It takes about one-hour drive to get there from Mae Hong Son, capital of the homonymous Province, in Northern Thailand. A tortuous road running through rice fields, mountains, and exuberantly green forest. After getting through the routine control at the military checkpoint, one finally reaches the Ban Mai Nai Soi Temporary Shelter.
Hundreds of bamboo houses covered with leave roofs are carefully distributed in 20 sections. A complex setting of small shops, improvised restaurants, churches, temples, schools, and a clinic, standing along the offices of various NGOs and international agencies. In the remaining spaces, countless little gardens pop-up, where camp-residents grow and raise all sorts of indigenous crops and animals. They long the few empty areas where people socialize and children play. The camp has been there for more than twenty years and is currently home to over 10,000 refugees fleeing who once fled the conflict in Myanmar. Most of them are Karenni, and come from the neighbouring Kayah State, although other ethnic minorities are also present.
Phu Mah, one of ACTED’s sewing teachers, is one of them. She was born in Myanmar but has been living here since her family fled the country nineteen years ago. Now aged 21, the camp has been her only home for most of her life. Every working day, Phu Mah walks her way up to ACTED’s compound, located in section 14. This usually takes her about one hour, or fifteen minutes whenever she can use a bike. On the way, she passes by the local clinic, the UNHCR’s office, and by the small shop where she quickly gets something to eat if she didn’t have time to have breakfast at home. She always comes across a continuous stream of people, motorcycles, and kids. Nearly half of the camp‘s population is, indeed, under eighteen.
ACTED’s classrooms are located within the compound of the Karenni Education Department (KnED), the local organisation in charge of overseeing and coordinating all educational activities in the camp. ACTED has been working with KnED to provide vocational training to refugees in two camps, including Bai Mai Nai Soi, since 2013. Its partner ADRA operates in the remaining seven temporary shelters distributed along the Thai-Myanmar border. The idea is to improve the refugees’ livelihood opportunities by increasing their skills and preparing them for a life beyond the camps. Over 1,500 camp-residents graduated from one of ACTED’s courses since the beginning of the programme, four years ago. After the first phase of basic-level courses was completed, the courses were upgraded to provide the next – advanced – level of technical skills. Phu Mah has been working with ACTED for three years already. She became a teacher after she graduated from the sewing course back in 2014.
Six advanced-level vocational training courses are currently available in Ban Mai Nai Soi. They were all designed to match the actual employment needs in Myanmar, despite the limitations posed by the context and camp conditions, focusing on hotel management, sewing, hairdressing, computer, electric wiring and motorcycle repair. ACTED’s approach is to train refugee teachers in Vocational Training Colleges in Thailand, so that they will, in turn, teach in the camps themselves, thereby empowering local trainers.
After I graduated from the course, I was trained to become a teacher. Now I can share what I learned with the camp community. Maybe someday I will also be able to use my knowledge, or to teach, outside the camps.
Today, all the teachers sit together with ACTED field officers for a small debrief in the bamboo hut that serves as an office for the staff. The purpose is to gather feedback about the second batch of vocational training students, who will graduate by the end of this year. “We do this once a month, to discuss and share our experiences about the classes so that we can improve our teaching in the future. Most of us are highly satisfied with the courses and the students’ progress”. New topics may be introduced in the future, such as nail polish, making special clothes for pregnant women, or fixing automatic gears – “It’s what people need and asks for in the camps”.
Following a quick lunch made up of steamed rice and spicy vegetables sold in the local restaurant close-by, it is time for the afternoon classes. They are scheduled for 4 p.m. so that camp residents can join ACTED’s training after school or work, and they usually take two hours. After that, Phu Mah will walk back home to join her husband and her two young children before nightfall, and have dinner together. Just another day in the camp.