Mike and I have just spent five weeks here at the Marist Mission in Ranong (MMR). It has been an unforgettable experience for us both. We knew it would be a challenge before we arrived and yet we find ourselves constantly processing what we have seen here, sometimes it is the unexpected that really impacts you.
I am a teacher at Marist College, a Catholic school for girls in Auckland, New Zealand. Mike was originally a primary teacher but he has been working in air transport for the past 30 years. Mike is also a keen amateur photographer.
While here we have taught two Year 1 English classes and taught the ACU Online Diploma Programme and the Bridging Programme. We have been out with the Health team, visited learning centres and also some of the factories that students and their families work and live in. Mike has taken hundreds of photos for the team here to use.
What has all this been like? Well, Ranong is not pretty Thailand, more like gritty Thailand. Life here for many of the Burmese migrants is pretty basic and for some it is horrific. We cannot un-see the children in the charcoal factory, their bodies covered in charcoal dust, their living quarters dark and hot, they and their parents working for next to nothing. It is 3D work, dirty, dangerous and difficult.
We will not forget the HIV patients we visited, particularly the mother who has just given birth to her 3rd child. The sad eyes of children who are not able to attend school, farewelling those on the bus fortunate enough to be coming to MMR. We are in awe of the on-line students who have a steely determination to make a better life for themselves and their families.
What we have learnt from these visits is that school is a place where students are safe and cared for. MMR isn’t just about getting students through their education, it’s about their whole person being cared for and their dignity being restored in whatever way possible. Mike photographed the graduation ceremony for the pre-school and kindergarten students and came away deeply impressed with the commitment of the parents who want a better life for their children.
I am impressed with the ACU on-line students and their ability to discuss 21st century learning theories and yet some live in dwellings with no running water and no toilet. We saw the demeanour of one student change when at their factory-home, at school this is confident and happy learner, at the factory the posture of this student changed completely and we saw a cautious and sad young person.
There is no question about it, we have gained more than we have given. Yes, we were able to fill gaps so the Marist Fathers in the Asia region could meet and then have a break together. Yes, Mike has left behind a bank of amazing photos. Yes, I am an experienced teacher and I was able to work with ACU on-line students on their paper on 21st Century Learning but we will leave and most people will forget we were here but we will never forget the people we have meet. Our admiration is for those volunteers who are able to commit to a long term stay, life here is not for the faint of heart.
We are deeply moved by the Marist Fathers and their humble, feet on the ground approach to helping the Burmese people in Ranong. In Matthew’s Gospel 25:35-40 we are told that we will be judged by our actions, “ For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “
The Burmese are the ‘least’ in the eyes of many here but in the eyes of the MMR team and particularly in the eyes of the Marist Fathers and the RNDM Sisters who also work here, they are brothers and sisters.