In July I had the opportunity to visit Myanmar, my first visit to this country. Along with opportunities to encounter the diverse cultural life of the people, my visit also gave me some moving and inspiring experiences of the transformative power of education.
Only in recent years has Myanmar emerged from decades of military rule. Even though civilian leadership and the opening up of the economy have encouraged social reforms and rapid development, the military continues to cast a shadow over political and economic life.
Alongside the brutal campaigns against the Rohingya, other ethnic minorities also continue to suffer from enduring conflict and the insecurity and harsh conditions of displacement camps. Health and education services have been neglected for decades.
The country has also become one of the world’s top producers of heroin, and there is a growing trade in human trafficking. Too many people live on the margins, excluded from the opportunities of development and vulnerable to exploitation.
It is at these margins of society that the Myanmar Jesuit community focuses its efforts. Supported by Jesuit Mission, the Jesuits run education projects that give students access to quality education through scholarships, teacher training, language courses and two higher education institutes.
The Jesuit programs target students who often face barriers to educational opportunities due to their ethnic background or economic and social circumstances. Hungry to acquire skills and knowledge, students also benefit from an Ignatian approach to teaching, developing critical thinking skills, striving to develop their full potential, actively discerning the best path forward and using their gifts and talents for the service of their community.
Thingangyun is a slum area in the eastern part of Yangon where over 200,000 people live in the most basic conditions. Shelters are made from anything residents can obtain — tin, bamboo, wood or plastic. The homes are so tiny that there is hardly space for people to cook, eat or even sleep. Their few possessions are stored carefully on the ground or walls.
There is no electricity, sanitation, water or privacy. The stench of rubbish and rainy season damp is everywhere. It regularly floods. Many of the residents eke out a living selling flowers or food or collecting items to sell from the rubbish. Children miss school to help their families earn some kyat to buy rice for a meal. A daily meal is by no means guaranteed.
Families living here are vulnerable to sickness and malnutrition. Many are here because they are excluded from economic and educational opportunities because of entrenched ethnic and religious discrimination.
Many in Myanmar close their eyes to the conditions in which these people are forced to exist. In contrast, here in Thingangyun, the Jesuits accompany poor and vulnerable families, affirming their dignity and providing practical opportunities to improve their lives.
The Jesuits have established a housing project to improve living conditions, micro-credit opportunities to establish livelihoods, and a community school. This is only possible through the building of trust and friendship with the residents. Community development workers visit the homes to identify and assess needs and monitor ongoing welfare concerns.
The school is small and sparse but provides a dry and safe place for students to learn. Volunteer teachers run classes and study groups in the evening for children whose motivation to learn is not stifled by the precarious conditions of their lives.
Poverty presents all kinds of challenges that affect the students’ ability to learn and progress. However the commitment to accompany and support them affirms that their lives are valued and encourages a tangible hope for a future of inclusion and participation.
The Jesuits have also established the Yangon Loyola Community College, which provides vocational training for young people who are usually excluded from access to such programs. Training is provided in the areas of accountancy, computers, English and life skills. Work experience placements are also organised for the students. In the school’s first year, 15 out of the 16 graduates were able to find full-time employment.
The Inigo English Academy provides English language training in day, afternoon or evening classes. The classes are structured so that while learning English, the students experience dialogue between the different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Such opportunities are significant in this ethnically diverse and often fractured society.
Between morning and afternoon sessions, the classroom is transformed into a dining area where teachers and students share their simple meals and conversation. Here, the divisions and prejudices experienced in broader society do not exist.
An overnight bus trip brought me to Taunggyi, the capital of Shan state, a bustling city on a mountain ridge. Here I was able to visit Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (SAG) Institute where over 400 students study English, humanities and social science. The students reflect the ethnic diversity of Myanmar, coming from Kayah, Kachin, Intha, Karen, Shan, and other places.
Students from poor backgrounds or distant regions can board in the hostels and access the nutrition program provided. The experience of learning and living together breaks down barriers and promotes positive relationships between different ethnic groups and religions.
In Taunggyi, too, young, committed women from different ethnic groups and faiths run free English language classes at monastery schools crowded with young children from outlying villages, many of whom are orphans. They run these after school hours every weekday. There might be up to 80 students in a class.
The children live in very simple conditions at the monasteries. Classrooms are basic tables and benches in a hall that we might call a shed. The lessons were well-prepared and engaging, reflecting the passion of the young teachers and the students’ hunger to learn.
Whether in Australia or in Taunggi, education opens opportunities for each student to fulfil their unique potential. Fostering this potential, nurturing the hope to achieve it, providing the knowledge and skills and accompanying students past all the barriers that might prevent it, is a commitment lived out daily by the Jesuits and their colleagues in Myanmar.
By choosing to accompany the people who live on the margins of society, they are also fostering the aspiration that all people can live with dignity in a just and peaceful nation.
Louise Crowe, Loyola College Watsonia, Vic.
The programs and projects mentioned in this article are supported by Jesuit Mission Australia. You can make a real difference to individuals and communities overseas to Jesuit Mission through various ways:
- Click here to make a tax-deductible donation.
- Click here to volunteer your time and skills to various projects.
- Click here if you would like to fundraise to support their work.
- Click here if you would like to make a regular donation through monthly giving.
Every amount will help create change for women, men and children who are living in the margins, suffering the indignity of poverty and injustice.