The School: Hong Rien Kong Nuu
At the end of the work day, when construction workers return to their campsite, a corrugated metal gate, marked simply with a "Camp 2" sign and list of safety regulations, represents a passage between two worlds. Luxury high-rise condominiums lining the street loom overhead. Down below, inside the gates, are the makeshift homes of the families of the workers who build the expensive condos, shopping malls and glitzy restaurants popular with Bangkok’s expatriates and wealthy Thais. The contrast in the daily lives of families living just a few hundred meters away from each other could not be starker.
Just past the campsite’s front gate, there’s a mud-track lane strewn with scattered toys that leads to a large sign. “Hong Rien Kong Nuu” it reads in Thai, or “My Classroom”. The school is housed in a single room constructed of wood planks, with low benches for the 18 students to sit side-by-side in rows. Tables are covered with worksheets, notebooks, crayons and erasers. Children ranging from ages three to twelve team-up with friends to ponder math problems, trace Thai letters, and draw pictures.
The Teacher: Kru Ratana
Kru Ratana sits calmly at the epicenter of the hum of activity, patiently guiding older students through math strategies; encouraging five- and six-year olds to carefully write the alphabet; and keeping a watchful eye on even younger children who tagged along with elder siblings as they play in the corner. Some students are learning Thai for the first time, a valuable skill that will help them and their families navigate the world outside the camp’s gates. Many of the children have travelled to Thailand across the border from neighboring Cambodia with their families in search of employment.
Camp 2 is like a small village, one which many of these children rarely leave, as they do not have the necessary immigration papers to move freely without fear of potential repercussions from police and other authorities. Lacking documentation and a firm grasp of the Thai language, these children cannot attend government schools, despite legislation that technically gives them the right to do so. Instead, this ramshackle cluster of metal shacks (plus our one-room school) is their entire world for the months and sometimes years that their parents work in this location. Without this school, these children would be left to pass their days idly on their own while their parents labor outside the camp to earn the legal minimum wage.
Hong Rian Kong Nuu is more than just a school, as important as that is – it represents a safe place in the camp where children can come to learn, play, sing songs and eat nutritious meals. Kru Ratana buys food for the children in a nearby market each morning and steams a large pot of rice to feed everyone at lunchtime. She is a teacher, caretaker, chef, temporary mother and guardian all in one.
As children of itinerant construction workers, these children could easily fall through the cracks, with little or no opportunities to develop. Our school grounds them in basic literacy, protects them every school day, and ignites a love of learning that, we hope, leads to formal education and vocational training, potentially breaking the cycle of poverty within which so many migrant families are trapped.
Kru Ratana is a skilled and committed educator, determined to give her unique group of students a solid academic foundation. The schools that we operate in construction camps, slum communities and markets around Thailand, usually with limited funds, are able to help vulnerable children because of the dedication of teachers like her. Although she could work in a traditional school with better benefits, resources and significantly less chaos, Kru Ratana prefers her one-room classroom. The students have individual strengths and are eager to learn, she says, and it is a pleasure to watch them develop and grow more confident each passing day. A Klong Toey native herself, Kru Ratana understands the formidable obstacles these children and their families face and believes that knowledge is the best protection and hope that she can give them for a better future.
We currently operate nine schools for over 200 children in construction sites in and around Bangkok. Those of you wishing to help are most welcome! We need your support to keep all our construction camp schools open and to expand to other worker camps. Please contact us for more information and join us in giving these poor migrant children a chance for life!
Photos by Diane Durongpisitkul and Ian Taylor