Mae Sot is a fascinating place. It’s a town in western Thailand that hugs the border with Burma and has a culture that is distinctively Burmese. The best restaurants in town are Burmese, which sell tea leaf salad, tomato salad and fragrant curries. Women in longyis swirl thanaka on their faces to protect their skin from the hot sun. And somewhere on the streets you can usually hear the ‘tak, tak, tak’ sound of boys playing cane ball. It’s estimated up to 70 per cent of the 120,000 people living here are Burmese, mostly economic migrants or refugees who have fled the atrocities their government has inflicted on ethnic minority groups such as the Karen.The Karen people are some of the most hospitable and friendly people you will ever meet. They greet you with “have you eaten yet?” and without second thought will share what little they have. Like most of the foreigners in Mae Sot, I’ve come here to volunteer with an NGO that helps Burmese refugees. I am working with Help Without Frontiers, a non-profit organization that funds 12 schools for migrant children.
Recently, our organization was faced with a tragedy. On March 11, a school bus (basically a pickup truck with wooden seats in a covered cab) driving 40 students to 42 kilometre school was struck by a speeding car. The school bus tipped over and children were ejected all over the road. The three-month-old baby of the teacher in the truck was killed and 28 children were injured. Six of the kids suffered very serious injuries — one child, Sein Pa Muay was in intensive care because of a collapsed lung and broken collarbone with made every breath a struggle. Si Thu Aung, 12, had the skin and muscle of his left calf torn to pieces. Doctors tried to prevent infection and hoped to rebuild the leg but sadly, they had to amputate his leg. His younger cousin, Nway Nway Hlaing, 11, had to have four toes amputated. Several volunteers and I have been visiting the Mae Sot hospital to play with the kids and keep their spirits up. Some were discharged after a few days while Nway Nway Hlaing was there for 19 days and Si Thu Aung is still in hospital. I was playing with Nway Nway Hlaing the day before she was discharged. She seemed to be in good spirits and she was ecstatic to see that Flo and I were there to play with her. Her big brown eyes lit up when her aunt brought her a present — a Barbie doll set with two girl dolls (and six ball gowns to choose from) and one Ken doll dressed in a full tuxedo and ready to impress with his violin. Flo of course took the Ken doll and played some music while Nway Nway Hlaing and I danced our dolls around the hospital bed.Si Thu Aung cheered up a bit when I brought him my iPhone so he could play Angry Birds but in general he seemed sad and lonely. He had lost so much weight that when I put my hand on his back I could feel his spine through the hospital gown. I couldn’t stay long with him because he was in an isolated room with signs that warned to keep out to prevent infection.
Nway Nway Hlaing was well enough to prop herself up and give an interview to peer youth leaders Kat and Kiki who are filming a documentary about the kids' recovery. The articulate 11-year-old explained in Burmese that she and her friends were talking and laughing in the back of the truck when all of a sudden they heard a loud smash and were suddenly thrown all about the truck. She said they were scared and there was lots of screaming and crying. I can’t begin to imagine how terrified the kids must have been. Their families barely have enough money to feed them let alone pay for expensive medical bills. Overall, the medical bills will be over 100,000 baht, including an expensive prosthetic leg for Si Thu Aung. To try and cover these costs, Help Without Frontiers and Colabora Birmania (which also funds 42 kilometre school) are planning a dinner and benefit concert at Exppact Bar on Saturday April 27. It's called Help for 42. Tickets can be purchased at the door for 150 Baht for dinner or 50 Baht for dessert only. Right now we’re in the process of collecting donations for a raffle (such as prizes, gift certificates and services) as well as art work for a live and silent auction. If you know of any businesses who would like to donate and help these children, please have them contact me at email@example.com. We can’t undo the pain and suffering these kids have endured but we can support them and their families to make sure they can recover in the future.