Elaine Carton recalls a picture drawn by Kuang Site, a Karen refugee boy, in one of her art classes.
“It was a picture of a dog ... [accompanied with] a short story about its life. The dog didn’t have any mother or father and nobody in the world. It was really lonely and had no hope and no future,” Carton said.
The gloomy image reveals as much about an ethnic group as it does about the young artist who drew it. But if the drawing tells the boy’s recent history — and that of a displaced people — Carton said she hopes her art class will provide some respite from the sadness that the picture reveals.
“It’s a kind of release for the children ... just a little bit of fun,” Carton said. “I try to do a lot of art and games [in the classroom] — things that can distract them from their everyday lives.”
For a few months every year, Carton, 30, trades the upscale classrooms of a Banqiao school, where she teaches English, for the verdant rice fields and a makeshift orphanage and school on the outskirts of Mae Sot on the border of Myanmar and Thailand. There she lives and eats with the children, whom she teaches English and art.
A resident of Taiwan for five years, the Irish national spends the rest of the year in Taipei teaching, fundraising and collecting toys, books and clothes for aid organizations and relief workers that help Myanmar’s Karen refugees fleeing poverty and persecution in their homeland.
“It’s an area of the world with so much pain and so much poverty. And there is something about being a teacher [in Taiwan]; you make a lot of money and have a lot of time. It’s a skill we have and there is a need over there,” she said.
The list of organizations and individuals that Carton supports is difficult to keep track of because there are so many. The independent relief worker gives money to the Mae Tao Clinic, an aid organization that provides free medical care to Karen refugees, and Sister Joy, a woman who cares for Muslim street children (Carton currently supports five children at a cost of NT$5,500 for each child per year).
The majority of her fundraising efforts, however, go to Pipi, an elderly Karen woman who operates Hway Ka Loke (named after the region of Mae Sot where its located), on orphanage and school that provide aid to some of the thousands of refugee children flowing over the border. The camp has a school that provides basic education, sleeping quarters and a kitchen.
“The [Myanmar] army ... will go into an area and burn the schools down. And a member of the family will bring the children over the border to refugee camps or send them to migrant schools,” she said.
But the problem the refugee camp currently faces has little to do with Myanmar’s military junta.
Five months ago, Cyclone Nargis devastated the camp’s infrastructure leaving Pipi without a school to teach her children. Additionally, more refugees than normal are streaming over the border to escape starvation, which adds stress to the camp’s basic infrastructure.
Through three fundraisers Carton collected 30 boxes of toys, clothes and books and raised NT$220,000, enough money to purchase materials and rebuild the destroyed school — a building that is now complete and sturdier than the original.
For Carton, living at the orphanage and school at first took a while to get used to, especially the local diet, which included “snail stew and strange leaves.”
“I’ve never gotten sick but living amongst cockroaches and lice is hard to get used to,” she said. “I’ve had some pretty interesting [insect] bites.”
When asked why she doesn’t sign on with an international aid organization, Carton chooses her words carefully.
“I guess I’m dubious about where all the money goes. For me I just want to make sure it makes it to the right place. And I want the freedom to work with different kids,” she said.
“[Institutional] aid organizations usually want you to go over for a year and for me that’s too much. I can see why they would stipulate this … because the kids get attached and are really sad to see [us] go.”
Having worked with refugee children, Carton plans to return to her native Ireland next year and begin studying child counseling so that she can turn her humanitarian work into a career. But first she plans to travel to the camp after Christmas and spend another two months teaching and helping out.
“It’s changed me ... and when I come back [to Taiwan] I always feel a little sad because I miss the kids,” she said.
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