me the strength to involve myself in education in my community.

Since 2006, the situation has improved

The size of the population in the camp is always a big challenge, especially for education. Youth is the stage where people can be at their best, and at their most productive in society. But when their lives become unproductive, they risk adopting unhealthy habits.

Students at a school in Mae La refugee camp, February 2014

Since 2006, the situation in Mae La camp has become much more relaxed: we were allowed to move in and out of the camp more freely; more shops and schools opened; these could be set up with less oversight from the camp authority. There are some post-12th grade schools that have opened in Mae La camp. This creates opportunity for young people to pursue their higher education after the 12th grade.

But this is not everything for them: education opportunity is still limited in many areas. The students have limited choices of what to do to support their future. Lack of teachers and school resources, and the standardisation and recognition of our education system are some of the challenges we face.

However, we are seeing a lot of positive impacts as well. Involvement in gangs has decreased, the number of early marriages among young girls and boys has declined, and more students are willing to pursue their further studies.

Educational programmes on livelihoods are now also required, besides academic programmes. These are designed to improve our self-reliance by teaching skills such as engineering, sewing and stitching, handicraft works, agriculture, mechanics, tailoring, art, animal rearing or hotel management.

This will encourage and prepare young people to support their own lives wherever they are.

Education is key to building peace

Education also plays an important role in imparting intellectual and moral standards and values of life. Indeed, the idea of democratic principles and values could be applied for the peaceful co-existence of different ethnic groups and tribes in the refugee camp – and in Burma as well.

One very important thing is that people in leadership positions understand the value of democratic principles and their significance. Tolerance and the idea of integration should be widely accepted for the sake of peaceful co-existence. The practice of secularisation should not hinder the integration of diverse ethnicities and minority groups. The negative impact of civil war in Burma continues to exist in many victimised families and among young people.

Therefore, if the idea of peace is being integrated into educational programmes, it will have a positive impact on society.

World Refugee Day: a time for brotherhood, not division

The existence of refugees in the world is not a natural phenomenon. It's the result of human incapacity to deal with social, economic and political crises. For many young people in refugee camps, World Refugee Day is just a day of celebration. Many of them fail to understand their background and history.

World Refugee Day should not be a day of enjoyment or celebration for those who could not return to their country of origin; it should be the time to reflect upon what we have gone through and the challenges we are facing; it is a time of sharing our common feelings between fellow refugees, between family members and friends.

And for the people who are no longer exiled, it is the time to reflect and try to promote peace and freedom.

For the world leaders, it is a time to speak for the hapless and the marginalised.

It is the time to propose peace rather than instigating war; the time to build rather than destroy; the time to create harmony rather than hatred; and the time for brotherhood rather than division.

Hayso Thako is Acting Principal of Shalom Arts and Leadership College in Mae La refugee camp and Communication Coordinator of the Karen Refugee Committee, based in Mae Sot.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

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