SISTER EMON’S MISSION: WORKING FOR MIGRANTS
Each morning, the courtyard of the Centre is filled with the village children’s voices: recess has started. A few metres from the two classrooms, Sister Emon works quietly in her office.
“I speak English as well as a chicken does,” she tells me, with the sincere and constant desire which drives her to do well.
Aged 54, she is in charge of the Congregation of Daughters, part of the Ban Mae Tao Mai charity. Born in a family of 5 children, she grew up in the Nakhonsithamrat province in the south of the country. “My childhood was filled with love and care from my parents. My mother used to sell fish. She would get up to buy them then come home and breastfeed me.”
In 1998, she became a nun. After having worked in Cambodia for several years, she was entrusted with managing the Ban Mae Tao Mai nursery, set up by the congregation in 2005. “I arrived in Mae Sot in 2016, where the superior at the time told me: here, you work for the migrants.”
SAFETY AND LOVE IN FAMILIES: THE BASIS OF A GOOD ENVIRONMENT
The town of Mae Sot, situated in the Tak province, is an important border crossing between Burma and Thailand. In this so-called “Little Burma”, there is a particular atmosphere: Indians, Burmese, Thai and Chinese people rub shoulders, as well as many humanitarian workers. The Karen refugee camp of Mae La, established over 25 years ago, is nearby.
“Peace and love start at home. Family life is sort of the first school. Children imitate their mum and dad. So, it’s important to have a close relationship with the parents of the children we welcome.” The majority of the children’s families are originally from Myanmar and are illegal immigrants (Thailand did not sign the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees): they, therefore, find themselves with no protection against eventual arrest, followed by expulsion.
In the event of exile, the family network is weakened and the grandparents are the only childcare solution. Additionally, the Ban Mae Tao Mai nursery allows parents to work more serenely: they know that their children are safe at the Centre and are can therefore more easily make themselves available for day labour.
“In Cambodia, I had to visit the families. Here, at the centre, people come to us. It’s a house, a home. A home is a place where you can express your love and where you receive love from others,” explains Sister Emon.
CREATING DIALOGUE BETWEEN WOMEN FROM DIFFERENT COMMUNITIES
On this particular day, it is not the voices of children that fill the nursery’s courtyard, but the voices of their mothers. It is on January 17th, 2020. Organised by Sister Emon, around 50 women are gathered for a day-long seminar on domestic violence. The day before, the nuns visited each of them to give them an invitation letter. This simple gesture made them feel welcomed in their diversity and individuality, far from the generalisation of which they are often subject. Mr Kyen, the driver, picked them up from their homes. “If you are arrested, tell the police you are coming to the seminar, explain it to them!” Sister Emon told him.
Sandaween lives in the Tawitchailand slums, where Muslim Burmese have lived for decades having fled persecution. Mucharee lives in the Karen village of Paday. The women of Mekou are also there. All of them live a few metres from each other. However, these different communities have little opportunity to meet. This day allows them to meet and promotes benevolent discussion; it allows them to share their experience on a subject that remains taboo.
First of all, Sister Emon introduces the subject with a PowerPoint Presentation. Small discussion groups are then formed around the first question: what is domestic violence? Each person writes their ideas on paper. We help those who do not know how to write. These are the first exchanges. Then each group discusses possible solutions to stop this violence. Finally, each spokesperson presents their group’s ideas to others.
There are different types of violence: insults, threats, physical blows. Several women talk about their own experience with their children, when “we have had a bad day, for example” and frustration and anger explode into violence.
Mucharee explains: “domestic violence can also include silence sometimes.”
FROM WORDS TO ACTS
“My Sister, you have only invited women, but it is men who should be invited: they are the problem” whispers the translator, present at the seminar, to Sister Emon.
Since 2007, Thai law has included an Act on the Protection of Victims of Domestic Violence. However, the number of victims has continued to increase. In 2019, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 35% of Thai women have been subject to physical and/or sexual violence.
The confinement inherent in the daily lives of migrants exacerbates urges: promiscuity, economic difficulties, consumption of alcohol and drugs, these are factors like to amplify them further.
“During this day, women can share their experience. There are some things that you cannot get with money, but with time” adds Sister Emon. During the seminar, speech becomes and freer, little by little. In Tawitchailand, Sandaween left her family home. As the father could not take care of his daughter Yankee, she was taken in by her aunt, who also lives in the slum. Sometimes, when the house becomes too toxic, leaving becomes the only solution.
There are still many challenges in the fight against domestic violence, notably concerning education and the media; the main issue being that domestic violence is not only a personal matter but also concerns the community and society.
“I really like this photo of our day”, said Sister Emon, commenting on a photo on her computer. “This woman has a profound look, the cat has the same. It’s a look of protection, of compassion, of love. Ok! Let’s go! Time to Work! I need to work on my Burmese. We’re all students here” she jokes. “We will rest later.”