The following is a postcard from Charissa Murphy, GlobalGiving's In-the-Field Representative in Southeast Asia, about her recent visit to The Branch Foundation in Thailand.
The strength of the smoke clouds our breath and hides the mountains in the distance. It's the season of burning in northern Thailand when many hill tribes and nearby farmers burn their fields to uncover crops and to regenerate the land for the next season. As I watch women from the refugee camp weaving traditional patterns with looms donated from The BranchFoundation (TBF), chills rush over me. I know that these are not the hardest breaths that they have taken. I know that they've experienced smoke in a more violent memory as some of their villages were ravaged and destroyed by the Burmese Army, killing many of their loved ones in front of them and forcing them out of their homes. They dream of returning again, but they also have many fears. I am amazed with the beauty and Shan unity they've built within the unofficial Shan refugee camp in Thailand on the border with Burma.
Walking the red dirt pathways of the camp, it seems empty. It's a weekday (Friday), so the children are at school (either in the camp "boarding school' or at one of the Thai schools) and the adults are all working (most of them in nearby fields or within the camp). It wasn't always like this, though. The barriers between the Shan families and the Thai systems are numerous. The educational programming that TBF supports through its donors' generous contributions has helped the entire community rise above the barriers. Their language fluency allows the children to grasp high achievements and compete with their Thai peers, and it also allows the adults to compete for work and improved conditions. Since many of the children were young or not yet born when the camp started, they have to learn both their own Shan language and the Thai language to be able to interact with the world around them. The older children and adults also are more effective and successful if they learn Thai too. With additional support for extra language classes (Thai, Shan, and English) after the normal work or school day, the impact that TBF is making is improving their lives.
In addition to supporting more traditional education, TBF also helps provide extracurricular learning such as in dance and music, providing the children an outlet to practice innovation and grow their confidence in a culture where traditionally personal expression was almost nonexistent due to government oversight. The result of such increases in confidence doesn't just make the parents proud. It teaches them to also be open to learning and trying new solutions. In turn, this allows all generations to work towards more progressive and advanced education and work options.
One such progressive integration into the community is in the training and use of solar lighting, which is also supported by TBF. Taking up the majority of his backpack for our two-day visit, Tom brought along a new type of desktop solar light for the camp leaders to test and report their feedback on the product. If it works well, then TBF will initiate a capacity building program to train an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in the Shan State of Burma and to distribute the solar panels there. The organization also wants to incorporate budget and financial planning, so it plans to pilot a program in the Shan State, Burma IDP camp where the families will payback a portion of the cost, which will then go directly into buying a solar planel for the next family.
As mentioned, TBF's current projects in the camp are varied (education, solar electricity, trainings, and capacity building), and one major focus is on education in various forms for the community. The looms provide opportunities for vocational trainings and income generation. TBF also supports providing salaries and teacher training programs for the teachers who devote their days to the students. One teacher in particular, Sai (Mister) Oo, never takes a day off, teaching in the camp's boarding school, the computer classes, and the numerous language classes, including Burmese and English. The enthusiasm to learn is tremendous here as after a long day of school (either the camp boarding school or local Thai school), the students and teachers (and sometimes camp adults) join together for the language courses. Sai Oo spent the Saturday morning during my visit with the students, giving them their quarterly Burmese language exam. None of the students complained about having to wakeup early on a Saturday for the exam. They just want to do well!
TBF visits regularly to ensure they understand the needs of the community. It's evident that TBF has established a personal, trusting relationship with the community. Along with inquiring about current project statuses and how things are going in the camp, Tom Rosen asks about the health and situation of various individuals. He cares about the people, and the leaders know that and openly share the good and less easing news.
TBF also seeks to continually learn and improve its own support. Dedicated to this, it also wants to be more transparent to contributors, so it developed an infographic to help donors understand its 100% funding model where donors have the choice to donate to a project and 100% goes into the cost of implementing that project or to donate to the organization's operational costs. The infographic of the 100% funding model can be found here: www.thebranchfoundation.org/donate/. The impact to the beneficiaries? More direct support translates into greater opportunity for advancement.
I had such a warm visit, and I know that the continually improving conditions and advancement of the camp and its residents occurs due to support from The BranchFoundation and therefore its donors!
Firstly, I would like to thank you for your support towards this project. You have helped increase the educational opportunities for over 140 children and young adults from Koung Jor Shan Refugee Camp. Your donation has gone directly towards supporting the wages of the following people:
Not only have you supported local wages but your generosity has also helped us provide 50 stools for 2 new classrooms, which have recently been built at the refugee camp. The youth of the community now have more space in which to learn, allowing fewer students per class.
We heard just the other month that all the children who attend the supplementary computer classes at the camp passed their Information Technology exam at the local Thai school. This success would not be achievable without your help.
Ying, a resident of Koung Jor, told us “If I did not have extra classes at the camp, I would find it hard to learn anything as there are too many students at the local school and not enough computers. I depend on the classes at the camp to allow me to do my homework”.
Finally, I would like to tell you about GlobalGiving’s Bonus Day which starts on the 16th July (today!). All donations will be matched by 50% meaning that if you donate $20 today, $30 will go to empowering the youth of the Koung Jor community through education.
Tom Rosen and The Branch Foundation Team.
Since our last report, we have continued to provide stipends for the local Computer, English and Burmese language teachers. We also provide a stipend for an Education Coordinator who resides in the refugee camp. He ensures that all the educational activities run smoothly and effectively. Recently, he has been busy preparing the annual Shan culture workshop which lasts for one month and allows the children, who were born on the Thai side of the border, a chance to learn more about their ancestors heritage, language and traditions.
We recently heard some more good news from the Koung Jor Shan refugee camp. Firstly, another student has been accepted to attend an Information Technology vocational course in Chiang Mai! This student is now the second to be accepted this year. His sister - Ying Kam said, "I learn computer here and I want to be like my brother", which shows both the popularity of the computer classes and how they provide the necessary skills for the students to progress into other educational opportunities. Secondly, the children and youth of the camp recently completed another Burmese language test in which the pass rate improved dramatically from 65.4% from their first test in December 2013 to 78.5% in March 2014. As there is a potential threat of forced repatriation back to Burma, both The Branch Foundation and the camp committee feel it's important to equip the youth of the camp with the language skills necessary to reintegrate more easily into Burmese society should this scenario ever happen.
We would like to express our sincere gratitude for supporting this very much-needed project. We are still looking for extra funding to reach our target, so if you know of friends or family members who would be interested in giving the gift of education, please feel free to let them know how your donation has improved the lives of the camp's children and hopefully they will be inspired by your generosity.
Tom Rosen and The Branch Foundation Team
Firstly, I would like to thank you for your generous donation towards this project. We have yet to receive your donation from GlobalGiving, however as this was a continuation of the previous year’s project, we have been able to fund 3 months worth of stipends for the following Koung Jor resident teachers:
$274 for the Educational Coordinator
$225 for the Computer Teachers
$225 for the Burmese Teachers
$140 for the English Teacher
We are also very happy to announce that one of the students from the refugee camp has been accepted into a vocational school in Chiang Mai to further develop his Information Technology skills. He mentioned to the TBF Education Coordinator that he would not have been able to achieve this without the extra computer classes that donors like you help us support.
Evening classes for the children have continuously proved popular amongst the community residents as highlighted in this quote from Kam Nu - a 13-year-old girl from Koung Jor:
‘We used to not have much to do after attending day school. But now with evening classes I get to learn languages and computer skills. I still have enough time to talk to my friends and play together’.
We hope that you follow this project’s progression and are confident that other students like Kam Nu will have the opportunities available to further their education.
Tom Rosen – Co-Director/Project Manager
Note: The Branch Foundation pursues the highest degree of care and protection for each of its beneficiaries. To protect the identity of the people on this project, names have been changed and pictures do not necessarily represent community residents.
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