Supporting Heart Mae Sai and Tachilek Border Community Project
Myanmar is as ‘least developed nations’ by the World Bank. It has a population of about 60 million with the second largest land mass in South east Asia. Myanmar has as many as over 135 distinctive ethnic nationalities within its borders. The Burmans, account for 68% of the population. The Mae Sai Thailand – Tachilek Myanmar border is the busiest crossing point between the two countries and is increasingly used by transnational crime groups to traffic heroin, methamphetamine, precursor chemicals and people.
The Mae Sai Thailand – Tachilek Myanmar border is the busiest crossing point between the two countries and is increasingly used by transnational crime groups to traffic heroin, methamphetamine, precursor chemicals and people.
Tachilek, Thai-Burmese border
United Nations estimates that over 450,000 migrants are smuggled from Myanmar into Thailand annually, and according to Thai authorities well over one billion methamphetamine pills are trafficked across the border from Myanmar into their country every year. Many poor minority groups living on the Thai-Burmese border are considered stateless as they do not have birth certificates or ID’s. Many turn to begging at the border.
The Supporting Heart team commenced their operation in 2001 as volunteers by serving alongside Mae Chan Hospital in the care for the HIV/AIDS community. Over the years the partnership expanded to include Mae Sai Hospital and some Government Health Centres. They also began offer their services to the plight of the women and children, child beggars and street children on the Thai-Burmese border.
The children come from mixed backgrounds; orphaned, abandoned, parents in prison, or are from physically abusive families. A high percentage are stateless (without ID) which means they have no entitlements for education, medical or social services and because of this, these children are classified as “At Risk ” and extremely vulnerable to all sorts of abuse even by their families. Many have been subjected to horrific experiences; drugs, living off/on the street, malnutrition, forced begging and beatings. Others turn to selling and using drugs because they are unable to attain jobs, forcing their children to beg or selling their children to traffickers. Children are at high risk of being trafficked and exploited.
Young children can be seen from 5 to 12 years of age with a baby or younger sibling tied to their back, begging on the bridge at the border. Boys and girls as young as 5 years old are sold into brothels and exploited in the sex trade.
In 2006, Supporting Heart commenced its own projects in Mae Sai and also inside Burma. Their projects included various tribal groups and villages, both in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). Today, they have experienced national staff in positions of leadership and decision making.
In 2008, Supporting Heart opened their drop-in-centre located in Mae Sai. Their Community Health Care, Education and Development Programs it is a very effective way to reach not only the children, but the community at large. It is a place of refuge where one can escape from the stress and hardship of their everyday lives. Their aim is to is to get the ‘children at risk’ off the streets. It is important that these children come to know that they are loved, listened too, understood and accepted.
“Open Doors” Drop-in Centre
Hot meals are provided daily, washing and bathing facilities plus clean clothes are available. We provide basic education in the English, Thai, Akha and Burmese languages, music therapy, crafts and vocational training.
Frank Smith, the Supporting Heart project manager says:
“When we first met these children in 2004 we were very passionate about education, we raised funds for the Thai NGO who was helping so many of the children go to school in Thailand but our concern was that these were not Thai children, they were from Burma. We longed for the children to have a love for their own villages and communities, for them to get an education and become leaders in their own country where they had the opportunity to become catalysts of change, breaking the cycle of poverty in their own environments and communities.
From 2004 we tried hard to place the children into schools in Myanmar but it was very difficult for many reasons. Most of the children were the ones earning money by begging, many of the families of these children were addicted to drugs and were illiterate and not interested, all were living from day to day in abject poverty. The authorities and schools were not willing to help because most of the children did not have birth certificates or ID’s. In 2009 we had a breakthrough and were able to take 31 children off the street and put them into school with a full scholarship.”
In the 2014-2015 school years, Supporting Heart placed 104 children, all with ID’s in school. They have a waiting list for the 2016-2017 school years. For the year ending February 2014, of the 104 children attending school, 20 children were in the top ten of their class, 4 of the top 5 children live in their Safe House, with one of these girls coming 1st in her class. Their teachers and the Supporting Heart team are so proud of them. Considering there is an average of 80 students per class these are amazing achievements especially for an ex street child.
These results came about through:
- ongoing involvement with the communities these children come from,
- spending time with the kids on the bridge that separates the two countries,
- visiting their mothers and grandmothers,
- home visits,
- medical care,
- providing emergency housing after the Tachilek earthquake on March 24, 2011,
- and most of all through the expertise and commitment of the Supporting Heart staff who continue to work tirelessly on the border and in the Akha villages.
In May 2013 a couple of gangs had started working the poor areas, offering the children jobs out of the country and promising large sums of money to them and their families. The staff was very alarmed and concerned as they had been made aware by local village leaders that some street children had already disappeared without trace.
On May 2013 Supporting Heart opened a safe house called “Baan Rainbow”. It opened with 8 children aged between 2 and 10 years old. One of the first priorities was to register the children with the local authorities and have an official agreement from their next of kin. The safe house was overseen by an official from the Thai Government.
Some of the Baan Rainbow children have learning difficulties due to their mothers use of drugs or alcohol while pregnant and breastfeeding, or perhaps malnutrition and neglect in those vital young years of development. Supporting Heart is very fortunate to have a qualified Burmese teacher working with these special needs children on a part time basis.
Supporting Heart is now constantly being approached by other street children and families, all wanting help. If they said yes to everyone they could easily have over 100 children being cared for. Their dream is to be able to do just that, accommodating as many children at risk as possible, buying land, building homes, becoming self sufficient with farming and agriculture; providing education and skills training. While this may be a dream, they are attempting to train up those who have the heart, catch the vision and are interested in becoming future leaders in these projects.
The staff taught the children some basic education skills as they had never been to school before. The next challenge was to register and enrol the children into the schools. This was very difficult as they had no birth certificates or ID’s, however it was accomplished.
The children were also enrolled into the schools extra study classes for one hour a day and followed up by the team, assisting with homework and extra study. The children needed this extra help as they had never had any previous education or basic life skills. This was the 3rd year that Supporting Heart had the Children at Risk School Sponsorship Program, so the children fitted within that group. When school commenced in June they all proudly attended in their new school uniforms, looking and feeling completely transformed.
Youth Development Centre:
In the past couple of years Supporting Heart have been faced with an unusual dilemma, where previously “Open Doors” our drop-in centre was inundated with children wanting a place to go, to have a meal and to feel safe and secure, now there are fewer children dropping in on a daily basis. The reason; 114 at risk children are now off the streets and in school in Burma.
During school holidays children and adults are still coming into the drop-in centre. This is something that is encourage otherwise the children go back on the bridge begging.
A decision was made to re name the centre to Youth Development Centre and concentrate on some of the more pressing needs that were encountered on a daily basis and that was – skills training, health education and mentoring.
Many of the boys that were coming into the centre had previously been involved in substance abuse, smuggling etc., had never been to school, had been gang leaders or part of gangs and have never had any structure or guidance. They had been coming into Open Doors over the years so relationships were built up, but there was so much more that had to happen if their lives were going to turn around. They had to be prepared for adult education. The staff had to concentrated on their learning and social skills, teaching English, Burmese and Thai languages. They now have 7 young people attending evening Adult Education classes.
Vocational training in hairdressing commenced in the Youth Development Centre in June 2014 and will come to completion towards the middle of 2015 when the participants will do their competency examinations. The staff are looking at options of how to assist those who pass this exam to find employment.
Supporting Heart has sponsored various HIV/ AIDS and medical related expenses since 2001. In 2011 they started to raise sponsorship for ARV ( Anti Retro Viral ) medication for those who are suffering with AIDS and are unable to qualify for subsidized ARV medication, primarily because they are ‘Stateless’ and have no entitlements or because of their extreme poverty.
Networking with their local hospitals, Supporting Heart is able to provide Health and Hygiene Seminars to the participants in their own language and have medical teams providing Health and Dental checks. We are also grateful to have a registered nurse visiting the centre 3 days a week.
For the past few years the Supporting Heart team have been trying very hard to bring about change in one of the villages where many of the child beggars and street children come from. The village is well known as a place where drugs are readily available and transported. The team see many obstacles actively working to steal, kill and destroy the lives of these villagers and keep them downtrodden. The individuals making a living from lying, smuggling and trafficking do not want to see change. Going through the check points has been both dangerous and stressful for the team.
The Supporting Heart team leaders have undergone training in Community Health and Education that we believe will give them the necessary skills and strategies to help the community identify their problems and find a way to solve those problems and issues using locally available recourses.
The team at Supporting Heart is aware of many of the stresses and challenges associated with the project operations in Northern Thailand and Burma. Working on the border there is always the risk of political upheaval that can close the border at any time; there is the danger of repercussions from Mafia gangs involved in smuggling, trafficking and prostitution. They are acutely conscious of the Immigration Officials and undercover police of which there is always the allegation of corruption. From a health point of view the risk of Malaria and Dengue Fever is constantly present. Last year our team manager was extremely ill and hospitalized and one of the children working on the bridge died after a Dengue Fever outbreak. There is also the reality that working with troubled and vulnerable children can be very tiring and stressful and there is the risk of burnout.
Supporting Heart Mae Sai and Tachilek Border Communities Project is one of the most worthy humanitarian projects that needs your support. International Humanitarian Organisation is honoured to be in partnership with Supporting Heart. Your gift can make all the difference in the world to save children from poverty, drugs, prostitution, abuse, child trafficking and poverty.