This guest post comes from Matthew Allen, or “Teacher Matt,” a teacher at the Health and EarthRights Training program (HEART). HEART, one of our partner schools, is a collaboration between ERI and Dr. Cynthia Muang, and early this month celebrated the graduation of its first class of students.

I was lucky enough to arrive at the HEART site shortly after construction started. On the back of his motorbike, the program’s coordinator drove me out of the dusty town of Mae Sot along a dirt track through endless fields.

After 15 minutes of dodging potholes, we arrived at the training center. The site is surrounded by sugar cane and rice fields as far as the eye can see, framed by the mountains of Burma and Thailand, and in the beginning of the hot season the sunsets are spectacular.

In the far corner of the campus was a large roof made of huge dry leaves over a hole in the ground – the foundation of the unfinished school. In the week before our opening ceremony, half the students arrived to help finish the school, constructing walls, blinds, and pathways complete with handrails.

The students at HEART have to work extremely hard throughout their time in the program. They bathe, do their chores and eat breakfast in time for morning lessons, take an hour break for lunch and return to class until 4pm. After dinner, they do their laundry and have almost an hour to play sports until their two-hour English lesson at 7pm, followed by nightly homework.

I don’t know how, but some students still found time and energy to read for pleasure at the end of the day.

Their determination, playfulness and optimism were a constant source of inspiration to me, especially as I learned more about their difficult pasts. Many of the students had been denied education, abandoned by their parents and supported themselves by picking and selling vegetables or flowers at young ages. My students would always reminisce about how much they love their home, but the stories would often end with how their villages had been raided and burned down by Burma’s military. Close family members were killed or raped, and many of the students had to hide in the thick jungles of the Karen state until it was safe to rebuild their lives.

When I made my decision to work at HEART I knew it would be a challenge, but I didn’t expect it to be so life-affirming. Despite all the differences between them — in ethnicity, gender, age, and religion — the students were such a close, warm and inclusive unit that anyone would enjoy working with them. They are all united in fighting for a better life in Burma, and I hope the knowledge and skills they have acquired at HEART will help them achieve exactly that.

— Teacher Matt Allen