To Benin and Beyond!

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So… time for some updates!

After returning from Thailand, I formed S.U.A.T. (Students United Against Trafficking) which is a coalition of and educators who aim to increase dialogue around human trafficking and to raise awareness about how it works and how we can put an end to it! Current S.U.A.T. member and co-founder, Diana Ciuca, is working to replicate the Language and Life-Skills Curriculum developed with support from the Davis Project for Peace this summer in Mae Sot, Thailand! This will be our second year with Heavenly Home, so wish us luck!

Also, I am working to open a chapter of S.U.A.T. in Benin, so that I can use the curriculum in Beninese schools! This curriculum was developed to target trafficking with an innovative, preventative approach that emphasizes self-empowerment, leadership, and social change. 

Benin is a source, transit, and destination country for children trafficked for the purposes of forced domestic and commercial labor, including child prostitution. Child trafficking is particularly urgent due to the influence of a traditional practice called “vidomegon,” in which poor children become the indentured servitude of wealthier families. Traditionally this opportunity gave low-income youth greater education access, but this has been corrupted due to globalization and child trafficking. A few hundred to several thousand children are trafficked each year to wealthier nations such as Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon, and Cameroon. 

To accomplish this goal, I’m working with grassroots organization PIED-ONG. PIED-ONG works inside Northern villages and rural schools to create a home for child victims of trade, trafficking and sexual violence and also rescues children from the South who have lost contact with their families. My goal is to merge the “Language and Life-Skills” curriculum with their pre-existing services.

Looking forward, I hope to standardize this curriculum so that it can be exported all over the world, as we all know trafficking is a global issue rather than a regional one! Thanks to everyone who has supported so far, and please contact me if you want to help take this project to the next level!

Sesa

Rolling down the window was just too much like right…

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Rolling down the window was just too much like right...

This picture was taken on the highway in Myawaddy, Karen State, Burma. At the time we were driving to get lunch when we passed this fellow talking on the phone in the trunk of his car… This photo is a perfect description of Burma. People just do what they have to do… I just hope he has on a seatbelt of some kind!

Mae Sot Students’ Final Concert

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““We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

― Martin Luther King Jr.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I would like to begin with a quote from Dr. King. Vision is an integral part of leadership and Dr. King was a visionary who could see the ramifications of societal issues before they’d even manifested– his sacrifice became our victory.

I think this final concert was a great victory for Love and Care, Heavenly Home, and for me as well! We all worked very hard to produce a great performance and I want to show off my wonderful students’ hard work and dedication! Below is a photo summary of Heavenly Home Orphanage children performing Fungah Alafia from Ghana and Love & Care students performing Lamban from Senegal, cooking mafe (Senegalese peanut butter stew), and performing traditional Karen songs and drama, and modeling in their fashion show!

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I think it’s safe to say we all learned a great deal from one another and I’m going to miss you all dearly! Big shout out to Thant Zin, Lily, Jose, Lenka, Mau Thaut Pa, Say Mai, Steven, Htet Naing Oo, and Saleck for all of your help and support! To all my students, LOVE Y’ALL <3

This will probably be the last journal entry for a while (until the next trip) but check out davisprojectsforpeace.org/ for the final report under 2013 projects! Also I’ve been asked this use this blog for a featured story in the CMC Magazine so keep a look out for that!

To Burma…or bust

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Since I came to Mae Sot I’d desperately been desiring to go to Burma. It’s simply across a river, but it seemed I kept having setbacks. Because foreigners visas are restricted to 15-day Thai entry when they return from Myawaddy (the Burmese town across the river), I had to wait until the end of the trip to go. One teacher from Love and Care wanted to take me, but then we heard rumors (that we later found out weren’t even true) that the bridge was broken and Myawaddy was still too flooded to visit. Though the flooding took a serious toll on the impoverished city, it was still possible to visit. Finally, I was able to go the day before leaving Mae Sot.

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I woke up bright and early, paid my last dues and set off on the adventure that would redefine my trip in just a short span of time. I went with two hosts who showed me around, noting that Myawaddy was a good example of what most of Burma looks like. If this is true… I can’t even begin to imagine what we might see further in. The roads were dusty and full of pot holes. At one point we even saw a huge boat on the main road near the friendship bridge that separates the two countries. We got around by motorbike– I’m assuming there isn’t much to choose from in terms of public transportation and went to visit a small nursery near the town center. There I met the sister of one of the students at Heavenly Home Orphanage. She was the sister of Sinoli and Rebecca and currently works at the nursery. They briefed me on the issue of electricity… basically Myanmar makes a lot of money by exporting their electricity to countries like Thailand and China, but doesn’t have ‘enough’ for its own citizens. Thus people in areas close to Thailand such as Myawaddy have to buy BURMESE electricity from THAILAND! And those in more rural areas often have no electricity at all unless they have a generator. In the capital, Yangon, electricity is more available but only for certain hours in the day and it can cut off unexpectedly. So… needless to say I couldn’t charge my phone.

We dropped off some books and headed to an area that had been severely ravaged by the flood. Image

This was once a small village, but it’s now little more than a pile of mud and sticks. On the left you can see a man sitting in what used to be his house. A few huts still remain toward the back-right, but most of the other houses were destroyed because the people cannot use concrete to build. 

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This was what used to be a man’s home. It is now reduced to sticks and mud. Next is a photo of him and another woman from the village standing on the building blocks of their new home…

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Conditions are clearly very poor, but the people were willing to let us take pictures because they want the world to know how they’re living–and most importantly that their government isn’t doing anything about it. Their rent is still due, they’re still expected to work (many work in factories), and they still have to find a way to eat.

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Despite all of this–many are still smiling. Like this woman: they still see hope in their futures. We took a trip down the city until we got to a cross-roads where we would continue if we wanted to go to Yangon and turned around to come back to the city center. We stopped for gas:

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And got lunch (biryani) but soon after it was time to leave.

A view of Myawaddy from the bridge:

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Seeing how rough Myawaddy is–despite being JUST across the bridge from the much more developed Mae Sot–gave me a new appreciation for Thailand. The inconveniences I experienced there would be nothing in comparison to trying to stay in Burma for any amount of time greater than what I did. I can’t imagine spending a night… We can only hope that the situation will improve, but it requires political action. Unfortunately, the US seems to be between a rock and a hard place with Burma because ‘putting their foot down’ with sanctions would give China the advantage.

On a brighter note, the going-away party was fantastic and absolutely memorable!

More information and pictures to come ;)

Sesa

Who let the dogs out?! (Woof)

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The past few days have been jam packed with ridiculousness. After realizing the driver who picks me up for school every day is illegal and could get in trouble if he were caught at the checkpoint he must pass to pick me up and drop me of, I decided to tough it out and stay at Love & Care. Though I love spending time with my students, they’re even better when not in class, I have a serious issue with bugs. The room I stayed in had a few spiders but for the most part it was fine.
Unfortunately it was more difficult to convince myself of this when the light went off. So I spent the first night in a paranoid state unable to sleep, but after that my coping skills kicked in and I was able to sleep there for two more nights without too many qualms. The first night I spent talking to a few kids about fake ids and tattoos (apparently sometimes Burmese teens tattoo themselves and their friends with sharp needles and ink at home, yikes). One of my students, David, had on a “YMCMB” hat which I found funny because I doubt he knows what that really means. The second night we watched “The Lady”–a movie about the life of the great Aung San Suu Kyi with grade 11. I’m so glad I got to watch the movie with them because it was a rare opportunity to observe the atrocities committed by the government and see the students’ reactions. It was even more striking because a few students had lost family members to the Burmese military. For the most part they found the movie moving but they laughed a lot. Especially because the actress playing Suu Kyi was Chinese and apparently spoke Burmese in a funny way. They weren’t particularly emotional even during parts where innocent students were being shot in the street, men were taken to the jungle and forced to walk through land mines while the soldiers looked on laughing, and monks were being brutalized despite their clear non-violent stance. Aung San Suu Kyi is my hero. Her sacrifice for her people was unimaginable. She could not even see her husband before his death or attend the ceremony in which she received the Nobel Peace prize. One thing I realized is that Burmese people are gangsta, especially the women. They face the Burmese military at home, the Thai immigration here, the diseases, the poverty, the dogs: and they work until they can’t anymore. When the rains started falling I still saw Burmese men working in the mud building tirelessly. One day in the market I saw women pulling mud out of a ditch with their bare hands after the flood. They’re so tough, even their uncanny ability to keep calm while removing roaches from living spaces with their bare hands. Much respect. Even more respect for everyone having to deal with these dogs…

So yesterday I went to visit my friend India in the hospital. She contracted dengue fever and cannot walk and barely can keep any food down. Fortunately she checked into the hospital before it got too serious but she still has to spend a few more days recovering. Since I work 7-days a week and had been at Love & Care the past few days I wasn’t able to go see her until yesterday when Thant Zin dropped me off. Though the hospital is very close to my guesthouse (just on the other side of the Rim Moei market) my journey back home wasn’t as smooth as I wanted. My Swedish-Sudanese friend Roaa brought food for us and since she has a curfew at the school where she teaches, she made arrangements to stay in a guesthouse for the night. She was staying a little closer than me so I decided we should walk home together and then I’d continue on alone. Not 5 minutes after leaving we ran into the first dog. We turned to go the opposite way down the street and saw 4 more aggressive dogs. We contemplated returning to the hospital but instead decided to call a driver she knew but he wasn’t available when we called. So we tried walking through the market where there were more people and I found a stick. Roaa had a bike but we were too slow when both on it (and we looked ridiculous) so we put our bags on it and made our way. One dog followed us, which was nerve wracking and even walking next to other people didn’t feel safe. Also I had to exchange 1000 baht ($35) for smaller money and I noticed some people who were clearly low-paid migrant workers watching where we were going when they saw all the money. So when we got to her place we decided it was safer for me to stay there, not to mention there was only a double room available so there was an extra bed. It’s amazing to think you can carry a stick and a rock and still be totally defenseless. After being chased by a dog on my bike a few days ago, I wasn’t taking any chances. The manager of her guesthouse said that the best thing to do if chased is remain calm and don’t run. Having a weapon helps but as mentioned above, it’s not always enough as they sometimes travel in packs. Seems so ridiculous to have to even worry about this, but in Mae Sot, the dog situation is real.

This morning I finally returned to my guesthouse where they seemed to be worried about my absence :-( I feel bad but I didn’t have their number to let them know. I moved back into my small and humble room and while returning my key ran into a Spanish woman who needed help translating to the manager. Turns out she also speaks French so we had an interesting Franish (Spench) experience this morning :)

Today I’m cooking Mafé (a Senegalese dish that could be called peanut soup) at Heavenly Home Orphanage since not all of them can come to the dinner/performance Tuesday. Nothing like delicious Senegalese cuisine to brighten up the day!

Hasta bientôt ;)
Sesa

PS: a few photos

Students from Love and Care performing traditional Karen (Donn) dance

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These doors actually do lead to no where

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Pork never looked so bad

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The first (of three) hairless dogs I saw yesterday lol

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Fashion and Food of Burma

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Longyi, a circle of fabric sewn end to end is a very typical piece of clothing work by both men and women in Burma. Though it may resemble a skirt, it’s far from it. It’s difficult to tie and confusing (for me) to bathe in without mooning all of my female students. They come in a beautiful array of colors, so far I’ve worn a blue and red one for bathing as pictured below:20130801-181424.jpg20130801-181436.jpg20130801-181445.jpg20130801-181452.jpg

Food from Burma ranges greatly with some Chinese, Thai, and Indian influences present in a few dishes. One thing I have found interesting is the similarity between some Burmese dishes and dishes in the Caribbean and west Africa. One example is the DELICIOUS fried bananas we had today. They also fry plantain but these were salty sweet perfection made from small baby bananas that were just ripe. Like the one I had for lunch yesterday.

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I’ve had spicy, sour, and downright weird food as of today (some sort of zucchini stuffed with egg was for diner) but I really love the fried rice. They mix in soy sauce by hand into white rice, add cabbage and onion (sometimes carrot or egg) and cook it on a huge fire wok. It’s delicious and one pot feeds 60+ people! Talk about economical! Below is the rice we had for lunch yesterday as well as chocolate soy milk.
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Healthy and nutritious but there’s not much protein or fat and also not many fresh fruits. Of course balanced nutrition means we need all these things, and students will pick bananas or tamarind off the trees for a snack but I’ve heard some have bad vitamin deficiency issues and sometimes get cramps and become immobile for 30 mins to 3 hours. This doesn’t seem to be a pervasive issue however, and illnesses seem pretty rare overall despite so much exposure to the elements!

I will stay again at love and care school until Saturday and then we are going shopping for the feast on Tuesday! :)

When in Burma…

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Yesterday I attempted to get roti and Burmese tea from a place called Lucky Tea Shop in Mae Sot. I missed my mark by a few minutes as they stop serving roti at 10am, but I had some delicious Burmese sweet breads which also had the perfect touch of salt and were very soft. I also had tea that was super sweet thanks to the line of condensed milk at the bottom.

The warmth faded away the last of my fears from the night before. I decided to stay at Love & Care school just in case Monday repeated itself. And boy was that a serious decision. I slept on a wooden mat on the floor, and thank god for the mosquito net that nearly covered the entire room or I’d have been eaten by all the bugs inhabiting the room. I woke up groggy and tired and joined my fellow teachers in time for breakfast. Then came the real challenge: bathing.

In Burma people don’t bathe nude. Rather they bathe wearing large wrap skirts called “longyi” that are sewn from end to end making them like a giant circle of fabric. They are they wrapped and folded like a towel across the chest and worn while bathing. They bathe using buckets of water and a bar of soap and clean the body clothed! With a small audience of my students who thought my helplessness at bathing was funny–I managed to bathe and brush my teeth without embarrassing myself! Classes went well today also and I will be giving three exams before I leave next Wednesday. I get more connected and attached to my students every day.. Leaving is so difficult!

Last night I spoke with a teacher named Steve about his experiences growing up in Burma. He said that school fees are very high and even after completing school the job market is low so most families actually discourage their children from going to school. He said as the years went by, less and less information was available for students to learn. Where there was once some information about general Aung San and other Shan, Hmong, and Karen, etc leaders there is now nothing. Most of history focuses on British colonization and war with Japan. For which, it seems Japan is often villainized but the Burmese government never talks about any of their own flaws or pitfalls. He says he comes from a family of rice farmers, as are many Burmese people, but the government controls prices of rice even when the weather yields bad crops and they often lower the price making it very difficult to survive off this business. Another interesting thing is Burma’s relationship with china. Apparently they hate the Chinese government, and people I assume. Nonetheless Chinese are rumored to own nearly 40% of the businesses in Burma. And there’s a lot of controversy over the quality of goods as well. According to Thant Zin, some foods such as chili sauce are made with red dye meant for dyeing clothes. After eating with the sauce, the hands are stained red. Also the cooking oil from china is not considered trustworthy but there’s no real food and drug regulation in Burma. Or at least not at the same caliber as most other countries. Considering how bad a state the country is in, it makes sense why no one wants to live there. Even Myawaddy, a border city just across the river on the Burma side is flooded still though its counter city Mae Sot is cleared of water. Part of this is due to the difference in sea level but also part due to the lack of infrastructure to deal with natural disasters. The situation in Myawaddy is quite bad honestly, some people are on top of their houses to escape the water!

In other news my american friend just found out she has dengué fever! Fortunately she went to the doctor and they diagnosed her early enough, I hope she feels better soon! So much going on, I’m just holding on for the ride.

9 day countdown…