Burma Link, December 15, 2014 (updated July 8, 2015)
From Street to School, Rejection to Respect, Desperation to Hope, and Darkness to Light
Naw Eh is an incredibly determined 20-year-old Karen woman whose perseverance, motivation and hopeful spirit have taken her far beyond what she ever could have imagined as a child. Growing up as an undocumented migrant under extreme poverty and lack of opportunity, unlike many others in Thailand young Naw Eh had no chance to go to school. Instead, she spent her mornings selling snacks to school children, before starting her daily round of looking after the household and collecting recyclables on the streets. Naw Eh was 12 years old when she finally had the opportunity to go to school.
From childhood of labour, desperation and rejection by other children, Naw Eh’s determination has, incredibly, led her to study for an internationally recognised GED diploma on the Thailand-Burma border. This is her account on how education, trying incredibly hard, and never giving up, has changed her life and led her towards light and new opportunities.
“Every morning and every day I collected the plastic and bottles to sell it”
When I was a child, I didn’t have a chance to do study. I was the oldest daughter of my siblings, so I had to help my parents and (it was) so hard for me. Every morning and every day I collected the plastic and bottles to sell it. Some people, some children were laughing at me. Aaaw (it was) so hard, I felt not really good.
I also collected on the street and in garbage. One day I would get only ten baht or 20 baht [25-50 euro cents]. I could give my mother to buy two eggs and some foods we could eat, all members of our family. So it was one way that helped my parents.
In the morning, my mother made snacks to sell at the school. I had to go and sell that in school area but I didn’t have a chance to study. (But) I learned Kaw Kai ข Kaw Kuat ฃ Kaw Kwai ค [Thai alphabet]. That was only one way that I could learn.
After selling snacks, maybe at 10 o’clock in the morning, I had to wash my family clothes and do something else and clean the house. And then I started to go collect (recyclables). And then after that I came back to house and cooked again. I just started to cook for my family when I was 7 years old.
“Even when my father was alive, we were so poor”
In the night time, I went to church and I studied Karen language there. At the house, my father taught me basic Burmese language how to read and write it. But not ABCD.
Even when my father was alive, we were so poor. My father died when I was eleven years old. When my father died, my mother was pregnant six or seven months and the situation was really hard. I really wanted to study so I cried and cried a lot to my mother, so she agreed to take me to a camp. My family moved to the [Umphiem] refugee camp. When we arrived there I moved to camp and a section leader or some leaders, they prepared a house for us. So, we could live and I could go to school.
I could go to school, but I didn’t have enough support like soap and other materials like washing powder or toothpaste. But when the leader said to my mother if I stay in the orphanage dorm maybe I would get more support. So I went to stay there.
“I really, really, really wanted to go to school and study”
When I started school I was already twelve years old. And because I really, really, really wanted to go to school and wanted to study, so I gave attention to my study.
Because I studied a lot I got first prize in the first exam, in grade one. And because I was older than others, one of my teachers promoted me to grade two. So at the same year I skipped, and I studied in grade two. And in the final exam I also got first prize, and every year I got first prize until grade six.
My headmaster and most of the teachers and the students also knew me because I got first prize every year, I was an active student, and I also got like ‘nawtamalo’ [Skaw Karen language], role model who gives attention to study and (has) good behavior, good respect to follows the rules. I got that two times.
“I decided, so I found a way”
At first I thought if I finish grade ten, it is already good for me and it would be enough for me. Later when I was on grade six I was sixteen years old. Oh (it was) so hard because I thought that when I’m a grade ten student I should be twenty years old. So, maybe it’s no more time to study, I thought like that.
But when I was on grade six in Umphiem camp, I found a way. I wanted to study outside, like Hsa Htoo Lei or CDC [the Children’s Development Centre at Mae Tao Clinic] or somewhere else. I thought that outside school is better than camp, because some of my friends, they were very good at English and Thai. They were so clever and (I thought) oh I want to learn like that also. So I decided that before I pass grade ten I should be able to speak English very well. I decided, so I found a way.
I tried, I tried, and I asked my aunt to find a school, but (there was) no school that accepted me, because, if I go that school, my brother and sister will follow me. So no one accepted me because my brother was so young, like five years (old). So how hard for the dormitory to accept us. But in Thoo Mweh Khee they accepted me so I got a new way and we started studying here.
“My life was changing little by little, step by step”
Before I came here, I had to work a lot to pay the school fee. I had to go in a farm and work at a corn field. Yeap! I worked a lot and helped my mother. We cooperated so we got money for my brother, my sister and me, and we all came here to study.
After I finished grade six to come to new school, my headmaster gave me a recommendation that I finished grade eight, so I could study at grade nine. When I came here (it was) so hard, in grade nine is so (much) higher English and most subjects are in English. Therefore it was hard for me, sometimes I nearly to cry because I had to study a lot (more) than others.
I tried and tried, I thought that if I didn’t pass this year, I would try another year, I will try again. But at the end of the year I was fifth person in my class. Yeah, oh I thought that if I really try hard nothing is impossible.
Another grade in grade ten year, I studied a lot and I also got second prize. And then my life was changing little by little, step by step. I was happy and some villagers who were laughing at me when I was young, they don’t laugh at me anymore and I can say that most of the people, started to respect me. But some of them still look down on me because I don’t have money and I don’t have really (my) own place to build house. So it is so hard, but I thought that I will try a lot in the future.
“I want to go study at university”
So I studied and I entered an entrance exam in our post ten. When I entered the entrance exam I got eleven B, top. I was the one that tried, tried, tried, and I got third prize in the end of that year. It was so amazing for me. Why? Because it depended on my trying.
Last year some of my teachers encouraged me to study GED* and to get a new way to attend university. And I really interested in it, I will try, so I came to GED and I study.
But in this year I have a lot of problems like money problems and I feel like I have stress too. Because I’m the oldest daughter, I think I should look back, help my mother and she wants me to work with her, too.
She said that she can work and get five thousand (baht) in a month, but if I work I can get more than her because I already passed grade ten, so she encouraged me to work. But some teachers said; if you don’t want to accept, you can (study), because we will help you. I was really stressed, and sometimes I got sick because of my stress. It (got) better and last month, I went to my house and some people said:
‘Oh you have so higher education and very good English and very good Thai, very good Burmese, and very good Karen. So you can teach us and you can teach in Thai school also and you will get good pay.’
But I want to go study at university so I didn’t accept that.
“Education is changing my life”
I really know that education is changing my life little by little; I am happier and I can face many problems, I can solve them. This year if I pass GED Test, I want do internship or something to get some experience. If I get scholarship, I will directly go to university.
This is only a part of my life, for education part, not my whole life. Even though I was born in Thailand, but I have lived in many different places like in Burma… Sometime I had to sleep beside the road and in the forest, too. Even though I have not run from SPDC but I really have painful experiences.
For the last thing, I want to say that education is changing my life and I can say that I am becoming an educated person. Education is really important for me and for every one, too.
* GED (General Educational Diploma) certifies that the test taker has American high school-level academic skills.
This story is based on Burma Link’s interview with Naw Eh in December 2014.
Editor’s note: This interview with Naw Eh was conducted in English, with only some editing of Naw Eh’s speaking. Incredibly, this young woman only ever started going to school eight years ago, but now knows four languages and is very close to completing an internationally recognised diploma, GED, that opens doors for university study abroad. It is our hope that many young people from Burma will find her story a source of inspiration and hope as it continues to be for us. Naw Eh also recently completed Burma Link’s AOC (Agent of Change) training, making us proud to have her join our AOC Leadership Network.
UPDATE July 8, 2015: “If We Believe That the Way Is True and Can Develop Our Life, Just Go Ahead”
In May 2015, Naw Eh started a long journey, travelling from the Thailand-Burma border through Myawaddy and Hpa-An in the Karen State, Mandalay, and Hakha in the Chin State, all the way to western Nagaland, India. For Naw Eh, the journey was one of the most important she has ever taken as it marked the beginning of a new chapter in her life. After years of hard work and determination, Naw Eh was awarded a scholarship, which will support her to finish a 3-year Bachelor of Education.
Even after securing the scholarship, Naw Eh faced hurdles on her educational journey as her family strongly opposed her decision to continue to further study. Naw Eh refused to give in to family pressure and worked hard to convince them of the importance of education. With her determination and perseverance, Naw Eh will have a chance to realise her life-long dream and continue her studies at university in a foreign land.
Whilst Naw Eh is now anxiously waiting for the start of the lessons, she is doing her best to adapt to her new environment with unfamiliar culture, language, food, and weather. She says that “I am really satisfied when I share my story because sometimes it can help other people when they feel weak and have no idea what to do.” Naw Eh has some valuable advice for others who keep working towards their dreams. “Sometimes we really have difficult situation on our way, but if we believe that the way is true and can develop our life, just go ahead. […] We only see one door for our dream but no other door there, don’t be afraid, just enter into it then you will see another door.”
Burma Link will keep following up on Naw Eh’s educational journey.