Other than running Chiang Mai's excellent Freebird Cafe -- a Shan/Burmese vegetarian restaurant -- Thai Freedom House runs a community education, arts and language centre for both refugees from Burma (Myanmar) as well as underprivileged ethnic minorities in Northern Thailand itself.
Reaching Thailand from conflict zones inside Burma may provide initial relief and safety for Shan, Kachin and Karen refugees but their subsequent hazy legal status, ignorance of local language and laws and dealings with an often recalcitrant officialdom leaves them open to abuse and exploitation. Freedom House's initial objectives are to provide information and share resources on legalities, registration, healthcare, education, housing and so on to the refugees, and bring them up to speed with all things Thai.
Burmese Shan with their closely related language may be capable of picking up spoken Thai relatively quickly, but many of these refugees are from remote villages in conflict zones and have had little previous access to formal education. Teaching literacy in Shan as well as Thai is also important, and obviously learning English is perceived as a good way of getting on in their new environment. As director Lisa points out, in recent times Burmese courses are much in demand too. A few years ago it would have been the last choice among refugees, but with the recent changes inside Burma there is now a perception that a return to their homeland in the not too distant future may become realistic, so a knowledge of Burmese is advantageous and even essential.
Furthermore many Thai hilltribe kids -- Akha, Lahu, Karen and so on -- face similar problems to refugees and are unable to take up their entitled places in the state education system since they do not have the required level of basic Thai. Classes are open to kids from the age of seven up as well as adults. Basic, intermediate and advanced Thai and English, as well as Shan, Burmese, Thai life skills, music and art are on the curriculum, so a substantial staff is required.
All teachers -- local and foreign -- as well as management staff work on a purely volunteer, unpaid basis, so this is one NGO that certainly doesn't own any land-cruisers and faces a constant struggle to make ends meet. Approximately half of required funds are provided by the cafe and secondhand store, with the remaining half coming from direct donations.
There are plenty of ways in which you can help. Merely frequenting their excellent cafe obviously provides cash and either buying books or indeed donating unwanted reading material or clothes is welcomed. Volunteers to teach not only languages but also art and music are also always sought after, and finally, cash donations are desperately needed. We donated US$100, which will provide fresh soy milk, fruit and nuts for one month to students.
Each month a Travelfish.org writer selects a charity or non-government organisation that they believe does excellent work on their patch in Southeast Asia. They write about them and we donate $100, a small way for us to give something back to the region. If you're looking to give back too, please consider giving a little cash as well.
By Mark Ord.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.