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Schools of Hope offers orphans chance for a bright future

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Schools of Hope is a boardinghouse and school for orphans and abandoned children from Shan State located in Nong Ook, northern Chiang Mai province, only four kilometres from the Thai-Shan State
border.

“Although we only have one school right now, our mission is to set up many schools along the Thai-Burma border to offer free basic education and proper health assistance to disadvantaged children of displaced and migrant families from Shan State,” explains Noom Hkurh, the 23-year old director and co-founder of the orphanage. “So that is why we call it ‘Schools’, to remind us of our goal.”

The project is located on the grounds of Wat Arunotai Temple, and was started three years ago by the temple’s abbot and Noom Hkurh, a graduate of the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth (SSSNY), who himself grew up in an orphanage.

“The idea started when I met the abbot of Wat Arunotai in 2007. We formed a very close relationship, and realized we had the same idea to open a school. I was a teacher at a monastery school in Wiang Haeng, and wanted to start a school for children who could not access education. We are all here now because of the abbot – he is very active and loves children.”

Of the fifty-seven children between the ages of four and seventeen at Schools of Hope, twelve of them are novice monks. The majority of the orphans are Shan, but there are also Wa and ethnic Chinese children living at the school. Learning materials, clothes, meals, healthcare, and shelter for the children is provided.

In 2009, the orphanage opened with sixteen children. As the project has become “At first, people in thecommunity were not familiar with having many kids at their temple, and they thought our project was strange.”more well known in Shan State and in Thailand, neighbors, relatives, and sometimes parents bring children to the school to be taken care of.

“Sometimes, people just drop off children saying, ‘I want you to take care of them’. We have to turn some away because of budget restraints, but sometimes we can not even decide to turn away a child because the adults have already left”, Noom Hkurh says.

Thousands of people from Shan State have fled from their homes due to civil war and poverty. In Thailand, they are not recognized as refugees, and they are forced to work in underpaid jobs to survive. For many of the children, the chance to go to school is a distant dream.

Through an arrangement with the local Thai school, most of the children in Nong Ook are able to attend the government school, but all of the children study extra classes before and after their regular school in English, Shan language, and Shan culture at Schools of Hope.

“It’s important for the children to maintain their own identity,” Noom Hkurh explains. “We don’t let them lose their Shan identity. They wear their traditional clothes, and are taught to proud of their culture. They learn Thai at the Thai school, and Shan here. They’re not allowed to mix languages. This way our language will not be lost.”

“At first, people in the community were not familiar with having many kids at their temple, and they thought our project  was strange. But later they saw that helping the children was not strange,” Noom Hkurh says. “Now we are starting to get more support from the local families. They just recently gave some warm clothes for the children.”

The school only has two full-time teachers: Noom Hkurh, and his brother Lurn Wan. Matthieu, a volunteer from France, helps coordinate fundraising and teaches video production and editing to some of the older children.

Visitors to Schools of Hope are sure to notice how large a role music plays, from the nightly group karaoke sessions, to the sounds of the teenagers softly strumming their guitars in the afternoons, and the music videos Matthieu creates with the children. He says music is an important element for the children’s development, as it fosters confidence and self-expression.

It is a bit difficult to give special attention to each child, but the staff is very lucky that the older kids naturally take on caring for the younger ones. In fact, Noom Hkurh believes some of the children will one day work at Schools of Hope as teachers.

“We expect them to become educated people who can help themselves, and also help their communities. We want to see them go further and further with their studies. We want them to go to university, and then come back. We live now like a big, peaceful family. We can see that some of them will come back to help.”

Although the project is always searching for funds to be able to provide better living conditions, learning materials, and clothing for the orphans, the children truly seem to receive better care and education than the average child in Thailand, and for this Noom Hkurh and his staff deserve to
be commended.

The Best Friend and Schools of Hope have forged a new relationship, in which The Best Friend Chiang Mai will provide as many books and learning materials, as well as funds, as possible to Schools of Hope in order to develop the great work that is taking place there.

Visit www.schoolsofhope.blogspot.com, or search “Schools of Hope (Nong Ook)” on Facebook for more information

The article appears in Friends of The Best Friend Library newsletter, Issue 3, 2012.

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