Learning the real value of life

Volunteering with Burmese refugee children

Eight Marist Leaving Certificate students from Dundalk, Co. Louth, two of their teachers, myself and Wayne Doherty, and Fr Jimmy McElroy began our memorable journey at the new Terminal 2 building at Dublin airport last June.

After two flights and several ‘exotic’ inflight meals, we arrived 23 hours later in a place known as the “soggiest place in Thailand”; Ranong. The group were about to embark on an unforgettable mission to teach English to poverty stricken Burmese refugee children at the Marist Mission in Ranong (MMR). The MMR is trying to assist Burmese migrant workers in various ways: through education of some of the children of the migrant workers, with health care and by running a community centre. Assistance offered is to the neediest people regardless of their creed, age or ethnic origin.

Intense heat

Students quickly adapted to the intense heat, constant threat of torrential rain and local food and set about their teaching duties. The Irish students were strongly affected by the enthusiasm and friendly nature of the Burmese people. The Burmese students had nothing yet they gave everything, always willing to learn and make new friends.

They were eager to learn and all found the courage to practise their English with the Dundalk students. Education for Burmese children is often unavailable and there is also an expectation that by 11 years old you will be working to support your family to help provide basic necessities. Fr Kevin Medilo, the Co-ordinator of the MMR, praised the Irish students highly. He emphasised to them that without the hard work of the Marist mission volunteers, the Burmese children would be forced into exploitative jobs in fish factories or into prostitution. 

It was clear to the Irish students that the Burmese people suffered yet they still had a smile on their face when greeting the young people. Ranong was also a humbling experience after seeing first-hand poverty, meeting HIV/AIDS patients and families, and the Burmese learning centres. Students visited some of the patients cared for by the MMR HIV/Aids programme. The Marist Mission Ranong HIV/AIDS Health Project provides holistic care for Burmese migrants with HIV/AIDS living in Ranong. The MMR are the only group to provide such care and support. The community based programme assists with access to medical care, meeting basic daily needs, provides HIV education and cares for the dying. The families of the people affected by HIV or AIDS will not even talk to them so the visit of the Irish students was very important to them.

Fear and oppression

The Marist Dundalk contingent also visited Kaw Thaung in Burma (Myanmar) where they met with Fr Gregory and the sisters based there. The plight of the Burmese people was clear to be seen, where they constantly live in fear and oppression. Burma is a beautiful country, and yet one in which the people live in fear, downtrodden by an oppressive government.

The two weeks passed and the Marist Dundalk students had to return home. They all felt that they would never take what they have for granted and realised that they were very lucky to have the lives they have. Memories of Ranong will live forever in the hearts of the Irish students, who have benefited this summer from a new perspective. The Burmese refugees have nothing, so they value everything, especially education. Yet in the western world we have everything and value nothing. Despite recent crises, the students said they now realise how very fortunate they are to grow up in Ireland having gained an insight into life in Burma, a country very much troubled by poverty and political inequality.