From Burma to Bangkok: The Long Road to Education

A seven year-old girl travels with her family from her home in southern Shan State, Burma, to the Maela Refugee camp in Tak, Thailand. The long and arduous journey takes the family of five (mum, dad and two sisters, aged four and 14) four days by bus, with numerous stops along the way to walk through army checkpoints. Behind them, the family farm smoulders, burnt to the ground by the Burmese military because the child’s parents refused to turn their small, subsistence farm into a commercial castor-oil enterprise for the government.  The little girl would go on to spend the next 10 years of her life in the largest refugee camp on the Thai Burmese border. Today, along with her older sister, she now enjoys life outside the camp. But her parents and younger sister remain.

shan state

That little girl is called Julia. Soon, she will turn 20. And she has just entered the second semester of a four-year Bachelor Degree in Communication Arts at Bangkok University.  Julia is pretty, petite, vivacious and bursting with positivity. She speaks energetically and passionately about her studies, the opportunities she has received in the last few years, and about growing up in the refugee camp. She has little memory of life before.    

Becoming a refugee

As part of a drive to develop bio-fuel resources for export, in 2005 the Burmese military regime began systematically ordering small local farmers to grow castor oil. Those who refused, especially in southern Shan State, had their land confiscated. Villagers found themselves working as forced labour to plant seeds. Others, including Julia’s family, were compelled to leave their homes and livelihoods behind and become reluctant migrants.

Farmers in Myanmar

Farmers in Myanmar

For many, like Julia’s parents, farming was all they knew; and all they felt able to do to survive. Julia explains, “Both my parents were illiterate. There was no other job they could do. If they grew castor oil for the government, what would the family eat? They didn’t want to give up their farm, so the government burnt it down. The other villagers advised us to leave for our safety. That’s why we moved to the refugee camp.”

Julia and her parents

Ethnically Lisu, Julia and her family were more marginalised than most. With Tibetan-Burman roots, the Lisu in Mayanmar form a population of approximately 600,000. The majority, 85%, are Evangelical Christian.  Maela is by far the largest of Thailand’s northern refugee camps, comprising some 6,700 households, amounting to about 37,000 people (The Border Consortium, August 2018). Julia recalls that her family faced prejudice and opposition inside the camp because of their background. Even Karen inhabitants, who make up the majority of the camp’s population, were wary of them and often accused them of being spies for the government! “Most of the people in the camp had suffered at the hands of the Burmese military”, says Julia. “They burned their houses and killed their wives! But we also faced opposition from the Karen people in the camp. They threw stones at our house.

Inside the camp

It is an understatement to say that life in the refugee camp was (and is) in any way easy! In addition to the risks to the safety, health and wellbeing of individuals, particularly girls and women, parents face the challenge of how to earn a basic salary in order to feed their families. It is illegal to travel outside the camp without the appropriate documentation which is difficult and expensive to obtain. And the consequences for those who do, if caught, can be dire. Education for children presents its own challenges! 

Though schools teaching in Karen, and a small number in English, do operate in the camp, for children such as Julia and her siblings who grew up speaking Lisu and Burmese, this was not ideal.  At first, it was very difficult for Julia as she could not understand her teacher’s language. Now, she is fluent in Karen, Thai and English! 

“ We are always facing challenges!   But   I am one of the lucky ones .”- Julia

We are always facing challenges! But I am one of the lucky ones.”- Julia

Initially, school and studies were a struggle but Julia worked hard. She was eager and determined to learn. She studied up to Grade 11 in the camp school, an achievement which for many children soon results in an educational dead end! Certificates and awards are not officially recognised beyond the camp.

Hope for a Way Out

Each year the Minmahaw Higher Education Program (MHEP) visits the refugee border camps to select students to study at the migrant schools in Mae Sot. The selection process is rigorous, with only 24 places available for hundreds of children from 9 camps. Only those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are chosen. Then, they must sit through an interview and an exam. 

According to the Burmese Migrant Workers’ Education Committee (BMWEC), migrant schools on the Thailand-Burma border are continually faced with budget difficulties. One consequence of this is that the matriculation exam pass rate at Burmese migrant schools in Mae Sot remains very low, compared to the national average in Thai schools. However, that said, migrant students gain skills they would otherwise be denied within camp schools. In addition to being able to study for their GED, the schools help students prepare for what’s ahead, as Julia explains:

I’m very grateful to the school. The school is very nice. It changed half of my life. I didn’t know how to write essays, apply for scholarships, how to write a CV  - everything! The school trained us for everything and helped us prepare.” Through the school Julia was also able to obtain a passport. Crucial if she was to achieve her dream of studying at the university in Bangkok. 

For migrant students, higher education is beyond reach without sponsorship. As international students, tuition fees, administration costs and living costs unavoidably exceed those of local students.  Following unsuccessful applications to several NGOs, Julia heard about Daughters Rising’s scholarship programme through a friend. She applied -  and was accepted.  “At that time, I was so happy I cried!” says Julia. With sponsorship behind her, Julia was able to focus on studying for the University entrance exam which she sat in May 2018. She passed, and was accepted into her degree course. But there was still a long way to go. Julia had to learn how to fly!

refugee student

Busy bustling airports, check-in desks (if we can find them) and immigration can be daunting experiences for many of us even if we are seasoned travellers. Imagine how challenging this must have been for a teenage girl, far from her family, taking a flight for the first time alone, and having to communicate in a language that is not even her second language!

After I got my acceptance letter from the school I had to go back to Yangon to the Thai embassy to get a visa. And then to come legally into Thailand we have to come by flight. That was the first time I went on a plane. 

“I travelled by myself! 

“I felt so nervous because I never flew before! But I can’t just rely on others so I searched on Google how to do the check-in and how to go there and I had to prepare a lot! The second time I came to Bangkok [to start at University], I took a flight too!

University and beyond

When asked about life at university, Julia speaks excitedly about her studies, an arts-based degree that ‘prepares students to meet the challenges and demands of the ever-changing field of communication by providing a broad range of communication skills.’  (Course prospectus). She explains some of the challenges she continues to face as a student from Burma living in Bangkok; and shares with us about her hopes for the future, after completing her degree:

We learn about technology and how to make presentations. We listen to motivational talks from visiting female industry / business leaders. We learn about the culture of other countries. This helps students to think critically; to form different perspectives. The course is really interesting. It really opened my mind. The course is taught in English but most native speakers don’t seem to care. Often they don’t come to school even! But we [overseas students] have to sit in the front row because we have to really study.

I have never been in a big city like this before. The first time I was in Bangkok I was so afraid to use the escalator. And even in the elevator I didn’t know what to press. I had to wait for someone to come and wait for them to press it! It’s kind of scary but funny too. I learnt a lot this year. I was really productive this year.”

Bangkok, Thailand

Julia has also faced her fair share of prejudice living in Bangkok, despite being a student at the university, as she explains:

When walking along the road, most people assume I am a maid. They ask me which house I am  working at. Or they ask, ‘Are you a cleaner at school? Most of the professors at my school are not biased. They give a chance to those who are eager to study,  I have only completed one semester so far so I don’t have many friends. There is only one guy from Burma. Most of the foreign students are rich or Thai.  The other students want me to hang out with them all the time but I cannot because I don’t have money and I have to study. So I stay by myself. Many of them are not serious about studying. But for me it means there are many challenges. But I don’t really care about that. I am learning for my future. After my studies I want to work for Burma Link. If the border refugee camps close, this is an organisation that will help people who get repatriated to Burma. They will serve as mediators between the returning refugees and the local community where they will go to stay. My dream is to work for that organisation, or another NGO. I want to help others, to give back. My Plan B, if the Thai government allows people to stay, is to work for another NGO that helps promote the education of the refugee children.”

Julia has come a long way since leaving her farm - her home - as that little 7 year old girl almost 13 years ago. It has been a lonely journey and understandably she misses her family very much. She last saw them over 7 months ago.

Julia has come a long way since leaving her farm - her home - as that little 7 year old girl almost 13 years ago. It has been a lonely journey and understandably she misses her family very much. She last saw them over 7 months ago.

 “Sometimes when I study I feel very depressed. But I remember, I feel, that I am the lucky one among my family and my relatives. Most people in the camp cannot even go outside of the camp. When they finish grade 12 they just get married and have kids. Even though I face difficulties, I am always pleased with my current life. Now, I can help others.

About Julia’s degree programme

Course: Bachelor Degree in Communication Arts, Bangkok University

Total duration : 4 years

Semester duration : 14 weeks. One academic year is two semesters of 14 weeks each with optional summer courses. (If students opt in to the summer courses, this cuts the total duration of the degree to 3.5 years.) 

Tuition fee/semester (for international students): 65,000 THB

Non-residential fee/semester : 10,000 THB

Accommodation, food & general living expenses / semester: 28,000 THB 

Total costs/semester : 103,000 THB / Approx. $3,230 USD


In 2017, Daughters Rising sponsors 7 girls from local Karen communities and refugee children from Burma, through University programmes in Chiang Mai and Bangkok.

As a small grassroots organisation we have very limited resources. Funds quickly become exhausted. But we are passionate to provide more girls like Julia with opportunities to further their education; education which in turn leads to empowerment, employment, and the confidence to inspire others. 

Almost without exception, the girls and young women that Daughters Rising has supported to date, either through community-based projects, higher education, or within our Chai Lai Orchid hospitality training programme, have expressed a desire to return to their home villages in northern Thailand or Burma, to support their local communities in some way. They wish to become educators themselves. Or start their own home stays, restaurants or other small businesses. Like Julia, they aim to use their opportunities to help others!

Additional sources:

BNI Multimedia Group, 2009. Myanmar Peace Monitor

Kathrin Wessendorf, The Indigenous World, 2008

Meet one of our students: Seng

daughters rising student


How would your friends describe you?

I am a good singer and I'm cute and smart!! Sometimes I sing too much and annoy my friends.

What the biggest challenge you've overcome to get to this point?

Honestly, money! I'm afraid to be poor. When I was young I had to live with my friend's parents and work for them.

My parents divorced. I’ve never seen my dad’s face - he disappeared when I was tiny. I thought he was dead, but I found out in 2012 that he was working in Thailand. Soon after Dad left, Mum went to work in Kachin state and she was arrested for selling drugs and sent to prison.

So I worked every morning making soybean snacks at my friends house, then I would go to school every day, then work again after 4pm. I made the equivalent to 15THB per day which I spent on my uniform and tuition fees. You have to pay a tutor or they won't let you pass your exams. I sent some money to my grandparents too.

I've worked all my life. After I graduated I went to China to work as a waitress. I saved 22500THB to go to university, but I ended up spending it on my sister because she needed it for school.

Then I found a non-profit organisation that teaches Shan history and English and studied there for free, in Shan state. It was very strict there! I couldn’t drink or have boyfriends. I had to pay 40,000THB to them because I broke the rules and had a boyfriend. But because I didn't have any money they said I had to work for them as a teacher for two years. I had 150 students. The people at that organisation really looked down on me, and because I was poor they said I wouldn't be able to study anywhere else. So I said, let's see about that! I found work with a political party Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, and because of that experience I could apply for a scholarship to learn English at the university. SNLD paid 1150THB per month; I taught Shan to a rich family who paid me 1000THB a month; I also translated books between Burmese and Shan. All of the money I made, I saved to go to university. I even made bracelets and clothes to sell, and every kyat went into my savings.

Eventually I had enough money to apply to study in Thailand. I applied for several scholarships, but I didn't hear back from any organisation. The leader of SNLD gave me 15,000 THB because they were so grateful for my help - enough to make the trip and try my luck.

After I came here, I found out I couldn't get any scholarships, and everything was more expensive than I expected - rent, visa, everything. I was heartbroken and started getting ready to go back to Burma. Then  three days before I was going to leave, Daughters Rising emailed me and offered me a sponsorship - I was so happy and relieved.

Who inspires you and why?

My grandmother, because since I was young, she has supported all of her 6 granddaughters to go school, first with a clothes shop, and then by working in a farm. She always taught us not to drink, take drugs, gamble or spend all my time with boys, so that we stay focused and don't turn out like my mum.

I don’t really have a relationship with my parents. I called them when I arrived here in Thailand to see if they would support me, but they ignored my messages. Then, when my mum needed me because she couldn't work due to an injury, she asked me for money! It made me feel sad and angry. I feel like my grandmother is the one who has really been a mother to me.

My grandmother passed away two years ago and I miss her every day.

Chiang mai


If you won the lottery, what would you do with your money?


I would fix my house in Kachin state. It's very old and the roof leaks when it rains. Five of my sisters live there, and I wish I could make their life more pleasant.

They are not as brave as me so I would like to help them achieve their dreams. My little sister loves sewing and making traditional Shan clothing… I'd love to help to pay for her to study in Yangon so that she could be a designer.

I’d also really like my grandfather to stop working. I want him to be able to relax in his old age!


How do you think Daughters Rising sponsorship has impacted your future?


I don't know how I can thank Daughters Rising. Before I knew about them I had to work constantly and worry about finding jobs to fund my studies. Now, I can concentrate on my studies without this anxiety and begin to think about how to chase my dreams.  

Alexa has looked after me so well. She threw a birthday party for me and always makes sure that I have everything I need - not only books, but clothes, bags - everything. She takes care of me as if I am family.


What is your proudest achievement?


I feel proud of myself for the way that I have overcome all my problems by myself. I know that am so strong. No matter what, I can do what I need to do.



What is one thing you would change to make the world a better place?


The struggles of my family have shown me that people should be so sure when they get married that they really love each other. Then, they should love their children and look after them. When I was a teacher, many of my students had been sold to the army by their parents, because their parents had drug problems or didn't use contraceptives and couldn't afford to look after their children. There needs to be better health and sex education, and easier access to contraception. This would have a very positive impact in Burma.








Sex Trafficking in  The Federated States of Micronesia


By Olivia Terrobias
The Federated States of Micronesia, or FSM, is an independent sovereign island nation and also a United States associated state. It is located near the U.S. territory of Guam, in Micronesia.

FSM is a source country for women who are trafficked into forced prostitution.
The women of FSM are exploited for forced sex trafficking primarily in the United States and the nearby U.S. territory of Guam.

The groups of people that are the most vulnerable to trafficking in FSM include foreign migrant workers and Micronesian women and young girls. FSM women are promised well paying jobs in the United States and the territory of Guam, but are tricked into human trafficking through forced prostitution.

FSM women are exploited because they are seen as an easy target, coming from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Jobs are pretty scarce, the economy is tough, and education is extremely lacking when compared to U.S. standards. With the minimum wage being just $1.60 in the FSM island of Yap, job opportunities abroad are highly sought after.

Women are allegedly exploited into prostitution by crew members of Asian fishing vessels docked in FSMs shores. The U.S. Territory of Guam is well known as being a sex trafficking destination for military and tourist men. "Special" massages are even advertised openly by people handing out flyers in the tourist district of Tumon, Guam. FSM women are tricked into forced prostitution there.

Local authorities claim that many sex trafficking cases remain largely unreported because of victims’ fear of being shamed and embarrassed in FSM’s very small, family-based communities. 

The people of FSM are typically very conservative and put their family's reputation and care above all else. According to the 2010 population census, the FSM island Kosrae had only 6,616 people living on it. These island nation communities are very close knit. Shame and embarrassment toward the individual and their family could spread very quickly if a victim were to report a case of sex trafficking.

FSM women are looking for better socioeconomic opportunities to support themselves and their families. And unfortunately, some take advantage of this and exploit them for forced prostitution.

The problem of sex trafficking in FSM is complex, but one helpful and actionable route is to continue to educate local women on the red flags and warning signs of potential trafficking situations so that they can be avoided.



Trafficking: Why prevention?

Trafficking is a systemic problem in Thailand. The country has a Tier 3 ranking in the Trafficking in Persons report, a fact which horrifies a government that’s seemingly powerless to make change. Despite their efforts, a booming sex trade and industries built on slavery pay witness to the sheer number of humans working in abusive and exploitative conditions. Being trafficked could happen to anyone, but vast numbers of refugees from Burma, economic migrants from Cambodia and Laos, and ethnic minority hill tribes are particularly vulnerable.


There is no question that something has to be done.

But trafficking prevention is sometimes seen as a second priority, less important than 'rescuing' trafficked people. It’s understandable because our hearts go out to those trapped in horrible situations, and we want to help get them out. There’s also something of a heroic aura around those working to help trafficked people: they go undercover, they organise raids, they ‘rescue.’ Prevention may not have quite the same glow. But we believe that it is even more vital.

That’s not to say that organisations taking people out of trafficking aren’t necessary. Many of these groups battle tirelessly for justice and help individuals restore their freedom, dignity and strength. We admire and appreciate them immensely. But wouldn’t it be great if those organisations weren’t needed? If young men and women were no longer vulnerable, traffickers would be out of a job and so would the organisations trying to take them down. That’s exactly the outcome we want to see. So we fight trafficking where it makes the most difference: before it's even happened.

The more we learn about how trafficking works, the more we realise how urgent prevention is. Young people are pushed into exploitative work for a host of - often heartbreakingly understandable - reasons. A mother sends her oldest child to work in the city so that she can send money home to pay for schooling for her siblings. She doesn’t know that the job her daughter was offered wasn’t what it seemed. A single mother is forced into sex work because she hasn’t the education or skills to provide for her child in other ways. A refugee, desperate to support his parents, goes to work in a plantation, but he’s never paid. These are situations with which we are all too familiar.

We want to take away the apparent helplessness that drive these decisions. We want to encourage dignity, ambition and independence in at-risk communities, providing young people and families with the skills and knowledge they need to defend themselves against traffickers. And that is slow work. It may not be glamorous, but it’s invaluable, because it saves people from facing the trauma of exploitation and abuse in the first place. You see, even if someone’s ‘rescued’ from being trafficked, the trauma resulting from their experiences is often so deep and so complex, it is impossible to undo. A person suffering from psychological, emotional and perhaps even physical wounds is just as vulnerable as before, if not more so.

It works, too. A stable and educated community is a safe one. That’s why we pour resources into education, both supporting local schools and running our own outreach workshops on sex ed, human rights and health. Our training scheme is another way we equip girls to protect themselves, by giving them key skills that will be transferable in the careers market. Investing in mothers with our artisan project also empowers the community, as study after study has shown that mothers pour their wealth back into their families. And our mobile clinic helps to stave off the kind of emergencies that breed desperate choices. Always we put the focus on the individual’s agency, their independence and self-determination: we can’t save them, but they can save themselves.

And these young women, these mothers, these families, are doing just that.

Migration: What you need to know

(Ronn Aldaman/Flickr)

(Ronn Aldaman/Flickr)

By Francesca Fletcher

You can’t turn on the news these days without seeing another headline about refugees, migrants or asylum seekers. Especially in post-truth America, these words are bandied about freely. But how many of us really understand what these terms mean? And how do the stories relate to the reality?


This is a vital issue for us because the many of the women in our programs are migrants, whether internal or international. Understanding their motives for moving is key to serving them well. We thought we’d briefly outline the three most common types of migration for you, so you can sound smart at dinner parties and be an ally to the migrants around you.


Economic Migration

When people choose to leave their home country for financial reasons, this is called economic migration. It is perhaps the most demonised type of migration. We have all heard people say, “Why can’t they just stay in their home country? They are just greedy for more money - they are taking all our jobs!”



In fact, most economic migrants are leaving untenable situations at home: it is only because of dire need that most migrants feel forced to leave their families behind and move into an unstable and unknown environment. Others are highly trained in a specific career, but are unable to find any work in that avenue in their home country.


Many of the women we serve send money back home to their families, whether they are in a different part of Thailand or in Burma. Without them, their younger siblings would be unable to go to school and their parents would struggle to make ends meet.


Plus, contrary to popular belief, economic migrants usually benefit the economy of their new country.



Political Migration

People can become political migrants for a number of reasons. Their home town may have become part of a warzone. They may be the targets of ethnically- or religiously-driven persecution. They may be part of a political party that is objectionable to the current government.


A political migrant will often become an IDP (internally displaced person) as he or she seeks to move within the home country to a safer area. In the most extreme circumstances, those that are able will try to migrate internationally, and seek asylum in a safe country. Political migrants are most likely to be referred to as ‘refugees’.



Environmental Migration

Not all migrants move because of systemic injustice or poverty. Many struggle to adapt to changing environments (often due to climate change but sometimes due to man-made situations, like dams) and when adaptation finally becomes impossible, their survival depends on the abandonment of their home. Others are forced to move by a natural disaster.


The UNHCR prefers not to describe environmental migrants as refugees for a number of reasons, but that does not mean that they don’t need just as much understanding and support as refugees.


Social Migration

Family reunification accounts for the majority of social migrations. Social migration also covers people who move for a better quality of life - like expats who move from the UK to Spain for their retirement, or westerners who choose to work abroad to enjoy a different pace of life and find some sunshine!


Internet safety and human trafficking

By Francesca Fletcher

As globalisation powers on and our world becomes more and more digitised, human traffickers are increasingly turning to the internet to find potential victims.

This frightening fact comes as no real surprise. Where else can such a bountiful supply of information be found with such ease? Millions of young people spend several hours of their day sharing information and pictures of themselves on sites like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, and with many users prioritising popularity over privacy, traffickers can peruse them at their leisure.

It is an uncomfortable thought to consider how exposed we might be to those want to exploit us. Particularly unsettling, though, is the fact that traffickers can use information that they find to seek out vulnerabilities to exploit.

Facebook isn’t always your friend

Many millennials know about the potential dangers of social media sites and there are plenty of educational programs to raise awareness in schools, colleges and workplaces in the west. Most of us know how to control our privacy settings and limit the audiences who can see our posts; we know not to accept friend requests from strangers.

For more vulnerable Facebook users, this isn’t the case. Many of the women in our programs haven’t had access to electricity or internet before. They come from small, tight-knit communities and now find themselves in an unfamiliar country where their language isn’t widely spoken. The opportunity to widen their circle of friends and acquaintances is difficult to resist. We often have to warn the women against investing too much in friendships with people online, especially when they seem to be particularly interested or overly flattering.

But it’s not just social media

A common ploy of traffickers round the world is to use employment websites to offer false advertisements of jobs in other cities or abroad. These jobs seem absolutely believable: often they are jobs that don’t necessarily need qualifications, like nannying, waitressing or modelling. Unsuspecting people keen for new experiences or desperately needing money are lured into a false sense of security with well-polished assurances of good pay and benefits. Once the target has accepted the job and travelled away from safety to the new destination, the trafficker can begin their work.

Again, young people and anyone facing job insecurity are particularly at risk here.

Turning the tables

Thankfully, the internet is a powerful tool not only for traffickers, but for those fighting trafficking. Governmental and non-governmental agencies are creating programs which use the internet to seek out traffickers. Activists have also used crowdsourcing to stop trafficking before it happens.

Anti-trafficking NGOs can also use the internet to raise awareness and funding for their programs. As populations become informed and equipped, they can start to practise internet safety more effectively and look out for people with vulnerabilities.

What we can do

Make sure those around you are being careful on the internet. Remind them to check their privacy settings. Find out if there are any internet safety initiatives in your area and ask if you can help them. Donate to anti-trafficking groups in your area and elsewhere.

Enjoy the internet and the infinite possibilities it can offer. At the same time, please be vigilant.