10 October 2011

UNICEF takes popular bloggers to see an orchard night school for migrant children

Children at the orchard day school in Fang, Chiang Mai. © UNICEF Thailand/2011/Andy Brown

By Andy Brown

CHAING MAI, Thailand - Thailand is rightly famous for the quality of its fruit. The sois (small streets) where I live in Bangkok’s Aree neighbourhood are lined with stalls selling oranges, dragon fruit, mangos and whatever else is in season. The brightly coloured fruit is piled up on mobile trailers: fresh, plentiful and cheap. But this abundance comes at a price. As we discovered during a trip to Chiang Mai province in the north of the country, many of Thailand’s fruit orchards are staffed by low-paid migrant workers, whose children rarely get to go to school.
The trip was part of a project to reach a wider audience in Thailand by taking 12 well-known Thai bloggers and social media influencers to visit UNICEF-supported projects. We hoped that by introducing the bloggers to issues affecting disadvantaged children, they would spread the word to their fans and followers, many of whom may not have thought about children’s rights before.
Our Thai bloggers included Chayapa ‘Bubble’ Boonmana, who uses social media to talk about nails and beauty; Kongdej ‘Kafaak’ Keesukpan, who blogs about IT and gadgets; Sresuda Vinijsuwan, a news reporter for Channel 9 TV; and Thanaboon ‘Ace’ Somboon, who runs forums for arts professionals and volunteers. The trip was sponsored by Sansiri Plc, a corporate partner of UNICEF Thailand.

After an orientation at the UNICEF office, we took a flight to Chiang Mai and then a two hour van drive to Fang, a town in the centre of the orange-growing region. Only a few days before the area had been under water, following Thailand’s worst floods in decades.

“The flood waters came up to here," our driver said, holding his hand above his waist. But now it was clear and the sun was shining. We drove along twisting, turning mountain roads, past bamboo forests, roadside shrines to local spirits and tall jagged hills that disappeared into a bank of clouds high above.

On the drive, I took the chance to ask UNICEF’s Education Chief Rangsan about the project. “We work with a local NGO called Group for Children,” he explained. “They provide flexible learning opportunities for the children of orchard workers. The parents move around with work so they can’t enrol the children in local schools. They’re also often wary of authority. We have schools in Fang and Chiang Mai so the children can attend in either location.
UNICEF pays for the teachers, plus monitoring and evaluation. The orchard owner provides the school buildings.”

“The key for us is scalability,” Rangsun continued. “We work with Group for Children and the local education authority to bring the orchard schools into the official system. This means the children can get uniforms and books, and follow the same curriculum. Most importantly, if the project is successful, we can work with the Government to roll it out to other areas.”

A boy stretches to reach the right place for his card at the orchard night school.© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Andy Brown

The dark night
We arrived in Fang as the sun was setting, and after dinner headed out to visit the night school. This school primarily caters for children who work during the day. We were travelling in unmarked vans to avoid alarming the plantation owners, many of whom had not signed on to the UNICEF project and were wary of outsiders investigating working conditions in their farms. Once we turned off the main road and on to the dirt tracks through the orchards, it was pitch black. The only things visible were the rear lights of the van in front – we couldn’t even see the trees. I wondered how the children managed to get to school.

Eventually we parked the vans and used flashlights to make our way on foot through the fields to the orchard school. It wasn’t much too look at – just a bamboo hut with a porch in front, illuminated by a few light bulbs. There was one classroom inside and another outside. Around thirty children sat on a mat at the outdoor classroom. Most of them were Burmese – I saw one of the older boys wearing an Aung San Suu Kyi T-shirt. They were watching a teacher indicate parts of the body on a large cartoon drawing of a girl, pinned up on the wall of the hut. One by one, the children came up to the front and took a card from a bag, with a body part written on it in Thai. They then pinned their card onto the picture in the appropriate place.

After the class, we were asked to introduce ourselves to the children. I’ve been doing Thai classes for the last six months so this was my big chance.
“ผมชื่อแอนดี้ ผมมาจากประเทศอังกฤษ ผมทำงานให้กับองค์การยูนิเซฟในกรุงเทพ ผมยินดีที่ได้พบคุณ ขอบคุณมากครับ" I said, which translates to: "My name is Andy. I'm from the UK. I work for UNICEF in Bangkok. I'm very pleased to meet you. Thank you very much.”

My colleague Cherry introduced herself next. “Do you know what a Cherry is?” she asked the children. “It’s a small red fruit,” one said. “It tastes sweet,” an older boy added flirtatiously to laughter from the bloggers and staff.

Yun listens to a lesson at the orchard night school..© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Andy Brown

Yun's story

With Cherry’s help, I interviewed one of the boys, thirteen-year-old Yun. He had closely cropped hair and wore a hooded camouflage jacket. “My parents came here from Burma before I was born,” Yun said. “Now they work as carpenters in Wiang Kham. I live here with my Grandma, who works in the orchard. I feel happy to come to the orchard school. It's fun. I like learning English, like the A B Cs. When I grow up, I’d like to be a soldier. I want to be a good person and do something for society.”

Yun attends a nearby formal school during the day, and had come along for extra classes. I was surprised to hear this so I asked Rangsun to explain. “The orchard schools are inclusive and any of the children who live here can come,” he said. “However, the teacher knows which ones are out of school and she’ll focus on them. She’ll also ask the children who attend school to help out and assist the class.”

Before we left, I spoke to the teacher, Saipin, with help from Bubble, one of our bloggers. “We teach reading, writing and numeracy, as well as life skills,” Saipin said. “I'm so proud of the children. They use the skills they learn here to help their families, for instance by reading drug prescriptions. When they’re older, I hope they will be able to earn a good living for themselves.”

It was a powerful end to the first day of the trip, and I saw a few bloggers with misty eyes as we left the night school. I remembered my own first time seeing a UNICEF-supported project, and the impact it had on me. Afterwards, I asked Bubble how she had found the visit. “It was really inspiring and I thought the teacher was so brave,” she replied. “She had to fight with the villagers and even her own boyfriend. They would say ‘why do you want to teach foreign kids?’ But now the village has accepted the school, and her boyfriend comes along to help out.”

To help spread the word about the trip, we had set up a Twitter subject tag, #uniblog, and the bloggers had been tweeting like crazy all day. I asked Bhee, Sansiri’s Social Marketing Manager, what the impact had been so far. “It’s good news,” she replied. “We were the fourth most popular trending topic in Thailand today.” Given that #thaifloods was number one, this was no small achievement, and I went to bed feeling satisfied with a successful first day.

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