This summer, I had the amazing opportunity to leave Utah for a small town in Thailand called Kuraburi, where 40 other kids and I were participating in a humanitarian aid trip.
A few years ago, a tsunami hit Burma, a neighboring country, causing millions to become homeless and jobless, with big families to take care of. Many families traveled to Thailand to find jobs and a place to stay, but most of the refugees came alone in order to allow their families to remain in Burma while they supported them from another country away.
My team’s main focus during our two weeks in Thailand was to help these refugees in any way that we could, and we started at a school that exclusively taught Burmese children. While at the school, everyone on the team was in charge of teaching an English lesson to the classes, as well as helping with any construction projects we had going on, such as painting the new playground equipment or helping build up a wall behind the school.
Teaching the English lesson was probably one of my favorite parts. I was assigned to teach the children colors, and came up with several activities to keep them entertained for half an hour. Maybe it was just the class I ended up teaching, but the kids were so willing and eager to learn, and were so quick to pick up the new information.
School and sewing
There was definitely a language barrier, but the students were able to guess what I wanted them to do just by watching my actions, and everyone ended up having a lot of fun.
One of the activities involved me shouting out a color and them running around the room to point to wherever they could find it, whether it was on the walls, in a painting, or on the furniture. When I shouted out “White!” they all stood there for a moment, and then looked at me knowingly. In a flash they were all around me, poking my skin and repeating “White! White!” over and over again. I couldn’t help but laugh!
The children were all so funny and happy all the time, not to mention humble. I gave them each a box of crayons at the end and they couldn’t have gotten more excited. They crowded around me again and said in English, “Teacher, you’re very nice,” and then scattered to color with their new gift. I couldn’t have been happier.
Aside from working at the school, I also got to visit a nearby Buddhist temple every day to meet with a group of women from the village for sewing lessons. Our team bought them two new sewing machines and taught them how to make these adorable dresses out of pillowcases. We gave them everything they needed, including lace or buttons to decorate their pillowcase.
We had been banking on spending most of the time teaching them how to make the dresses, but it only took all 20 of them two or three days to finish the dresses, and on only two sewing machines! So we had to think quick in order to keep them entertained and as ecstatic about sewing for the next five days as they had been when they had first arrived.
I am happy to say that we did, by coming up with other projects they could work on with scrap fabric. By the time we left, they had set up a small sewing organization in which one woman from the village who already knew how to sew would continue to teach the rest how to improve their skills even more.
The point of us starting the sewing club in the first place was to help the women support themselves by being able to make their own clothes, or maybe even become good enough to begin their own business using the skills they learned. Either way, I know they’ll benefit from it and I really hope they’re still learning.
Another of my favorite parts of the trip was getting to visit some women’s houses in the village. We just went there to talk and to learn about their lives and the way they view their culture.
It was this experience that really opened up my eyes. The house I visited was made completely and only out of concrete, with nothing on the floor except a thin layer of what we would use as cupboard lining. It was one small room, with a huge pile of stuffed animals along one wall and not a bed in sight.
We fit close to 15 people in that room, and the women eagerly answered our questions. Yes, they all had left family back in Burma, mostly their own children. Yes, they wanted to return some day, when they had enough money and resources to get a passport. Did they like it in Thailand? Not particularly. But the pay was good and the jobs were plentiful, which was all they needed to support their child back home.
The women also believed that all Americans drive BMWs and live in mansions, where they practically bathe in their money, which they use mostly to travel around the world as they please. We made sure to tell them that, though that may be what they saw in the movies, most Americans are not like that, and it was a very rare thing for even some of the volunteers sitting there to be able to scrounge up the money for the trip to Thailand in the first place.
However, no matter how often we told them that we weren’t movie stars or billionaires, we all knew that what we go through here is nothing compared to what they go through every day. It broke my heart and made me wonder how they were still standing, what with all the pressure they’ve been placed under since the tsunami. The women especially were all so strong and lighthearted, and didn’t even hesitate when offering us the only food they had that I could see: a nut to chew on from a very good-tasting tree nearby. My respect for them grew immensely.
So, basically, Thailand was amazing. The people were wonderful and inspirational. The kids were incredibly fun. The elephant we rode on our day of tourism was scary at first, but totally worth it in the end. The street food was delicious. The language was beautiful. The vans we traveled around in that were rigged with karaoke machines were always a party.
But most of all, the country as a whole was eye-opening. I will always look back on this trip as the one that changed my entire view on the human race and the human will to keep going, because they are both wonderful things.
Olivia Andrus will be a senior this fall at Ogden High School. She enjoys traveling, playing the piano and king-sized Kit-Kats. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.