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Books build dreams for Burmese refugees

Korean helps kids to brighter future with English libraries on Thai border


For children born in Umpiem Mai refugee camp, it can be difficult to imagine a world outside the hilly settlement on the Thai-Burmese border.

Some have never even seen a settlement outside the shacks their Burmese families have lived in since the camp opened in 1999.

Now, one Korean man is giving these kids hope and a glimpse of other worlds by stocking libraries with thousands of books.

Cho Kyoung-jae has collected more than 3,000 books for four libraries helping the refugees learn English and study for a better life.

As well as supplying language textbooks, Cho has collected story books such as Gulliver’s Travels, Peter Pan and Harry Potter.

“Through these books, children can have more imagination and dreams and know the world outside the camps they are stuck in,” he said.

Cho’s mission started after a research project took him to Umpiem Mai, in Maesot city, in 2007.

Around 16,000 refugees ― most of them from the Karen ethnic group ― live in the camp 10 kilometers from the country they fled to escape war and the oppressive military regime. They are banned from leaving the Thai government-run camp at the risk of being deported.

Shocked by the poor living conditions there, he started visiting more of the nine camps in northern Thailand.

The camps have a total population of around 209,000 refugees, who have fled poverty and oppression in Burma ― officially named Myanmar by its military junta.

“The general living situation in the camps is so poor,” said Cho.

“Refugees are receiving everything from the U.N. and NGOs including foods, medicine, clothes, and educational materials. Although they can survive at minimum, there is nothing to do inside the camps.”

As well as problems of malnutrition and a lack of medical supplies, refugee children also lack a sound educational system due to a lack of space, resources and qualified teachers.

Cho said the best way to leave the camps was through resettlement programs, and by gaining refugee status in third countries, which are often English speaking. More than 60 percent of refugees departing for third countries go to the U.S.

“Many students are born in the camp,” said Cho, who said that almost half of Umpiem Mai’s inhabitants were under the age of 17.
Burmese refugees read at a Book for Dream library at a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border. (B4D)
Burmese refugees read at a Book for Dream library at a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border. (B4D)

“They really want to go out of the camp and want to see the outside world. As a result, some teenagers escape from the camp sites and go out to the border city or go to Bangkok. However, their status is illegal so they face dangerous problems like (becoming) illegal migrant workers and some young girls become sex workers. … So I think education is the only hope to make better life for them and their children to leave from refugee camps.

“As a result, English is essential for their future safety, quality resettlement and better life,” he said.

Cho, who worked at the Busan office of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea before starting his current international human rights law studies in the U.K., emailed friends and colleagues asking for donations of books.

His request gained momentum throughout 2008 and he collected more than 1,500 books including textbooks, magazines and novels, with Thai Airways agreeing to transport the books from Korea for free.

“The head teacher said that the books were so important to teach their students English so she wanted to have a library to store those books,” Cho said.

“As a result, I named this library Book for Dream Library because through reading here, they may know the outside world and someday they would come out from this camp to achieve their dreams. From this, the Book for Dream project was started.”

Now, there are two libraries in Umpiem refugee camp as well as one in Maesot, and one in Marhongson city. People in Thailand have also been contributing books through a donation drive in Bangkok.

Although Cho has raised some money to help refugees and the building of the libraries, his main focus is on providing language-learning resources.

“Actually, I have a big dream that one day I can build up an NGO named Book for Dream and set up a social enterprise to fund learning opportunities and materials for those in need,” he said.

Anyone wishing to donate books or find out more about helping the project can email Cho kj3854@gmail.com or go to the website: en.bookfordream.org.

Donations of any type of English books can be sent to: 602 ho 122 dong, LG Metrocity 1 cha Yongho 1-dong, Namgu, Busan, Korea, 608-890.

By Kirsty Taylor (kirstyt@heraldcorp.com)
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