Fourteen American college students from Institute for Village Studies (IVS) and seven Karen post-secondary students from Engineering Studies Program (ESP) in Mae La refugee camp visited Grace Garden in January for experiential learning.
IVS and ESP students work together on Grace Garden site development projects.
IVS offers a unique study abroad experience through Western Washington University, USA, that combines enriching cultural experiences, opportunities for exploration and adventure, and service work on local community development projects. IVS has been visiting Grace Garden annually as part of the course since 2011. ESP is a specialized school in Mae La refugee camp teaching engineering principles from mechanical engineering to CAD computer drawing. BGET has maintained a strong relationship with the school since 2004 with ESP students participating in BGET renewable energy installations including micro-hydro, solar, bio-gas, and solar cooking. ESP students have visited Grace Garden three out of the last four years for hands-on engineering for sustainable living workshops.
These two student groups stayed together at Grace Garden for one week, January 20 – January 26, 2014, to learn by doing – interacting with the students from the other group, contributing to work projects on the Grace Garden site, and witnessing the efforts of other local organizations. After the IVS group departed, ESP stayed on at Grace Garden for another week for practical engineering projects for sustainable living.
Over the courser of the first week, IVS and ESP students worked together at Grace Garden to make adobe bricks to be used in constructing the dormitories, set up a cane ball sport court, construct a tree nursery, and make a natural fertilizer called bio-char. “My favorite work station was the nursery. It was really cool learning to work with a machete and seeing everything bamboo can be used for. I also just felt like a ninja boss chopping up the bamboo,” one student shares. “My favorite work station was the adobe,” another student explains, “becuase I know our work is going to be used to make something amazing.”
IVS and ESP students also visited other local organizations to learn about the diverse efforts being conducted in the region to address the needs of the people fragmented by 60 years of civil war in Burma. In addition to hearing the testimony of BGET and SunSawang, students worked with natural building non-profit, Gyaw Gyaw, visited local Blessed Homes Orphanage, met with students from Noh Bo Teacher Training College, and toured Noh Bo Academy. IVS students especially were both inspired by the great work being carried out but also daunted by the challenges of the situation slowly revealed to them. “Some of the things I’ve heard are lying heavy on my heart because of the Burmese government and how the Karen people are treated, but I’ve been channeling that for inspiration,” an IVS student admits.
The overwhelming highlight of the week was the opportunity for the IVS and ESP students to build friendships by working, eating, sleeping, and hanging out side by side. “I really enjoyed getting to know and spend time with the ESP kids,” an IVS student shares, “We laughed, sang, played games, and learned about each other’s cultures which is something I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
The IVS students departed from Grace Garden after one week, but the ESP students stayed another week for a workshop in practical engineering for sustainable living. The ESP students completed two engineering projects over the course of the week for local beneficiaries. The first project was a specialized charcoal gassifier that is used to create highly porous charcoal for use in water filtration systems and also for bio-char. The gassifier was fabricated for a new high school across the border to enable the school to build their own water filtration system. The second project was constructing a solar water heater for a local family.
ESP students were eager to use their classroom engineering skills on hands-on engineering projects. They were almost equally eager for any excuse to leave Mae La refugee camp. These students have lived in the camp for up to seven years and only one admits to leaving more than once since arriving. For Paw K’ Paw, coming to Grace Garden was her first time leaving the camp since her arrival three years ago. She shares her excitement of venturing outside the camp after so long, “We are like birds in a cage [in Mae La refugee camp], but now we are flying!” she explains, emphasizing her words with flapping arms.
Most of the students chose to move to the camp for the educational opportunities, leaving their families behind in Burma. These students live in large dorms with up to 150 other students who attend one of the dozen or so schools in the camp. One student, who lives in the camp with his family, fled to the camp seven years ago for safety after some family members were killed by the Burmese army.
Next steps are unclear for many of the students. Two students quietly expressed a desire to return to Burma while others vehemently declared they will never go back. “I want to go back to Karen state, but I lost my Karen state. Karen state only [has] Burmese soldiers,” an ESP student laments. But, without UN registration, opportunities for remaining in Thailand or settling in a third country are limited.
Overall, the combined IVS and ESP training at Grace Garden was a great success. Capturing the sentiments of training, one student summarizes the experience, “I really enjoyed this last week at Grace Garden and Noh Bo village. It was enriching, fun, moving, and inspirational.”