About us



Vol 41 No 4

PDF (2.6MB)


Terry A. Veling

Richard Lennan

Mark O'Brien OP

Marie Turner

Kerrie Hide

Desmond O'Donnell OMI


Kevin Mark


'One of the best classrooms ever':
A Reflection on Karen Refugee Students
on the Thai-Burma Border


I AM A SENIOR lecturer in the School of Theology at the Australian Catholic University. Last year I was invited to teach a group of Karen refugee students living in a camp on the Thai-Burma border, in a place called ‘Mae Sot.’ I have had the opportunity before to teach immigrant students. When I taught at St. Thomas University in Miami, for example, I had many students from the Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti, South America and Mexico. I grew to love these students, most especially as I listened to their stories and their hopes for new opportunities and brighter futures in the United States. However, I have never before taught students living in a refugee camp, students with only rudimentary facilities, students who did not know English well, students who were displaced and without a home, students who bore enormous human suffering. I wondered how this could be possible.

The Australian Catholic University (ACU) and the Refugee Tertiary Education Committee (RTEC) combined their energies to offer Certificate and Diploma courses to the Karen refugee people. Through online education and face-to-face tutoring, 16 students graduated in 2005 with a Diploma in Business. The program was so successful that many students expressed a keen interest to continue their studies. With RTEC’s support, ACU is now offering a Certificate in Theology, and I recently taught the first subject in this program with the Karen students.

In what follows, I would like to offer a few reflections on this educational project with the Karen people. Personally, as an academic and an educator, I have found it a unique and inspiring experience. I didn’t think it would be possible for a university to act in such concrete ways, reaching out to offer education to a group of students suffering such displacement and hardship in their lives. I recall my time at St. Thomas University in Miami, when our Dean of Graduate studies, Dr. Joseph Iannone, began many of our meetings with the following quote:

A Christian university must take into account the Gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence—excellence needed in order to solve complex social problems. It does mean that the university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those who have no science; to provide skills for the unskilled; to be a voice for those who have no voice; to give intellectual support for those who do not posses the academic qualifications to promote and legitimate their rights. (Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J. Rector, Catholic University, El Salvador. Martyred, November 1989).

I wondered at the time how this statement could be translated into a modern, Western, privileged university context. However, from my experience of ACU and RTEC’s commitment to providing education for the Karen refugees, I now know a little more about the ways that this statement can be made real, and the ways in which universities can make a real difference to people’s lives in the world, even to those in refugee camps.

Just a few months ago, I had little awareness of the Karen people, nor of their plight and their struggle. Today, I am very pleased to introduce you to Saw Francis Eh Ler Wah—a real person of flesh and blood who yearns for a brighter future and the hope of an education. Saw Francis and the other Karen students have given me permission to cite their words.

‘I am Saw Francis Eh Ler Wah’

I am Saw Francis Eh Ler Wah. I am a Karen and single. I was born of Saw Shwe Pyu Htoo Wah and Naw Elsic Kyaw Sein on 7th April in 1979, inside Burma in the Karen state Pa Pu district. My U.N. number is 003722. I come from a family that is very poor. My village was very beautiful, full of flowers and other lovely plants. It had one Catholic Church and one middle school. Every Sunday I went to church and prayed together with my parents and five brothers. I am a Catholic Christian and was baptized by Catechist Saw Pah Ku. My parents are still alive and they are living in the refugee camp.

I left my country, Burma, because it was no longer safe for me or my family. Every little thing I possessed has been destroyed by the Burmese soldiers. I lost everything there. We would move to a new place to start over, growing crops of rice, but each time the soldiers would return and destroy everything. All my life I have been on the run, often hiding in the jungle, fighting to survive and struggling to live each new day, not knowing what the future holds. In Burma there is no hope for my future. It holds only destruction, discrimination and persecution.

I crossed the Thai-Burma border and came illegally to the Karen refugee camp. I had no identification or anything that could identify me. I came across the jungle through the valleys without any transportation. My family and I made our trip on foot, little by little, to the refugee camp.

In the camp where I am now living, we have ‘illegal’ schools that neither the Burmese nor the Thai government will recognize. When the students of these schools complete their secondary education, they very rarely have the means to continue their studies. In the past, education was seen as unimportant and insignificant and there were very few teachers. However, now we can see the value of education. The more people who are educated and dedicated to helping build a better country, the easier it will be for our people. My concrete desire or goal is to obtain the necessary skills, education and knowledge and to be an educated person for my country.

A Very Brief Background on Burma

Burma has a population of 48 - 50 million people, of which there are at least fifteen major ethnic groups, with different languages, cultures and histories. The Karen people form one of the largest of these ethnic groups, with an estimated population of 6 - 7 million, living mostly in the hilly, eastern border region of Burma.

Burma gained independence from British rule in 1948. However, various ethnic tensions continued and in the early sixties, under Gen. Ne Win, the army seized the government and established a full military dictatorship. In 1988, after stepping down, Ne Win’s hand-picked junta took power and called itself the State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

In order to gain international support, the regime announced democratic elections in 1990, thinking that it could control the outcome. It was at this time that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma from England to be with her sick mother, and found herself suddenly thrust into the leadership of a new opposition party (the National League for Democracy or NLD). Though her party won 82% of the parliamentary seats, the ruling junta placed her under house arrest and ignored the election result.

In late 1997, the regime changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and, though it attracts only 2% of the population’s support, the power-obsessed regime keeps an iron-fisted control: squashing all opposition, forcibly removing or torturing and executing many villagers, imposing forced labour, extorting money or crops from local farmers, closing universities, denying all freedom of expression and association, forbidding unauthorized access to foreign radio or the internet, instigating corrupt money-making deals. The economy is bankrupt, the currency is worthless, inflation is spiraling out of control, and billions in foreign debt has gone into building up the military. A background report from the Karen Human Rights Group writes:

The population has largely lost hope and sees almost no way out of the present situation…Anywhere from 2 to 4 million people are internally displaced in Burma, surviving by hiding in the forests or as beggars in the towns. Approximately 120,000 Karen refugees are registered in camps in Thailand, with more arriving each week…The entire situation in Burma is clearly unsustainable, but the regime absolutely refuses to lessen its grip on power in any way and there is no way of knowing for how long this situation can continue. (retrieved from the Karen Human Rights Group website: www.khrg.org)

‘One of the Best Classrooms Ever’

Twelve Karen refugee students recently completed their first subject in the Certificate in Theology with the Australian Catholic University. The unit was available online, although internet access is not always easy for the students. The text I chose for the subject was my own work, Practical Theology: On Earth as It Is in Heaven. My editor at Orbis books, Robert Ellsberg, kindly donated the books for the students. I prepared a Study Guide to accompany the text, utilising as plain and simple English as I could. This itself was a great learning exercise for myself, as I struggled to translate often complex concepts into relatively straightforward language (if you can’t say it simply, though not simplistically, then you probably don’t know it yourself—quite a testing maxim for any educator!). The students were asked to write weekly reflections as they read through the text, and to complete a final paper.

Undoubtedly the best part of the process, however, was the contribution made by Dr. Michael G. Michael, an Honorary Fellow at the University of Wollongong in Australia. Dr. Michael offered his time and expertise to visit the students for a period of three weeks, serving as a tutor and mentor to guide the students in their studies. This direct human contact and face-to-face interaction was a tremendous support to students and, I would say, a highlight of the whole experience. Their expressions of gratitude were so heartfelt and so touching—let me offer just one example: ‘I want to thank my tutor Dr. Michael for his love and concern for us and the time he spent with us. He gave himself fully to us, even when he got sick, he tried to enter the class everyday with us. A million thanks to ACU and to all who have worked for us and struggled in arranging this program. From your loving Karen refugee student.’ Dr. Michael and I received many such expressions of gratitude from these kind and gentle people.

Dr Michael’s Reflection

To help us gain some appreciation of ‘one of the best classrooms ever,’ Dr. Michael offers the following reflection on his time with the students:

Each morning (around 9.30) the leader of the group, Tawlwel, would ride over to my room on his motorbike and we would set-off for the ‘classroom’ about fifteen minutes away. There I would be greeted by the beautiful smiles and enthusiastic embraces of our students. It was one of the best classrooms ever—no walls, no doors, no windows—the ‘light’ came and went as it pleased.

The students would study a chapter the night before, address the questions of the Study Guide, and then they would present their reflections the next morning. We shared our responses, considered different approaches, corrected any discernable errors, read parts of the text aloud, and broadened our vocabulary.

We made strong progress and found we had valuable time left over to spend some extra days working on essay structure, present some talks, and even to learn the Kyrie Eleyson chant…in Greek! All the students performed very well.

The final day with our students was one of the most memorable experiences of my life; it was a celebration of all that is good in people. I was profoundly humbled by their love and affection which they expressed in testimony, poetry, and song.               

To offer tangible hope to people who have lost almost everything is, I would think, one of the great lessons of the Gospel.

Testimonials: ‘My Life on the Run’

Over recent weeks, I have been reading the reflections and papers sent to me by the Karen students. I found myself totally absorbed by their writing, especially with the earnestness and dedication they expressed in their desire to seek new learning and to engage with the reading material. They gave themselves wholeheartedly to entering ‘the world of the text’ that was assigned for their study. While reading their papers, however, there were many times when I suddenly found myself entering their own world. The oft-quoted maxim that education is a two-way process between student and teacher now became more real than ever. I decided to note some of the ‘testimonials’ offered by the students in their papers. This seemed like a good way to hear their own voices, and to learn something of the struggles faced by these young students whose lives are caught in the conflict and inhumanity of a troubled world.


* * *


My life up till now has been ‘on the run.’ We are still running and trying to escape from social injustice…In the camp, I see that many people are like me, some worse than me. People have lost everything they owned. Some have even lost their parents, their daughters, their sons. In the refugee camp, we have some safety but we are not free. We are like fish in a pond. Unable to see the sea, unable to see the big ocean, unable to have the taste of fresh water. We cannot see much. We cannot move fast to achieve our goals. We are unwelcome wherever we go. (Albert July Moo)


* * *


The camp is like a ‘prison without bars.’ I have had many difficulties chasing me along in my life. When I was in my homeland, ever since I was a child, I had to flee many times to the forest. Our enemy exercised genocide killing, therefore, we had to flee to the forest for survival. When I arrived at the refugee camp, I was able to finish my high school and now I have an opportunity to study through the Australian Catholic University. We are lucky to have this opportunity of learning practical theology. It is a wonderful chance for refugees. We can practice the way of God in any place and at any time—even though we are refugees, even though we are migrants, even though we are illegal persons. The world is so large but in reality there is no space or place for us to stay or to live at the moment. For refugees and immigrants on the Thai-Burma border, practical theology tries to bring hope, good news and the message of the gospel. (Tawlwel Heh and Saw Der Lwen Htoo)

* * *

I was arrested by the army in 1999 when I visited my parents. They tied up my hands and neck and they led me back to their headquarters. As they led me on the way, my mind moved my heart to the scripture when Jesus carried his cross to the mount of Calvary. I prayed along the way and when I reached their place they beat and killed two of my friends. I spent three days and three nights with them and then they let me go. I have been living my life on the run ever since. (Saw Henry Aye)

* * *

In my whole life experience, I have to suffer from many different kinds of poverties and trials. As I am a Karen, a small ethnic group in Burma, I have been suffering from the continuous attacks, persecutions, torture and killing carried out by the Burmese military regime. The Karen people have been systematically driven from their homes, farms and villages by the Burmese military in brutal campaigns of looting, rape, torture and murder. We, people of God, how will we reflect and respond to these things? This is a significant question for us. (Francis Eh Ler Wah)

* * *

Whether or not we consider ourselves ‘people of God’ or ‘people of humanity’ (and speaking as a Catholic theologian, I consider that the two are inseparable), there is a sense in which education, when done well and with generosity and commitment, can provide an enormous service to our fellow human beings—even, and perhaps especially, to those whose access to the gateways of education are unjustly blocked or impeded. I would like to thank the Australian Catholic University, the Refugee Tertiary Education Committee, Dr. Michael, Orbis Books and, most especially, the Karen students, for helping to facilitate one of ‘the best classrooms ever’—devoid of barriers and walls—yet that is how the light gets in.               

Terry Veling is Head of the McAuley School of Theology at the Australian Catholic University. He has taught in the US for many years. His most recent book is Practical Theology (Orbis 2005).


Karen Human Rights Group
Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People
Orbis Books
Refugee Tertiary Education Committee
Australian Catholic University