Here at the Warnborough Foundation, we have seen the ravages that COVID-19 has had on individuals and the economy around the world. The news is full of stories of people who have lost their jobs, their lives, and loved ones, and are looking for new ways to redevelop themselves. Occasionally, this information can feel overwhelming, and begin to feel insular to our own environment. We tend to lose insight into how others around the world are being impacted and what we can do to help.
Circumstances for Myanmarese who are living in Thailand have for example further deteriorated due to COVID-19. Due to the borders closing between countries this has meant that the migrant workers are unable to return back to Myanmar and have no source of income. An article in the Global Voices highlights this has impacted hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, and yet they do not know when the businesses (hotels, construction, etc) will reopen again to bring jobs back to these areas. The latest news is that the borders will remain closed until February 2021. How are the Myanmarese dealing with the loss of income and insecurity?
We have reached out to Raymond, who lives in Thailand, to provide some perspective on how he has been impacted, both professionally and personally, by COVID-19. Raymond was born and raised in Myanmar, but has lived and worked in Thailand for several years. The island in the Gulf of Thailand that he is living on now has a population of 2000 individuals (before the crisis it used to be 5000), which consists of Thai, a few hundreds of expats, of which a few hundreds Myanmarese. The island used to be an extremely popular holiday destination and was visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Tourism provided jobs for thousands of people, including migrants from Myanmar.
Raymond works in tourism which enabled him to support his small family, wife and son who live with him in Thailand, plus his extended family in Myanmar. His wife used to work at a clothing store, but lost her job 6 months ago. Almost directly after the COVID crisis started. Raymond had been working as an Assistant Manager for a Property Management company for a couple of years and was supporting property managers for several properties on the island. During high season the popular holiday destination used to be crowded and Raymond had a fulltime job ensuring that all of the tourists staying at the different accommodations were pleased with their stay. The fact that Raymond speaks English relatively well enabled him to get appointed to this job.
We have gotten to know Raymond as a very enthusiastic person who is eager to learn and contribute. Who wants to provide for his family and wishes for his son to have a proper education which will support him reach his dreams and improve the possibility to have a secure future. All these dreams and wishes are now under pressure. Raymond is still living in the same small studio with his family but has created a vegetable garden next to his house. He shared with us that since he and his wife have lost their jobs he searches for food, including fruit, vegetables, herbs and roots, in the jungle when he cannot buy enough to feed his family.
Raymond with Zaw Min Ton, the community’s chief, and other villagers.His resourcefulness, proactive attitude and aspirations make him stand out from the crowd. He was one of the first to support the initiative that is collecting food (or money to purchase food) and distribute it among the Thai and Myanmar community members. Even though his living situation could use some improvement, especially when we compare his circumstances with those of many others in the Western world, Raymond would love to make an actual difference and change the lives of others. He is happy and grateful for any kind of support he receives and is always looking for opportunities to share. This humble attitude makes the Warnborough Foundation want to support him to achieve his goals.
We started to talk with him about his ambitions in order to get a better understanding of his dreams and the way he would be able to achieve these. There are many ways to change the lives of others but for him teaching English would be the ultimate way to do that. He realizes that he was able to acquire a better paid job due to the fact that he speaks English relatively well. Raymond would love to give other members of his community the same opportunity. This made us realize that his ambitions are aligned with the aspirations of the Warnborough Foundation, and we would need to support him to become a teacher in order for him to be able to start supporting his community and others. He’s the perfect example of an individual who can make an actual difference and has the potential to change the lives of others in his community.
We have noticed that solely having this conversation with him has already set some things in motion in the Myanmar and expat community. People have started to realize that many of the Myanmarese residents have a wish to learn and grow. In general, living circumstances for workers from Myanmar who are living in Thailand are not easy. The Myanmar community is therefore extremely close knit, these individuals care about and support one another. Local fundraisers have been able to keep the poorest families afloat during the current crisis and food is being donated and distributed among the Myanmar and Thai families in need.
It is inspiring to see that people care and are not going to stand by and let each other suffer, however this small local community of expats, most who lost their jobs due to COVID-19, will be unable to support the entire community of 2000 people for much longer. The present solution is highly appreciated but not a sustainable solution. The locals realize this, and have therefore started to discuss the option to give English lessons to both Myanmar and Thai residents. Several expats have already volunteered and offered their time and expertise to teach others. The number of volunteers and the number of students is slowly growing. All involved parties are super enthusiastic about the English lessons. Mastering English will help the Myanmar migrants and the Thai to get better jobs in tourism. Better jobs will help them to improve their circumstances in a sustainable way that will provide security for now and the future.
The enthusiasm and eagerness of these individuals is inspiring. The goal is to start teaching 3 groups (children, adults and advanced) on the 1st of November. COVID-19 has impacted this holiday destination severely. Most residents are out of work due to the borders of Thailand being closed for foreigners until February. This is the right moment to use the available time and resources to establish something positive in a time of stress and uncertainty. The resources are all available, now just a few items need to be purchased and practical topics need to be taken care of in order to get started.
Just as a side note. You might wonder how the groups can get together without the risk of COVID-19 spreading. Many countries, including The Netherlands, have restrictions for people getting together. The island is however 100% COVID free. Therefore no restrictions apply for groups getting together. New arrivals to Thailand are obligated to stay in quarantaine for 2 weeks and are closely monitored. The government has managed to keep the country almost COVID free (according to the most recent World Health Organization update about the number of infected people in Thailand) and the local officials have achieved keeping the island virus free. The fact that the island is small, only 21sqkm, and can only be entered by boat makes it relatively easy to prevent the spreading of the virus. The absence of the virus on the island is therefore not limiting the actions of the Warnborough Foundation.
Donations for this project will be highly appreciated and well spent. Continuity of the knowledge exchange can be secured by enabling some of the Myanmar locals, like Raymond, in becoming a teacher. We aim for this project to have a sustainable outcome and the positive impact on the entire community. We can however not ignore the current crisis situation the community is in. Many families live from the donated food but are having a hard time getting by. Please don’t hesitate to donate money in order to provide some direct relief as well.
Do not forget to donate to help Raymond reach his goal of becoming an English teacher and support the Myanmar community on the island to get through the crisis.