Liz O’Sullivan, Palms Participant who has been teaching English and mentoring teachers in Mae Ramat, Umphang and Klothor, Thailand since January 2020 shares Jacinta’s [teaching colleague] story for World Refugee Week [20th– 26th June, 2021]
‘To seek refuge’, a statement I think everyone can identify with in some way. Most likely, we have all sought refuge or simply asked for help when times were tough. For refugees this may be a key part of their experience but does not define who they are.
I think sometimes we get lost understanding the many labels: ‘refugee, asylum seeker, internally displaced person, stateless, ethnic minority’. Undeniably, our Australian government and others around the world use highly problematic labels such as ‘illegal’ and ‘boat person’ which further dehumanises people and in fact creates a false narrative encouraging fear and hatred. At the very least we can try to learn a little bit about the real lives and experiences of these people.
The theme of Refugee Week 2021 is ‘We cannot walk alone’. This really resonates with me. As a foreigner in Thailand, I have been given help by so many people in so many ways and have been welcomed as part of different communities. Connection with others is important when living in a new place.
What I have learned during my time here so far is that everyone has their own unique story, their own hopes and dreams and their own future, despite what label they have been given. I have met students and adults from all sorts of backgrounds and ethnic groups. Here is the story of just one person who I was fortunate enough to meet on my journey. Someone who became a friend and who helped me to feel less alone while I was navigating life in a new country.
When we first met, Jacinta was working at St Joseph School Mae Ramat as an English teacher and dormitory supervisor. She was the one who first helped me and the other Palms participant to settle into our room and she also helped us when we were trying to ask for a towel from the housekeeper but we couldn’t speak the language. From that first moment she was so kind and friendly.
I got to know Jacinta more as I had to spend time at St Joseph during Covid lockdowns and trips to sort out my visa. In our free time we played badminton together and drank coconuts picked from the trees at school. We talked a bit about English teaching and she tried to show me patiently how to prepare thread for weaving projects. When not in lockdown we were able to go and have lunch together at a café serving Burmese food.
Jacinta was originally born in Hpa Kant, Kachin State, Myanmar. She grew up in Laiza which is the KIA army headquarter and was a good place for doing business as it is on the border with China. Some of her family members are still in Kachin State now.
When reflecting on her life as a young child Jacinta said, “My parents were divorced since I was very little. I had seen my dad only two times in my life. I am not sure if I still remember my father’s face. I have one older brother. When I was in Myanmar, my brother and I didn’t spend much time with my mother, as our mother was always busy with her jobs. She needed to raise her two children and look after her family too as she is the eldest daughter in her family. So, I grew up under the care of my grandparents, uncles and aunts.”
When describing her arrival in Thailand, Jacinta said, “I didn’t know why I needed to come to Thailand at that time as I was 10 years old back then. But now I think I understand why I was sent to Thailand by my grandparents.”
Around that time there were wars in Kachin State especially around Laiza city although KIA and Myanmar military had signed the ceasefire agreement. Laiza then became a bad place for doing business and was like a ghost city. Jacinta believes her grandparents sent her to Thailand to get a proper education and to be safe.
“It seems like we were sent to Thailand illegally because all the way to camp we had to hide ourselves in the car. That was unforgettable,” said Jacinta. “I had to sleep one night in the car when I arrived in Thailand then I was sent to the refugee camp.”
Jacinta said that her first two to three years in the camp were like hell because of homesickness and culture shock. Later she felt life in the camp was like the life of a bird in a cage. “My life was only in the camp and couldn’t go beyond the camp.”
She went to a Seventh Day Adventist missionary school but found it difficult as all the teachers spoke only in Karen and the school curriculum was different from the school she had attended before.
After finishing school, she had the opportunity to complete further study facilitated by the Australian Catholic University program in the Mae Sot [ACU Program (Diploma of Liberal Studies) tutor at the time was Palms Participant Professor Roslaeen Smyth] Jacinta said, “My cousin is a former ACU student and he encouraged and helped me to apply for the ACU program.” She was accepted, completing her course after which she spent time living and working at St Joseph School. She is now studying a business related subject at Assumption University in Thailand.
For the future she says she hopes to work in Thailand until she saves up enough money to run a social business in Myanmar.
Jacinta is a thoughtful and determined young lady who has worked hard to get where she is now. To me, she is inspirational, and I see a bright future ahead of her.
Feature image: Sister Benjamin, Jacinta and Liz enjoying freshly picked coconuts at St Joseph School