I work at GlobalGiving. Recently, my wife and I went to Thailand and visited this organization on our last day. They sent a car to fetch us from Phuket that took us two hours north, to a seaside town near the Burmese border that had been wiped out by the Tsunami five years ago. GHRE provides a full range of social services to Burmese refugees and migrant workers living in Thialand. Po Po, the project officer who picked us up explained, “Officially, there are 2 million Burmese living in Thailand. But we put our own estimates at over 4 million.” “Wow. How many Thai people are there?” Po Po spoke to the driver, who by law must be Thai because Po Po is herself Burmese and moved to Thialand 20 years ago, so cannot drive herself. “About 40 million, the driver says.” That came as a staggering statistic to me. Perhaps as much as 10% of the Thai population are Burmese. What it means is that 10% of the people have no rights as citizens and are under a form of martial law. Burmese cannot vote, travel, drive, own a cell phone, start a business, receive medical services, and until recently, attend schools. According to David Mar Naw, founder of the NGO “Where there is not a doctor” (http://www.wtinad.org/) whom I also visited, the Police check ID cards on highways and can round up hill tribe peoples on a whim, since most of these are from Burma. I’ve been to Chiang Mai twice, where “hill tribe treks” are the top tourist attraction, and never heard it mentioned that hill tribe people were not citizens. Perhaps that omition is symptomatic of a larger human rights problem in Thailand. Both of the NGOs we visited that serve Burmese migrants and assylum seekers gave the impression that some in the Thai government are hostile to these issues. Even talking about it carries repercussions. GHRE focused on human rights for Burmese migrants when it began ten years ago, but changed its name and focus in order to become more effective at serving the people and gaining access to the halls of power. Now they practice a quieter advocacy. A powerful senator in the Thai parliament sits on their board. That connection, along with a close relationship with the ministry of education, has allowed GHRE to become the first officially registered NGO in Thailand that addresses the plight of Burmese migrant workers. This year that advocacy and manuvering enabled them to open 8 official primary schools for Burmese, as the senator on their board helped create and enforce a law that gives all people the right to attend schools, regardless of nationality. Zurine of GHRE took us around to the various projects. We saw a school for kids ages 5-12 with about 40 to 60 attending. We also visited their first high school, with 22 burmese students who will take the GRE at 16, since there is no official diploma for them yet. The legislation only provides a legal right for all to attend primary school. Enforcement of this law is still spotty, hence the need for GHRE to run its own schools. We spoke with volunteers at these schools. I asked Max, who’d been there four years, why he came to GHRE in the first place. “After Peace Corps I wanted to get involved with this issue. Some of the other unofficial NGOs weren’t doing much to help. As soon as I came to GHRE, I knew this was where I belonged.” We also saw an AIDS/HIV hospice and a community center for children. They are trying to encourage burmese migrants to leave their children in the same school for several years so that their education and social connections will improve. GHRE does a lot to help Burmese children integrate into Thai society, while at the same time perserving their parents’ culture. All of their schools teach Burmese, Thai, and English, and they also offer saturday school for Burmese language and culture for those attending government schools. GHRE maintains a bus and driver pool to transports Burmese to and from these social services, as they would be deported for driving otherwise. This Burmese bussing service is central to everything they do, and deserves it’s own project on GlobalGiving. Everywhere I go, I ask about how the NGO listens to the community, because I believe that organizations who do the will of their communities achieve better results. Po Po noted that most of the staff are burmese and speak directly with community leaders. Also, GHRE has two weekly radio call-in shows where they educate Burmese migrants about their rights and ask them to call in with their needs. “Wow!” That kind of direct feedback is what I wish everyone did. “Could you possibly post a transcript of one of your shows to your GlobalGiving project page?” I asked. They’re working on it. But I hope you’ll be able to read what the community says directly in the future. Overall, I think this is an excellent groundbreaking organization. Thus far much of their fundraising has come through former volunteers, their circle of friends, and word of mouth. A school in the Netherlands adopted GHRE and held car washes and bake sales to help them, and GHRE participated in the Global Open Challenge in 2009. From my visit, I can say those fundraisers are enabling GHRE to do great work.
I've visited FED in Thailand twice, and have done some remote editing work. Can't say enough about the integrity of this organization and its founder, and the invaluable work they are doing for a migrant population that otherwise has zero resources and hardly any rights. The conditions in Southern Thailand for Burmese refugees are very difficult; they are not allowed refugee status and therefore have become stateless migrant workers, subject to tremendous rights abuses. Their mobility is also severely restricted. I've witnessed FED staffers' daily interventions in crises (rapes, murders, arrests, deportations), providing legal, health, and educational support for migrants, not to mention food & housing for workers and their children, but also care for an increasing number of orphans. And they really work hard to develop leaders among younger people, giving them work skills and language skills and helping foster cultural understanding between Burmese ethnic groups and also with the Thai community. Hardly any other org is doing this type of work in this area.