Student Voices: Rachel Treloar
Rachel's field experience in Thailand
As I flip through my German-English dictionary for the thousandth time in search of some forgotten word for my assignment, I’m taken back to Thailand’s rugged but fertile northern highlands. That’s where my dictionary skills were tested to their speedy perfection during my Webster University Human Rights Field Experience, in the summer of 2011. That’s also where Janjira lives. Janjira is my friend from the Karen Tribe, who grew up just barely on the Thai side of the Burmese Thailand border. We would spend hours together, pouring through the Thai-English dictionary in search of the words that would fill in the gaps between my poor Thai skills and her nearly complete, but not perfect English. Janjira is a senior in high school this year, living hours away from her village in the Baha’i Community Center and Youth Hostel for underprivileged hill tribe students in Omkoi, Thailand. Her biggest dream is to graduate from high school with grades that are good enough to merit scholarships to Chiang Mai University. After this year, she will be one of the first in her village to complete a high school education, but she would be the first ever to graduate from university. Janjira and I are from complete opposite sides of the world in almost every way possible. The cultures that we were raised in are radically different; she from a marginalized and somewhat hostile hill tribe society and I from the bread basket, bible-belt center of America. Her family depends upon ancient mountain rice farming and hunting techniques for survival, and mine upon mom and dad’s comfy salary. What we learned together over our daily allotment of stewed vegetables and rice touched the very core of what “the human experience” is and has been absolutely essential to my human rights education and understanding.
Janjira is just one of the fifty or so 7th – 12th grade students that I lived with at the Baha’i Community Center and Youth Hostel. The community center is a small collection of two boxy western style buildings, a tented kitchen and eating area, and one large Thai-style stilted dormitory positioned strategically close to the high school. But the center is more than just a living space for students who live too far away to attend school. It is a center that is focused solely on alleviating poverty in the hill tribe villages through education, and in particular, education for girls.
In a place like Omkoi, what we consider “poverty” is nothing new, especially for the Karen and Hmong hill tribes. Their history is a long one of isolated mountain farming techniques and migration patterns that paid no attention to political boarders and allowed them to move freely throughout the mountainous areas of Asia, spanning from what is present day China to the Southeast Asia, including Burma, Thailand, and Laos. However, this migration led to cultural isolation from outside communities. This disconnect has caused racial tensions between the hill tribe people and the governments that now control the land that they farm. Some of the problems include discrimination, racism, lack of access to health care and schools, and non-citizenship in the countries that they have lived in for decades. For these reasons, living conditions are far from perfect in the villages. The lack of education and health care has led to preventable illness being extremely common; such as intestinal worms, dehydration, life-long malnutrition, and short life expectancy. Illiteracy has made it increasingly difficult for hill tribe communities to communicate with the outside world which has in turn increased state-sponsored discrimination. When you look at the things this way, the problems seem almost unending.
However, living at the Baha’i Center and learning their theories and goals has taught me an entirely new way of examining these overwhelmingly complex human rights issues. The part that has influenced me the most is their emphasis on education and their idea that education will best and most sustainably help people help themselves in all areas of living; from effectively interacting with local and federal governments, to better hygiene practices and more balanced diets. This kind of thinking brings a whole new perspective to responding to human rights abuses. Every child who is taught essential and basic hygiene will be less likely to suffer from preventable illness, and will indeed teach their own children the same fundamentals. Every adult who is able to read and write is that much closer to becoming a spokesperson for their community in order to effectively advocate for their villages and ease long standing tensions. Every high school graduate who is allowed to go onto higher education, be it in linguistics, medicine, agriculture, mechanics, or so on, will better be able to provide for their communities and improve living standards.
Education is a basic human right. It is also a powerful tool in promoting and protecting the rights of humans all over the world. It is profound in its simplicity as it effectively sidesteps some of the major problems of other advocacy forms. It promotes independence instead of sending out handouts. It cultivates and strengthens culture without the threat of modern day colonization or westernization. It is based on small steps, one child at a time, instead of playing massive number games and doling out millions of dollars. But most importantly, it is sustainable.
Without having spent the time that I did in Omkoi and being pushed face to face with the realities of some of the poorest people on earth, I’m not sure I would fully understand what poverty is. Nor would it be possible for me to effectively advocate against it. Without having learned to love and deeply respect Janjira, all of her classmates, their culture, and their struggles, my human rights education would be a fraction of what it is today.
Photo 1: A couple of days before I left the youth hostel, one of the shy younger students
asked to take a picture with me. It was a sign that even the younger students were
finally starting to trust me.
Photo 2: Jiow and Mew, 9th graders, boil noodles and pumpkin together to serve over rice for dinner. They are wearing their school uniforms.
Photo 3: Cleaning the well involves first emptying it by the bucket-load then lowering students inside with hand brushes to scrub the moss and algea off of the walls in order to keep the water clean.
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