Last year I was lucky enough to be involved in the founding of a new partner school, the Health and Earth Rights Training Center(HEART) in Mae Sot, Thailand. HEART is the brainchild of the inspiring Dr Cynthia Maung founder of the acclaimed Mae Tao Clinic, and ERI’s executive director Ka Hsaw Wa. Together they set out to combine issues of earth rights and health, recognizing the devastating health impacts that environmental and human rights abuses can have on local populations.

Situated on the Thai-Burma border, for decades Mae Sot has provided sanctuary for refugees and migrants escaping the terrors of civil war and government oppression in neighboring Burma. Here communities have waited for years, scraping together a transient existence, as conflict continues across the border. Meanwhile their homelands are ravaged by fighting and a paucity of resources, resulting in rampant environmental destruction.

HEART is not only a school, it is also a place to explore new possibilities for addressing health and earth rights challenges. It is also a family, and over the twelve months since its founding it has become deeply enmeshed in the lives and activities of the local community in Mae Sot.

One of my favorite parts of my work is spending time at the school. Located on the outskirts of town, it’s a peaceful place – frogs jump and croak in the surrounding rice paddies, bicycles creak over dirt paths and students play barefoot football under a pink sky and the soft hint of surrounding mountains. They study by day (and sometimes by night) in an open air classroom. There are the occasional puppies and chickens underfoot, and in rainy season the odd gust of rain might find its way inside.

The relaxed setting is brought to life by the energy and enthusiasm of the students, their laughter, hard work and constant songs. In 2011, HEART gathered a group of young people from areas along the border and inside Burma, representing the vulnerable groups of migrant, refugee and internally displaced people in the region. Many came from working in the health sector or community organizations, addressing the pressing problem of lack of access to essential services on both sides of the border. Some were from backpack health teams traversing the jungle to bring medical care to people who have fled to the remotest corners, escaping conflict and oppression.

Over seven months, I saw these students live, study, cook, eat and play side by side, sharing past and new experiences and hopes for the future, together with a healthy dose of practical jokes and mud football. They were and continue to be a family, connected by the shared aim of gaining new understandings of human rights, the environment and health along with the skills to apply this knowledge to problems in their communities. So with the second year of HEART program now in full swing, I felt it was time to revisit our twenty new alumni to see what they’ve been up to since we parted ways. I found our graduates hard at work employing their newly acquired skills and knowledge both inside Burma and on the border.

Several alumni now work with the Mae Tao Clinic (MTC), helping run training and research programs or furthering their education with internships and practical skills training. Two work in community health education with MTC’s Training Office. They are continuing their study of human rights and the environment, examining the impacts of agriculture and deforestation and the ways  these are linked to work in the health sector. Both are bringing knowledge of environmental and health issues back to the communities they work with. In the future, they intend to return to Burma to use their skills to improve the lot of local people there. Another alumnus has joined the MTC’s Child Protection team, conducting research and casework in migrant and refugee communities on the border. Others are working with the MTC’s School Health program, providing medical checkups, services and advice to migrant and refugee children through the local school system.

The majority of our HEART alumni have returned to Burma to work in medical organizations and clinics to help local populations with medical care and documenting their health needs. They are working with vulnerable groups most impacted by environmental and human rights abuses, such as internally displaced persons (IDPs), rural people and ethnic minority groups. They are sharing and implementing knowledge on the negative health impacts of mining and deforestation while working to improve sanitation and conservation. Others are undergoing further technical training as health workers, to join Backpack Health teams and other local organizations meeting urgent health needs among marginalized populations.

Alumni have also moved into community services and development more generally. Some are developing and teaching curricula focused on the environment, rights and health. Two work with a local women’s organization on women’s rights, access to health care, reproductive rights and issues such as the social and environmental impacts of mining on women. Others work with local church groups and schools or undergoing teacher training to enter the school system inside Burma.

Finally, one alumnus from Mon state, with a strong passion for environment, organic agriculture and sustainability, is working with this year’s HEART program as teaching assistant. Many other alumni have also been actively supporting the program and the new students in a variety of ways. They were involved in recruitment and promoting the program within their networks. Several helped in preparations for the 2012 Opening Ceremony in April, and others attended to welcome the new students and give their advice about settling into the program. Alumni tell me they feel a continuing close connection with the school as the HEART family grows. They will help mentor students and guide them into community work after they complete their studies.

I am immensely proud of these new HEART alumni and it’s been exciting to see how their futures are unfolding. I’m hopeful that their active and ongoing involvement in the program will help foster a growing network of health and earth rights activists serving the communities who need it most.