By Kate Evans, Senior Advisor ACU Foundation Australian Catholic University
The bustling Thai border town of Mae Sot is situated in the lush green jungle precariously shared with Burma and it is where on Saturday, the 23rd of November, ACU's Executive Dean, Professor Gail Crossley, led the graduation ceremony for thirty-seven ACU Thai-Burma Program students. Mae Sot was host to the joyful event of thirty-six Burmese refugee and migrant students graduating with a Diploma of Liberal Studies with one receiving a Certificate. The occasion that included lunch at a large Thai Catholic School was extraordinary indeed as the tertiary qualification awarded by ACU these hard working Burmese earned is from an internationally accredited institution and is a key to a very bright future.
For most of these graduates, the road to this special day was filled with extreme suffering and hardships that we in Australia can only imagine from the short glimpses we see in the media. The Program students of the Mae Sot cohort have spent the majority of their lives in the border refugee camps. One Mae Sot ACU study centre student, Albert was born in a refugee camp and is now 20. As a Karen, his family fled the ruling Burmese military junta focused on ostracising, torturing and killing in an attempt to enslave the ethnic group in Burma. His family returned to Burma but sent Albert back to live in a camp in Thailand.
When my colleagues and I went into the Mae La refugee camp, we crossed several increasingly imposing checkpoints; recently the camp commander has been tightening access. Never the less on a rainy morning we entered the camp where we slipped, slid and climbed steep jungle terrain through the mud, pass the fragile bamboo shelters with leaves acting as a roof and stopped at the unaccompanied minors dormitories for young boys and girls. These children, like Albert, have made their way across the Thai-Burma border in the pursuit of better education as orphans. We only witnessed a small portion of the Mae La camp that has a population of 50,000 refugees but the mass numbers of children living in these surroundings where safety, sanitation, food and healthcare was not assured made me believe that their situations in Burma must be so oppressive – still – to result to such horrific measures and separation from their parents.
For a select few of these refugees and migrants, tertiary education is now a reality. ACU Thai-Burma Program Coordinator, Duncan MacLaren noted, "Some of the students have already had interviews for universities in Hong Kong to study for a degree. Others hope to work for NGOs or to teach back in Burma where properly trained teachers with critical thinking skills are in short supply." Thus, Professor Crossley's parting words to the graduation audience: "The young people who graduate today are a powerful symbol of the new Burma rising from the ashes of the old." Albert is one such student; he is extremely passionate about being a Burmese Karen and would like to utilise his ACU Diploma to continue his university education and return to lead his people towards peace. Albert strongly feels in his statement, "I now believe my future is in my hands".
Tuesday, the 25th and Wednesday, the 27th of November saw the graduations of ACU Thai-Burma Program cohorts in Bangkok and Ranong, respectively. The first article of this series introduced the readers to Elisabeth*, the young Pakistani refugee fleeing her home country for her life due to persecution at the hands of the Taliban for being Catholic. Elisabeth has now completed her first step in her dream of becoming a Human Rights lawyer.
*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 please contact Kate via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 02 9739 2117.