Lern and so many other hill tribe children are the reason we do what we do. A 15-year-old Hill Tribe girl from Myanmar, Lern was born with a cleft lip and palate (CLP). Her father died from war-related torture and her mother and four siblings live in dire poverty in Myanmar, just across the Thai border. Unable to receive medical help, Lern was brought to Northern Thailand for cleft lip and palate surgery. I first became aware of her in December 2010 when a group of T4T volunteers visited the Romklaopangtong (King’s) School in Maehongson Province. T4T volunteer Lise Flocken noticed nine-year-old Lern and tried to draw her out, but she was shy and couldn’t speak. In the mountains of Thailand, proper care, support and rehabilitation (dental and speech therapy) is simply not available, especially for a child like Lern with no family to advocate for her, and money to pay for the treatment.
Over the past six years (2010-2016) I’ve been monitoring Lern’s progress. At first, she wouldn’t look at me and didn’t speak. During this same time I became the Godmother to Carter, a boy from China, who was also born with a cleft palate. The adopted child of Lise and her family, Carter’s CLP has required the coordinated care of various providers including otolaryngology, dentistry, speech pathology, audiology, and genetics. His treatment is challenging, lengthy, and costly, requiring multiple surgeries, speech therapy, and an individual education plan.
During my biannual trips to Maehongson, I brought Lern gifts (usually clothes and a personal item, like a necklace, hair pins). When I asked her to give me a list of items she needed, she asked for shampoo, a wash cloth, toothbrush, toothpaste, skin lotion, powder, soap, a bowl for washing clothes, a basket, and hangers.
About four years after we first met, Lern started to change. The school director thought it was because she became active with the school’s aerobic dance team and is a talented athlete The King’s School’s aerobic dance team won 4th place award in a National Thailand Competition in 2013. Lern has also been involved with the school’s agricultural program working with BonChui (Boon-Chew), an autistic man who manages the livestock and garden. She enjoys digging in the garden and working with animals, is a good cook, and helps out with food preparation in the school’s kitchen. Eventually, during my visits, I would walk hand in hand with Lern and get a tour of the school garden and T4T donated pig pens. Lern always had a smile when she showed me the new piglets.
Recently Lern has started to speak and is able to communicate with her classmates and teachers. I am told Lern’s verbal communication is difficult to understand but she has a good vocabulary and is able to follow complex directions. Living in the remote Romklaopangtong School with almost 150 children from various Hill Tribal groups, 80% undocumented from Myanmar, Lern has found a place to learn, develop skills, and form friendships. The teachers and staff enjoy Lern’s sweet presence and her sincere interest in being of service to her community. I’m told Lern is one of the first students to volunteer for school clean up projects and to help in the garden.
After six years living at the King’s School, learning Thai language, customs and culture, Lern’s mother is requesting that her daughter return “home” to Myanmar to earn money for the family. Lern is in essence being “recalled” to help care for her siblings and earn money for the family.
Dr. Chadapon Chaiya, School Director of the Romklaopangtong School has visited Lern’s village and says the living conditions are appalling–the school has no books or pencils, and the community has little safe drinking water and poor health care. https://www.facebook.com/chaiya.romklao Chadapon is advocating for Lern to stay at the King’s School for another year, until she is 16 when she’ll finish her primary education.
At this writing, I don’t know what Lern will do. Like other undocumented children from Myanmar she feels a strong obligation to help her family. If she returns to Myanmar she will be a child laborer. If she is one of the lucky ones, Lern will work picking potatoes and earn around $3 for a full day of back-breaking work in the hot sun. But for Lern, a disadvantaged girl with limited language skills, the risk of falling into drug running or prostitution are very real.
Over the past decade working with Hill Tribal schools in Maehongson, I have met hundreds of children, shared special meals, and celebrated cultural exchange at the Small World Festivals. Through translators I have interviewed a handful of scholarship students and gotten a glimpse into their life stories and dreams for the future. I am hopeful that some of the children from the mountains will learn to navigate their way into mainstream Thai society and make a better life for themselves then their illiterate and impoverished parents.
But I am tormented about what will happen to Lern and what intervention on my part would be appropriate. My friend Dr. Chaiya notes that just giving money to Lern’s family would not be a solution. I ask about the possibility of Lern working in Thailand and sending money home to Myanmar…this option comes with the complications of work permits and citizenship issues.
During April, schools in Thailand are on break and regular classes are not in session. Children who cannot return to their families stay at the school, participate in chores and games…and wait for school to resume in mid-May. My next planned trip to Maehongson is May 31-June 7th and I plan to visit the King’s School and my sincere hope is that I will see Lern there, ask her what is on her “needs” list, hold her hand as we walk through the King’s school gardens and pig stalls, and smile at the new born piglets.
In Thailand, there is a need for more speech pathologists and audiologists. According to Transforming Faces “There are 279 professional involved in communication disorders for a population of 67 million.”
2016 article about migrant children in Thailand in Bangkok Post: