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Displaced but still learning… at a camp in Mytkyina, Kachin State. (Peter Balleis S.J. — Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Bangkok) January 15, 2014 — When her husband is away, Bo Meh's life is limited to the confines of her palm-thatched home, which leans dangerously over the dusty compound where her two older sons, aged five and three, run barefoot to the neighbor's plot of land, just a few feet away.

In the village for internally displaced persons (IDPs) of Noilebeau, Kayah State, Bo Meh has done her best to support her family and to educate herself as well. Bo Meh has lived in Noilebeau since 1996, when her family fled armed clashes between the Burmese military and the Karenni Army. 

"I wanted to go to high school," Bo Meh says. "Girls can go. But it was too far and I don't speak the Burmese language." Although officially permitted to enrol in the national education system in Burma (Myanmar), many IDPs in the ethnic minority states are effectively barred from schooling due to a lack of education in their mother tongue and very real poverty.

The distance from Noilebeau to the nearest high school is approximately 20 kilometers, but this was too far for Bo Meh who had no motorized transport. There was simply not enough time for her to walk more than three hours to school each day and return in time to eke out a meagre living on land "borrowed" from the original inhabitants. 

"For three years, the permanent residents let us grow crops here, as the government told them to. But then we agreed to return to our traditional farming ways." Bo Meh's father-in-law interjects, explaining the absence of his son, who is currently farming a piece of land three days journey by buffalo cart from Noilebeau. Their family was forced to abandon this land as it is now riddled with land mines and other unexploded ordinances. 

"Some of our relatives went to the camps in Thailand," says Bo Meh's mother-in-law. "The healthcare and education are good, but there is nothing for us to do, no land for us to farm."

Bo Meh's family are uncertain about the future. Now that the government of Burma is opening the country up, rumors of possible return to ceasefire areas are circulating. One thing is clear however. Bo Meh would like her children to have an education. "We have a small school in the village, all the people with young children give some money and from that we can pay a teacher. My eldest boy should have gone this year but we did not have the money to contribute. Maybe by the time the second one is old enough, he can go. But I would prefer it if all three could go and then finish high school too."

In August 2013, we learned more about the thirst of the displaced people for education, when Bambang Sipayung S.J., JRS Asia Pacific director, and Peter Balleis S.J., JRS International director, visited Burma's Kachin and Kayah States. They heard from families who said they see education as the way forward, together with the strengthening of social support programs to care for those traumatized or left impoverished by more than 50 years of violent conflict.

Kachin State, in the far north of Burma, is home to 1,270,000 people. More than 75,000 have been displaced since June 2011 by armed conflict between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) over the control of natural resources and contracts with foreign governments. Fighting intensified in early 2013 and skirmishes have continued since. 

Some 90 IDP camps are officially registered but in reality there are more than 100 sites. In addition UNHCR estimates that around 5,000 IDPs are staying with host families throughout Kachin State. The IDPs can continue their studies under emergency conditions. With virtually no school supplies, however, learning is often limited to what can be absorbed and retained visually. 

In Kayah State, the 259,000-strong population is anticipating the eventual return of more than 12,500 friends and relatives from camps across the border in Thailand, where JRS has been accompanying refugees and facilitating their education for 20 years. Large tracts of land in Kayah, particularly in Shadaw County, are now littered with unexploded ordinances and lack infrastructure. De-mining preparations are underway along with plans to create new roads, delineate property boundaries and re-establish villages. However, it will be years before formal schooling becomes available to people returning to such remote areas.

As the Burmese refugees and IDPs look to their future, we are convinced that JRS has much to offer them, given our expertise in quality education as well as our long experience in the Thai border camps. JRS could add real value to the lives of IDPs and returnees in Burma through education and psychosocial services. We are looking to start such projects in the near future to give hope to youth and children like Bo Meh's sons, who might otherwise suffer an almost irreparable gap in their education that would severely limit their future prospects. 

by Junita Calder & Dylan Shepherdson, JRS Asia Pacific

This article was published in the latest issue of Servir. Click here to see more stories from the issue. 

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