Aw Myouna is 16 years old. He has a thin mustache that highlights his wonderful, likeable smile. An energetic boy, he dreams of being a cook. “I like eating beef,” he says, with a big smile on his face, a skill he learned at the Mae Sot market where he would often go to beg.
Aw Myouna is in first grade at primary school with Zaw Zaw Aung. He is 17 years old. Zaw Zaw Aung is also from Mae Sot, where he lived with his parents. He was often alone at home and picked up some bad habits: he smoked and was a petty thief. It’s perhaps as a result of his run-in with the law that he discovered his true vocation. Laughing, he says, “I want to arrest people and have a gun in my pocket!”
In second grade of primary school is another of Susanna’s boarders. Htet Aung Lin is trying to hide in his t-shirt. Aged 16, he loves to dance and he dreams of working in a Thai barbecue restaurant. “I like selling things.” He loves to play football in his free time, but for now, Htet Aung Lin is learning how to use a sewing machine.
Finally, we have Aung Taw, the eldest of these four teenagers. He is 18 years old and struggles to express himself but loves any kind of manual work. He smiles, saying, “I like doing anything with my hands, even cooking and cleaning the toilets!” His mother is deaf and lives in Mae Sot, working as a labourer in the rice fields. Just like Htet Aung Lin, Aung Taw is in second grade.
AN UNEXPECTED GUARDIAN ANGEL
An unenviable situation unites these four young Burmese boys. All four of them are Karen, and they live in Mae Sot in the northwest of Thailand. This region is known to be inhabited by large numbers of illegal Burmese refugees. Many look for a means of earning through offering a hand in the fields or on construction sites. But Aw Myouna, Zaw Zaw Aung, Htet Aung and Aung Taw have mental health problems, muscular dystrophy and aplasia, and are therefore left with no choice but to beg.
The other thing these boys have in common is Susanna Win, their guardian angel who has welcomed them into her home for the past year. She educates them and helps them learn creative skills. Susanna is 41 years old and a Karen illegal immigrant. She grew up in a refugee camp in Umphang before having several different jobs in Bangkok. Her parents emigrated to the United States and her brother to Canada. Unfortunately, Susanna couldn’t get the necessary documentation to travel due to an error at registration in the refugee camp. Against all odds, she began teaching a class for people with disabilities at the Hsao Thoo School in Mae Sot, where she came across children who were really suffering. She noticed the lack of monitoring of some young people who ended up on the streets. At this school, she met the four young boys and another person who was key in her project. Elisabetta, an Italian doctor, who lived in Mae Sot and used her medical knowledge to support several local charities.
Susanna first confided in Elisabetta her wish to improve the young boys’ living conditions and to get them off the streets where they were risking their lives.
“Myouna didn’t pay any attention to the cars when he was begging at the market in Mae Sot and so was putting his life at risk every day”, Susanna explained.
Susanna has been hosting a child with cerebral palsy at her house since June 2019. He is one of her students at the Hsa Thoo Lei School. “I’d been looking for somewhere where he could learn for a long time, but there wasn’t anywhere for him to go, so I decided to create that place myself”, she explained simply. She named her house “Mercy Home” and receives financial support from the Play Onside association as well as from doctor Elisabetta, who takes care of the accounting and the boys’ medical needs. And so was born the peaceful haven that Susanna dreamt of. A place where Aw Myouna, Zaw Zaw Aung, Htet Aung and Aung Taw can live in safety, play together and follow basic training courses to enable them to become more independent.
Susanna’s project is also funded by the sale of plants and vegetables that she grows with the children. They also sell woven pieces of work that they make themselves. She buys food on credit at the local market and pays in instalments when she receives donations. One of the children’s families supports them financially, giving them 1,000 baht per month (around £21). Now, Children of the Mekong offers collective sponsorship to make Susanna’s centre viable and allow her to welcome boarders.
At the beginning of August 2020, amid the global pandemic, Susanna chose to rent a house in Mae Kasan, which is around 15 kilometres from Mae Sot in the Tak province. This new house is in good condition and very spacious with a large living room, a small bedroom for the boys and a kitchen that opens onto the outside. It was only the latter that required work. Another building houses a second kitchen and a small room that is currently unused. The land is of course essential as it allows Susanna and the boys to grow vegetables. Susanna’s long-term dream is to create a thriving business.
“The biggest challenge for these boys and other young people like them is integrating into the professional world. No one wants them because they are slow, and so it is challenging for them to find work.” She would also like to open a café or restaurant where all the workers are disabled.
At home, Susanna prepares the meals, teaches the boys and organises manual activities for them such as arts and crafts and gardening. Another young Karen man, Dar Wait, helps her in the evenings and sleeps in the same room as the boys. He also teaches two of them languages, and all of them maths.
Sat by the roadside, the four boys chat and laugh together as they wait for customers to come and buy their home-grown produce. Susanna intends to encourage the boys to form relationships with people other than themselves. She believes this will all allow them to understand the value of money and how to spend wisely. While the rest of the world is being shut away because of health restrictions and quarantine, Susanna has decided to open the doors wide for her protégés. Seeing the determination of this 40-something-year-old, you can bet that she will succeed in her endeavours!
Would you like to help children in Southeast Asia going to school?
With £28 a month, like Suzanna, you can lift a child out of poverty by sending them to school.
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