By Kate Evans, Senior Advisor ACU Foundation Australian Catholic University
Having just returned from visiting ACU's refugee program on the Thai-Burma border study sites, I am forever changed. This June there were four ACU staff members working with the program and I was lucky enough to be one of them.
Since the 1980s, there has been a flood of Burmese refugees fleeing the brutal military junta of Burma. Many fled poverty by illegally migrating across to Thailand to find jobs while others found solace in the refugee camps located in the border towns of Thailand. Burmese migrants were and are being used as cheap labour and are often caught up in human and sex trafficking rings operating between the two countries. The refugees in the camps are forever in a state of uncertainty, languishing in a no-man's land with little protection for their rights.
In both cases, university education is a luxury. There are agencies and the UNHCR that assist in delivering education to Burmese children in Thailand up to year nine. There are even fewer that go on to offer "post-ten" schooling. However, tertiary education was non-existent, never mind any hope of a student being qualified by a globally recognised institution. Seeing this hole in the refugee and migrant education system, the Australian Catholic University began a program in 2004 to provide tertiary education for primarily the largest displaced refugee group – the Karen.
The past nine years has seen the ACU Thai-Burma Program evolve into providing a well-rounded gateway into further tertiary education and/or into critical positions within community-based organisations (CBOs) or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The program has now broadened its intake for each cohort to include many faiths, especially Christian, Buddhist and Muslim, and ethnicities - from the Kachin in the north, to the Arakanese in the west and the Karen, Mon and Burman in the centre and east. The program has graduated 122 students by giving the opportunity for those on the margins to access tertiary education; both refugees and migrants have benefited from earning a Diploma in Liberal Studies. ACU has also begun a pilot program for urban refugees in Bangkok, Thailand.
My colleagues and I boarded small planes, trains, motor-bikes, tuk-tuks, leaky boats to travel into the chaos of Bangkok, the heat of Mae Sot and the Mae La refugee camp in the jungle of the northern Thai-Burma border, and the monsoonal port cities of Ranong, Thailand and Kawthoung, Burma. My role as a member of the ACU contingent was to investigate the program as research for financial sustainability. In this political economic atmosphere higher education funding is tenuous and I am tasked with raising awareness about the importance of continuing to support programs that give hope to refugees and migrants.
The first study site we visited was being run at the Bangkok Refugee Centre (BRC). The BRC is run by UNHCR/COERR – COERR is the refugee agency of the Thai Catholic Bishops' Conference and a member of Caritas Internationalis. This trial program is based on the successful model of the existing ACU Thai-Burma Program. There are currently two students participating (a third has been resettled in the US) under the coordination of a compassionate and driven Australian Augustinian Priest, Fr John Murray OSA. The remaining two students had to flee Pakistan because of continuing and escalating death-threats due to their Catholic faith.
The expansion into urban refugees is a natural step for the ACU program as it continually adapts and evolves to the changing climate of the plight of the refugees and forced migrants. These two students are from Pakistan, male and female. The young woman, Elisabeth* had to escape to Bangkok – a city that serves as a refugee depot by the UNHCR on the way for third country resettlement – because her Christian policeman father was shot in the face.
Because of the BRC, Fr John, and the ACU Thai-Burma Program, Elisabeth, who had graduated from a Catholic high school in Karachi, has the opportunity to reach her dream of becoming a lawyer in order to help her people by tackling human rights abuses. Thankfully, her father did not die and the family was able to make their way from Pakistan to safety. I asked her father what he thought of his young daughter pursuing her university education. Elisabeth translated my question to him, and a father's pride shone in an enormous smile through ragged, still pink scars along his jaw and broken teeth. I had my answer.
Next stop we travel to Mae Sot to the largest ACU Thai-Burma Program cohort. I do hope you will follow me within the ACMRO newsletters in telling the stories of the program students and come to admire, as I have, their intellect, thirst for knowledge and kindness.
*most of the student's names in the continuing story have been changed to protect them and their families.
To learn more about the ACU Thai-Burma Program contact Kate via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 02 9739 2117.