An experience of Marist Mission

IMG_6410In Ranong, the busy fishing port in Southern Thailand bordering Myanmar’s most southern point, the Marist Asia Foundation serves the poor through well-run education and health programmes.

From Myanmar, easily visible just across the strait, a short trip in small open boats transports thousands of Burmese seeking refuge in Thailand.  If they do find work it is often poorly paid and in challenging conditions as in fish or charcoal factories.

The long rows of their cramped single-room dwellings, often alongside or within factory enclosures and regularly swamped by the region’s frequent rain, reflect the poverty of their family environment.  Hindered further by language and political difficulties, the Burmese refugees are the true poor of Ranong.

In 2006 the Marist Fathers initiated a social justice mission project to serve these poor at their expressed point of need through two main ministries. They provide education as a key to development out of poverty and into leadership, and they care for HIV patients by personal home visitation, medical education, and by practical assistance in dealing with agencies and government.

The early mission project has developed into the well-respected Marist Asia Foundation.  Under that name, Marist Fathers (SM) work alongside Mission Sisters (RNDM), paid local staff, and also volunteers from overseas. Both the education team and the health team cooperate well and work in and from a suitably simple but well-built Centre.  Education is targeted by local need to preschool and secondary levels.

The mission also involves working alongside students of the Australian Catholic University On-Line programme, and those studying more English in hopes of entering that programme, as they all aspire to become worthy future leaders for their families and country.

The health team cooperates with the hospital and receives their referrals.  The Foundation structure was approved in 2014. It sets a base for hopefully ensuring a reasonable level of ongoing financial support, an environment of good responsible practice and professional process, and to conform to government regulations.

It has been my pleasure, privilege and joy to work alongside the Marist Community and their leadership teams, families and students for 3-4 weeks and to experience again the challenges and joys of mission in the tropics.  My earlier 18 years working in the Oceania mission field in Samoa, American Samoa and Tokelau Islands, prepared me for feeling very much at home again as a Marist in this mission environment.

The big difference is working in Asia.  Ranong is more densely populated and has its own unique merging of cultures, religions, relationships, difficult-to-learn languages and demands of life coping with life in Thai society.

I enjoyed being Marist in the pastoral and mission-minded team of Marist confreres, invited to share from the inside some of their joys, hopes, griefs and practical challenges. They expressed a genuine Marist spirit in positive and encouraging relationships with Sisters, staff, families and students, and their easy teamwork approach resonated well with me.

The true Marist heart of Marist Asia Foundation is clearly evident, given and received.  The fact that the Burmese refugees we work among are mainly Buddhist, with a few Muslims and only a handful of Christians, adds a unique and respectful dimension to that interesting experience.

A happy and caring community atmosphere is strongly felt throughout the ministries. The Burmese families are clearly very appreciative of the practical compassionate help given to raise them up from very difficult living conditions and for the personal (Marist) attention shared with them.

Another special joy for me was how the On-Line University students were so happy to trust us and our responses as Fr. Frank and myself worked with them one-on-one through their stories and essay work by posing open ended questions to help them improve their expression of thought and grammar. Their moving personal stories covered topics like their real family situations and their journey to education, and also their well-considered reflections on key issues they knowingly face as future emerging leaders of their families and country.

To be trusted to listen alongside them as they struggled to clarify their own thoughts and their hearts’ deep desires with such openness, honesty and passion is a specially privileged Marist memory I will prayerfully reflect on further.    We also worked among other senior students studying more English grammar with earnest hopes for entry into the On-Line programme, and I realized that, even there in the context of coping with difficult Burmese and Thai languages, I have much to learn again even in English!

Visiting with Fr. Gil and his health team some HIV families in their poor lodgings, listening as they willingly shared their personal stories in eager and much appreciated dialogue (I knew only the visible emotions in their nonverbal communication), also exposed me to a variety of human struggles and caring interactions important for ongoing reflection and prayer.

During these my last few days, Fr. Kevin has just returned from overseas.  As Director of the mission he has the overall administration responsibility of the whole project and also has special pastoral care of the staff and students of the pre-school and secondary programmes.  He also unites the Marist Community in their prayer and action in this vital Social Justice work.

During our daily Mass and community prayer, sitting in the Marist community’s “upper room”, an open verandah chapel that overlooks the beautiful ever-changing mists on the Ranong mountains, I gratefully reflect in prayer on the many key changes of the human heart and life, in myself and in those we serve.

Probably much like my confreres, my own journey to Ranong started long ago in a family environment of prayer and commitment to social justice and so developed into a longing to serve as a Marist and priest on mission among the poor. I take to heart and prayer my varied experiences as a Marist on mission as I now prepare to continue my travel journey to process it all during a Hesburgh sabbatical renewal in Chicago.

I leave Ranong with a very big thank you to you my Marist confreres for the opportunity and privilege to share a little of your life and mission from the inside. Also a big thank you to the Sisters, staff, volunteers and families we worked alongside.

A final huge thank you to the ever cheerful, respectful and engaging students who so enjoyably shared, with amazingly open simplicity and trust, their deepest joys and new hopes, their griefs and challenges of being Burmese refugees in Ranong, poor but ever so grateful for being given a new chance to radically change, develop and lead others by their adopted family, the people and supporters of the Marist Asia Foundation.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Khorp khun khrap.    Ce zu tin ba deh.

Fr John Jolliffe SM

postcard from Burma

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Life in the villages is very simple, Bullock and Cart is still common and natural

As a visitor to Myanmar recently, its obvious the Burmese are generous, loving, and hospitable people. They care for their country and their children.

It is shown in their welcomes, water bowel and cup at every gate, the great hardships parents endure to send their children to school.

Despite suffering years of military government neglect there is still a strong resolve for a better life.

If you were to visit Myanmar you would see glimpses of people living in distressing poverty. Bamboo huts on each side of the road. Fragile shelters resting near rice paddy fields. People collecting water to wash. Irregular electricity. Broken roads. Crumbling buildings.

A curious visitor may notice small things in shops. People buy a single sachet of shampoo. A single cigarette. A single biscuit. A small bottle of petrol. There is no spare money. Life is lived day to day.

There is a nation-wide struggle for parents to get their children to school. School uniform. Transport. Tuition fees. These expenses come after food. Life is difficult when you are poor. The government has just officially stated the minimum wage at 3,000 Kyat ($2) but even this is not received by everyone.

Yet ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’. I witnessed a beautiful example of solidarity in central Myanmar with a women’s ‘cup of rice’ project to support poor children get an education. Over 1000 women in over 40 villages save a cup of rice each day and it is transforming communities.

The Mothers 'Cup of Rice' project supports many children's education.

The Mothers ‘Cup of Rice’ project supports many children’s education.

As each mum counts out rice for each member of the family, she also puts her hand into the rice sack and brings out one ‘cup of rice’ for a poor child. This is placed in a bag.

When the Mothers gather they combine together to make a sack of rice. A local family in great need is identified by the group and the sack of rice is sold to them for half the normal price.

This money raised is saved by the women to support children’s education, a course, a learning opportunity, transport needs.

Whereas most groups struggle constantly for funds, currently the Women’s association now has over 250,000 Kyat and responds to needs from the interest earned. A slow but sure impact is being made from a daily ‘cup of rice’ and the women humbly rejoice in their simple efforts together. They have learnt the smallest efforts combined can create change.

As a foreigner visiting Myanmar for the first time, I now know and feel why Burmese become ‘economic refugees’, and journey as migrants into Thailand to find work. There are now an estimated 2.5 million Burmese migrants currently in Thailand. A fact not many in Myanmar knew of.

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Children meeting a foreigner for the first time… ‘look he has different coloured eyes than us’.

There are also times when you are reminded Burma has been ‘closed’ to the world with a military government.

Many areas have been ‘off limits’ to foreigners. Young children curious and frightened to see a foreigner for the first time share with each other ‘look.. he has different coloured eyes from us’.

Women young and old want you to sit and talk about your life and world. You hold a story of the world they do not know beyond the rice fields.

Visiting Myanmar close to the 2015 November elections, every conversation drifted toward hope for change. Better crops and food. Proper roads. Regular electricity. Useable internet. A functioning education system. Improved transport. Simple permission to build (its astonishing to learn that 70% of the country is actually without electricity affecting 35 million people).

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Old Parliament Building in Yangon still abandoned where Aung Sung was killed along with others trying to form the first united government.

The challenges for Myanmar are so vast. Democracy, if allowed, will not bring immediate development. There is 60 years of abuse and corruption to untangle.

Despite a picture of her in almost every house, Aung Sung Su Kyi is currently ruled out of being President of Myanmar because she was married to a foreigner.

Yet she is someone they trust and identify with in contrast to military turned politicians turned government workers turned business men.  She at least is a symbol, heavy with hope, a moral compass for the journey ahead for the country known historically as ‘the golden land’.

Lets keep all the people of Myanmar (Burma) in our prayers for November 8 elections, 2015.

 

If you wish to learn some more information about Aung Sung Su Kyi click to read a past story

If you would like to share in helping the education of Burmese children click to become a friend and supporter for 70 cents a day $20 a month

protecting vulnerable children

street kids bannerMigrant Children are extremely vulnerable.  A Mother or Father dies and children are left abandoned. Children sit at home alone while Parents work extremely long hours. Fishermen are forced to work up to 6 months at sea leaving Mothers and children vulnerable.

This breeds a desperate environment. Children begin work as soon as their bodies are big enough. Prostitution. Child trafficking. Child labour in factories.

Every month our staff uncover the sadness of vulnerable children. A mother lies dying of HIV AIDS and three children are visited in a smelly small concrete room. Electricity and water have been cut off for weeks. Grandparents have abandoned their daughter. Who will care for them.  An 11 year old girl stares at us with large and pain filled eyes considering the future. She feels responsible for her two little brothers. Where is Dad. Grandma. Uncle. Aunty. Will they be sent to a Buddhist Monastery orphanage…..

Even young teenagers sent across the border to Thailand from Myanmar / Burma because of family poverty are sensitive enough to realise they are a financial burden on Uncles or Aunties. Fr Frank in working with students for the past two years shares a recent experience of reading essays and listening to teenagers.

“The pressure rises as Burmese Migrant children become teenagers”. “Its distressing personally to listen to their stories and see their tears.” “Just when education begins to open up hearts and minds to desire to be doctors and nurses, community workers and teachers, the choking reality of poverty and desperation of families imprisons them. Real poverty takes away basic choices.”

Families need to see food on the table today.

One very bright student shared his reason for finishing school. “My family has financial problems. When I said to my Dad ‘I want to go to school and study in the University Online Programme with Marist Mission Ranong’ my Dad told me: “education won’t feed you”. I didn’t know what to say to my Dad.”

Research reveals clear evidence that a primary school education gives significant basic skills for life. But each year of secondary education lifts the earning ability of an individual by 10%. This can be the breakthrough needed to lift families from recurring poverty. 4 Years of secondary education in developing countries can be the vital ingredient to break the poverty cycle.

Staff at the Marist Mission are aware of the challenging context in Ranong when only 20% of children are actually starting school and 90% of these migrant children leave education at age 12.

Its a delicate balance of giving families a ‘hand up’ not a ‘hand out’. We often share with parents to please come and share with us when they cannot pay their monthly school fee or school bus fee. Sometimes they wait unknowingly why they haven’t received wages. A visit to the doctor uses the little savings they had. Sometimes the little concrete room, the water, electricity, food… all the basic costs are simply more than parents earn some months.

Teachers here have all heard Burmese students introducing themselves to volunteers and visitors. And when asked about the challenges they face, they share bravely almost every family struggles. A phrase heard frequently is simple: The money in does not cover what goes out. Its basic maths. Even the most caring Mum or Dad cannot easily overcome this problem as a Migrant.

_MG_1504Visitors and volunteers when taken into the community and behind the main streets soon realise there are very few luxuries in Migrant worker homes. You will just see a few mats, some clothes stacked neatly against a wall, a gas cooker and a large frying pan or pot.

At a recent parent meeting an Uncle shares privately his apology for taking his two nieces out of school and sending them to work. The family was sad to see the sadness of the girls being taken out of education and made to work long hours. But he shares with the beginning of tears in his eyes. If we have to pay for more school fees or books I’m sad that we cannot manage it. We would have to send them home to Myanmar. He asks if he can receive some help to return them to education. My wife and I don’t have good health. We are trying our best.

An elderly grandmother cries as she walks away from a school information day. Having decided to care for two young orphaned children she cries as she cannot find the $12 monthly school fee and the $12 bus fee.

A Health Team worker for Marist Asia HIV Health Programme shares a beautiful story upon visiting this grandmother. When we shared we could find a ‘friend and sponsor’ to support these two orphans the cries return but this time with tears of joy. The young girl danced around the room. The boy sat with the biggest smile.

Teachers share how deeply moving it is to work with Migrant Children. ‘Its such a deep joy seeing children coming to school’. ‘I love the sound of a school playground. Its not really noise, its the sound of joy. A safe place. Fun. Friends. Food.’ When you are a migrant you don’t take these things for granted.

Marist Asia Foundation’s education programmes are really part of a long term project. We lift children from being Vulnerable to be Valued. Then they get a Vision for themselves and their Future. They also aim at Virtue. Its very strong in young Burmese to live their Buddhist belief, to live a good life and do the right thing.

With all 5 Education Programmes here at the Marist Mission in Ranong we aim to turn the situation around.  Education can actually move children from being vulnerable to valuable members and leaders of their community.

At a recent Parent meeting where our 9 University Online Diploma students sharedIMG_2672 their stories and answered questions what was so obvious was their passion for learning and their inner confidence.

They too shared a heart for vulnerable children and wanted them to receive what they had been given. Education.

As 2015 begins Marist Mission Education Programmes need to find 200 friends and supporters to give ‘Small Change to make a Big Difference’.

Would you like to support a student at Marist Mission in Ranong?

Join with us in becoming one of 200 friends to give $22 a month, (70 cents a day) or $240 a year.

click here to receive Bank Account Details and learn how to become a friend and supporter of  “Small Change, Big Difference”

(if you are donating from New Zealand the Marist Mission Ranong Project is a registered Charity and your donation can receive a tax rebate).

If you would like to learn more information as to how your parish, school or business could partner with us and support Burmese Migrant Children and Families please contact Fr Frank: francisbird@gmail.com

 

 

 

Volunteer opportunities in 2018

volunteer group2finalbannerEver wanted to serve those in need, but didn’t know how or where? Here is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for.

The Marist Mission in Ranong has an opportunity for 3-4 volunteers to grow in faith, experience community and be transformed through service in 2018

Come and spend 3-6-12months with us and be alongside Burmese Migrants and their families on the Thailand / Burma Border. You’ll enjoy being alongside Marists, Mission Sisters, committed Thai and Burmese staff, and other volunteers  as we serve Burmese Migrants in education, health and migrant support programmes.

You’ll live in a group of apartments for our volunteers and team members, ride either a bicycle or motorbike for the short ride to the Marist Centre, and have the joy of serving Burmese students who really appreciate the gift of education for their lives and the future of their families. You’ll be part of a safe and supportive atmosphere with others.

We have volunteer opportunities for 2-3 teachers and an opportunity for someone with medical experience to help with our health project. If you know someone who may like this please consider sharing this opportunity with them.

Download Volunteer Application Document

Here are some brief answers to some frequently asked questions

Where is it: Ranong is in the South of Thailand, on the west coast between Bangkok and Phuket. It is the border crossing town with the most southern town in Burma / Myanmar called Kawthaung.

Is it safe: Ranong is a small ‘town’ in Thailand and is safe for visitors. Ranong has not experienced any difficulties or significant changes with the Thai Military Government and our volunteer apartments are in a group of 6 which allows people to experience the support and care of each other.

What would I do: Our volunteers offer a special contribution to some of our Education Programmes because of their ability to speak and encourage students with their English.

Depending on your gifts and skills your time would be spent each day in programmes at the Marist Centre. There are 5 education programmes and some migrant support programmes that benefit from volunteers.

There are also fundraising, media, and various management support tasks. Being part of the HIV AIDS Health team involves regular visits to families, the hospital and providing support in project management.

How much will it cost: Accommodation, internet, water, electricity and a motorbike or bicycle is provided. Volunteers need to pay for their airfare to Thailand and bring money to pay for their food and personal expenses for their time with us.

Most volunteers have found that $NZ3,500-4,000  has allowed them to volunteer for 6 months, buy daily food  etc and have a holiday somewhere in Thailand.

Do you have more information: Check out some of our volunteer stories and experiences, and also download our Volunteer Application document. We would be happy to hear from you if you have particular questions or would like a skype conversation to learn more. Contact us

Is there any age limit: There is no age limit. Volunteers need to be able to live simply, learn to adapt to both the wet and hot weather conditions, and be willing to commit to a full day at work with the projects they are assigned to.

How can I apply: Download the Application Document and we look forward to making contact with you.

Financial Need: We know some people would like to serve but don’t have the financial resources. We encourage people to share their need with family, friends, parish, school. For those who would like to make a donation to support a volunteer the Marist Asia Foundation would gratefully receive this type of support and let you know of the great work your donation has made.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” (M. Twain)

Andrew and Nuala Moraes – Online Learning Tutors

Back in 2009, a few folk here in Ranong dreamed that Burmese migrants here, cut off from almost every aspect of the modern world, could get a university qualification.

It was just a dream.

Seeing the Australian Catholic University (ACU)’s Thai-Burma border refugee programme in action in the north of Thailand, gave this dream some hope of fulfilment.

andrewandnualaACU provides students from Myanmar who have been displaced from their country, and therefore excluded from any opportunity for higher education, the opportunity to gain an ACU diploma.

Courses are taught by professors from Universities in Australia, the USA and Canada – usually through various online learning tools, but sometimes in person in Ranong.

The invitation to be the on-site tutors for this programme that brought us back to Ranong in 2010.

acugraduationIt seems like a lime time ago, and indeed for Felicity, our unborn daughter it was almost her whole lifetime ago that we were just starting out- and now here we all were, getting all dressed up for graduation!

Though several of the students are actually older than us, we did feel a bit like proud parents getting ready to accompany our little charges on that final step out of our care. Filled with joy and pride, of course but with a hint of sadness and a twinge of relief that there weren’t any calamities on our watch!

With a cohort of professors from ACU in Sydney leading the way, we gleefully joined the ranks of the ‘important people’ on stage. (I’m pretty sure that I, with my lowly single undergrad degree, am the least qualified person to have ever been clad in the regal garb of university academic staff.)

graduatewithdiplomaThe highlight for most of the 200-strong crowd in attendance was, unsurprisingly, my speech.

I used this final opportunity to lecture the students on the significance of their achievement by using an analogy they could all understand – a building.

I reminded them that while their Diploma was the foundation for their families’ and communities’ future, the strength of the foundation came from the ground on which it was built – their values, their culture, their faith.

For me, however, the highlight was unquestionably the graduate speech delivered powerfully by Francis.

He spoke with a wonderfully strong and simple gratefulness for the gift of education he had received. He talked of his determination to use his skills, talents and energy to serve the young people of Burma.

Most striking of all, he spoke like a man who had learnt so much, that he realized how much he still has to learn and was excited about it.

firstgraduatesAs joyful and satisfying as it was to see our students graduate and make their plans for their next few steps in life, it was just a bit sad to see our motley gang scatter down the various paths they have chosen.

We’re not sure about our own plans for the new year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see our old students again back in Burma or beyond.