From teacher to displaced person and back: Volunteering during displacement

Self-built IDP shelters

Daw Chan (all names in this article have been changed), a 27-year-old ethnic Chin woman, is no stranger to moving around. When she was younger, she worked abroad in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, and sent money back to her family. On her return, she helped her parents with managing the Christian boarding school they ran in her home settlement in Paletwa, a township in the northwest of Myanmar. While there was no fighting where they lived, she remembers with teary eyes that even then there were displaced people from nearby areas:

The situation was really bad in Paletwa then, and I did some volunteer work to help. In the past, there was no war in Paletwa town, the fighting occurred only in the neighbouring villages. So my father helped those children affected by war there to continue [their] education. At first we looked after those internally displaced children, but later, we became IDPs [internally displaced persons] ourselves.”

This happened when the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group, was labelled a terrorist organisation by the Myanmar government in 2020. As a result, fighting intensified. In order to escape the fighting, Daw Chan left their settlement and fled, first to a friend’s house in a nearby town. Her husband was working in Malaysia, so she had to move alone, taking her then two-year old daughter along. Being forced to move several more times, eventually she found herself in an informal settlement on the outskirts of Yangon, set up with the help of the Catholic church.

Once she had established herself there, she saw the need for education for children in the settlement. They were mostly ethnic Chin, who have suffered from the lowest level of education provision in Myanmar, not least due to the lack of Chin language primary school teaching. Since they were now on the outskirts of an urban area, Daw Chan realised these children would need relevant skills to work there. They could not rely on farming as a livelihood: “… I don’t want their education to be left behind. So I teach them with a volunteering spirit.”

Initiatives like Daw Chan’s are exemplary of the support highlighted by the Protracted Displacement Economies project. Her ‘volunteering spirit’ first led Daw Chan to teach IDP children when she herself was settled. When she became displaced, the needs she witnessed among the children led her to carry on teaching. Therefore not long after her arrival in the settlement, she set up an informal preschool, using skills she gained through her experience at the boarding school at home, and basic training she had received in early childhood care. Soon she was teaching around 11 children, at first at her own home, even though it became increasingly unsuitable due to the disruption and noise it caused to her own family.

IDP children studying

She had been teaching the children for over a year, when she had a baby and took a break from being the main preschool teacher. On the request of the students’ parents, Daw Chan is now supervising two newly recruited teachers. They also had experienced being labour migrants, and then later fleeing armed clashes and human rights abuses. As one of them, Khin, explained: 

“I worked as a teacher in Sittwe, Rakhine State after dropping out of university during my second year due to financial pressures. Then I worked as a domestic worker in Singapore and China for over six years, but came back to Myanmar, as I was worried about my parents… Because the road is blocked in Paletwa township, I couldn’t go back home. My parents decided not to leave home, because otherwise the Burmese military or Arakan Army can come and destroy our house or grab our land. We fear both.”

The classes they teach run from 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday. They teach Myanmar, English, Mathematics, Science and Environment Observation. The course fee for each student is 5000 MMK (around US$1.75) per month; some of it pays for a stipend for the teachers, and remaining funds are spent on course materials and snacks for the children. Commenting on their pay, one of the younger teachers explained that: “We only get paid very little, but we don’t want to increase the admission fee because they are also IDPs and we understand their situation.” As Daw Chan says: “Those two teachers have a volunteering spirit. Who would want to work for 5 days a week if they only get 20,000 [around US$7] per month. It would be hard for them to continue in the long-run. I will retake the role if any of them cannot teach anymore.’

The teachers are not the only ones giving support. A few months ago, there was no dedicated school building or enough learning materials for the students. At this stage, a founder of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) active in Myanmar became involved. First, the NGO provided a mobile health camp, as the settlement has very limited access to proper healthcare. Then, with the help of the organisation’s founder, the residents managed to set up a new preschool building. As the founder commented, it is “… a safe place, where children can be children, can learn and play for a few hours a day.”

Multi-purpose building which was used for education
Newly-built preschool

Unfortunately, certificates from migrant-led informal schools are often not recognised by the government school system. Nevertheless, as one of the teachers explained:

“All 11 students here are from the Chin ethnic group, and although we use Burmese as the main language, we also need to explain to the students in our mother tongue... It would be difficult for the children to directly attend the [government] school that teaches in Burmese. Since the children here do not understand Burmese fully, teaching them Burmese through our mother tongue is essential so that they can do well when they start attending other schools later.”

Without people like Daw Chan and the younger teachers, as well as a committed foreign donor, the outlook of these children would almost certainly be worse. It is not just their ‘volunteering spirit’, but also the fact that they share the experience of what it means to be displaced, that enables them to support children in a way that recognises their needs. It may also help to label people as ‘IDPs who fled from war’ (စစ်ဘေးရှောင်) rather than ‘those who left their home settlement’ (ရွှေ့ပြောင်းရွာပြောင်း), as using the latter term can conceal their true history of displacement.

Eileen May and Professor Anne-Meike Fechter are members of the Protracted Displacement Economies (PDE) team. PDE is a project funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund (grant reference number ES/T004509/1).