Burmese migrants and refugees are benefitting from projects supported by Jesuit Mission in Mae Sot, a Thai town which sits close to the border with Burma, reports Catherine Marshall.
At four o’ clock every afternoon, Daw Mya San sets out boxes of curry and monhinga – Burmese noodle salad - on a broad wooden platform outside the walls of a garment factory in Mae Sot. She has an hour in which to prepare before her customers start streaming out of the factory on their supper break. They are all Burmese migrants, and have come to Thailand in search of a better life; often they are exploited by their employers, forced to work long hours for little reward.
Daw Mya San came here herself two years ago in search of employment, and lives in the shadow of the factory in a house built from wood and palm leaves and set in a field of morning glory and wild vegetables. Rivulets of factory effluent run beneath and around her house, ducklings splash about in the water, and the water, in turn, attracts mosquitoes, which bring with them malaria and dengue fever.
Daw Mya San hasn’t seen her husband or adult daughter since she crossed the border into Thailand, but the sacrifice is worth it, she says; with support from JRS’s income-generating project for Burmese migrants – which receives funding from Jesuit Mission – she is able to improve her family’s lot.
‘At the beginning, she didn’t have enough investment, but she already had the skill,’ says Misheh, Community Development Officer with JRS in Mae Sot.
‘She needed financial support from us, and with that support she could run the business smoothly. From the success of selling her Burmese noodles, she could save money and extend her business for cooking curry and selling to the factory workers also.’
Daw Mya San’s house sits in a cluster of structures occupied by Burmese migrant families. The younger generation works in the factory, the elderly come to Thailand to take care of their grandchildren.
‘You see the grandparents are taking care of their grandson,’ Misheh says, pointing to a woman and a small boy in a nearby house. ‘In the night-time the children go quietly to live with their parents inside the factory. Every morning they have to quit from the factory by 8am so that the factory owner doesn’t know about this. The workers live in the factory compound, and they work overtime.’
But JRS’s program is giving some of these people a new avenue for income generation, and a greater deal of autonomy. Daw Mya San’s neighbour, Daw Mar Kyi - who sells deep fried snacks like roti, samosas and kya kway - is now able to send her son to a Thai school. If not for her income stream, the school fees and uniform costs would be prohibitively expensive.
Under the program, migrants receive financial assistance for the purchase of their start-up materials and ongoing business support.
‘We first interview them to see their business plan, how they can run the business successfully and also in a sustainable way,’ Misheh says. ‘Our policy is we support people one-off, but we have to follow up and monitor them for one year, working together with them to follow their business plan.’
Not far from Daw Mya San’s house is a roadside tuckshop decorated with pictures of Burmese opposition leader Aun San Suu Kyi. The shop is run by Burmese migrant Moe Moe San, who supports her disabled husband by selling food and other groceries to the factory workers and passers-by. Without JRS’s support, she would not have been able to keep the business afloat.
‘She didn’t have enough investment money and so she could not sell a variety of items that migrants want to buy from her,’ Misheh explains. ‘JRS is working with her in two parts: one is to keep a record for her family’s daily income and expenditure; another thing is a record for her grocery shopping and expenditure. She doesn’t have the skills to keep records and balance her income and expenditure, so now she’s learning from us how to have budget control. She’s also learned how much she can earn and how much she will need to spend.’
In Mae Sot, most Burmese migrants don’t have legal papers, and so they fear going to the market in town; it’s far preferable to shop at Burmese-run tuckshops on the outskirts of town, where they are less likely to be picked up by the police. At Moe Moe San’s shop the selection of goods is more varied now thanks to JRS’s support. She stocks rice and candles, dried fish, peanuts, dried papaya, and chillies, latphatok (Burmese tea salad made from tea leaves, beans, peanuts, chilli, sesame seeds, oil and salt) and fresh leaf tea from Burma, which she sells both in packets and by the cup, poured steaming hot from the flasks that line her counter.
It’s a hard life. Moe Moe San gets little time off and is constantly anxious about being picked up by the authorities, but she’s grateful for the assistance she receives from JRS and Jesuit Mission, and is hopeful that in the future she might cross the border back into her homeland.
‘One day if they welcome all of the migrants and refugees back to Burma, then she will definitely go back to there,’ Misheh says.
To support this project go to www.jesuitmission.org.au.