Whether they are dancing to the “Cha Cha Slide”, laughing until it hurts, or eating delicious Burmese tea leaf salad, the 17 students at HEART seem just like young adults from any other country. You would never guess that most have lived in refugee camps for over half their lives, due to the greed of corporations and the violence of government security forces. You would never know that some have been coerced by the military to do backbreaking labor without any compensation. These human rights abuses and numerous others have become normalized to them, and everyone they know has been affected by the same mistreatment and lived under the same circumstances. All of these students, their parents, and their grandparents have dealt with human rights abuses. Now, these students are dedicated to making certain that their children do not have to suffer as well.
After two months at HEART, I have learned that every student has a story. Though I have studied human rights for three years at university, hearing these stories firsthand has changed how I perceive these abuses. No longer are they words on a page, a paragraph in a report, or an interview in a documentary. They have come to life in the eyes of a friend, the emotion of a speech, and the passion of a presentation. Descriptions of human rights violations are no longer merely words, but are real experiences felt by real people. While the students act like everything is fine most of the time, the truth is that they have been victims of forced labor, discrimination, forced relocation, unequal education opportunities, and more. These students have worked hard and endured a lot to get where they are today.
The HEART school curriculum focused on human rights, health rights, and earth rights, and hopes to increase awareness of these rights and build a network of educated individuals in order to empower communities to take action. As a volunteer teacher, I have been focusing my lessons on research skills, English grammar, mobilizing communities, mining and health, and corporate social responsibility. The HEART school also gives students the opportunity to conduct their own research. In September, the students will travel back to their villages in Myanmar/Burma to document human rights abuses and gather information on the impact of these abuses. Unfortunately, no amount of human rights training or research lessons can prepare them enough for this experience. They will have to face barriers like unwilling research participants, restricted freedom of speech, and limited resources. With student leaders still being detained in Burma, it is scary to think what these students are up against. The process of fieldwork is vital, however, to make the invisible become visible and end the cycle of human rights violations.
After about a month of fieldwork, the students will return to Mae Sot and compile their research into a report, which will be published by EarthRights International. Yet this report will remain just another report written on just another human rights abuse unless the international community chooses to lend a helping hand. With the international news suggesting that circumstances in Burma have improved, the international community has largely forgotten what the repressive government, the military associated with the government, and the foreign and local corporations working alongside the military have committed against the citizens of Burma. In the past 60 years (and continuing currently despite the recent changes in the government), these actors, among others, have carried out atrocities such as rape, murder, forced labor, environmental degradation, indiscriminate imprisonments, and land confiscation.
Without combining the efforts of the local people in Burma and the international community, it will be extremely difficult to improve the current situation and grant justice to those who have suffered at the hands of the government. The students at the HEART school are dedicated. They are passionate and they are strong-willed. However, these students will need support, not only from their communities, but also from you- the international community. The deeply entrenched problems still occurring in Burma have fallen by the wayside in the international news. Spreading their stories, sharing their passion, and inspiring others to believe in their visions of justice is crucial to their success.
Every week the students write eight pages of English in their essay books. Each week I am amazed at the profound wisdom that each student is able to convey, even in a foreign language. This past week, a student wrote an essay as if he were an American citizen. He wrote, “I wish I was lucky, like Hope, because she has the freedom to travel.” To a Burmese refugee, this freedom that so many take for granted is nonexistent.
This is just one of the many freedoms that we have at our disposal. The international community can do so much more than merely hoping the situation will get better. We can educate ourselves and our communities about the situation in Burma, write letters to the government and media regarding human rights violations, generate public and political awareness on these issues, help NGOs in their fight for genuine democracy and justice, push for corporate social responsibility, and be the support that these students need to make their dreams become reality, for themselves and, someday, for their children.