This article is part of a series of SPOTLIGHTS showcasing our Community Partners, their ideologies, methodologies, challenges and triumphs. For more, click here.
In the summer of 2019, Skillseed led a group of students from Singapore’s Hwa Chong Institute (HCI) to participate in a skills-sharing program with students from the BEAM Education Foundation. BEAM is a Chiang Mai-based nonprofit which was founded in response to the rising educational needs of migrants and refugees youths living in Thailand, most of whom are from Myanmar. We previously ran a piece about BEAM’s vision for the future, how it intends to create change within its local ecosystem and its exhortations about how eager its youth were to give back to the community which raised and empowered them. These insights were delivered to us by two members of the BEAM Team: Alta Alonzi and Ko Phyo.
As Associate and Coordinator of BEAM’s Higher Education Program (respectively), Alta and Ko Phyo are committed to empowering migrant youths in their struggle to power through the institutional barriers which have prevented them from accessing tertiary education. In this story, we uncover a bit more about their experiences in BEAM.
Navigating the Novel
Despite living and working in Chiang Mai, neither Alta nor Ko Phyo are Thai citizens. Alta is an American citizen and a relatively recent addition to the BEAM team, while Kyo Pho is a Burmese national who has been with BEAM for nearly a decade. The BEAM students mostly come from Burmese refugee camps in Mae Sot and Mae La. So Alta, Ko Phyo, and the BEAM students have had to forge a new home amongst the BEAM family. From what we’ve seen, it appears that they’ve all integrated well into this novel environment.
At first, however, Alta remembers questioning her place and role in the BEAM community.
She remembers asking herself “Who am I to my students? Am I their teacher or friend? What’s the professional relationship here? For better or for worse, it’s kind of difficult to separate professional and personal at BEAM. Mostly for the better.”
This familiarity extends to her interactions with fellow BEAM teachers as well.
“We spend so many hours together that we kind of have to get along.” Alta laughs, “And we do! We hang out, we complain, we gossip. It’s pretty open; not too hierarchical.”
According to Alta, this sort of horizontal organizational structure is quite rare in Thailand.“Oh, and we’ll take any excuse to party. We’ll throw a celebration when there are new volunteers, or when it’s a student’s birthday… anything, really.”
These celebrations aren’t solely aimed at improving staff cohesion. They’re meant to create a welcoming environment for students immersed in a wholly foreign environment. For many students, joining the BEAM program marks their first time living away from a refugee camp, not to mention a temporary ‘arrival point’ after an arduous and often traumatic journey of obtaining visas, travelling to Chiang Mai, and leaving behind their communities. Migrant communities often also face discrimination in Chiang Mai, making the support system provided by the BEAM community of paramount importance.
Nine Years of Service
The BEAM students aren’t the only Burmese nationals on the foundation’s grounds. Like many other grassroot initiatives, BEAM is staffed by a fair number of employees and volunteers from Myanmar, who are seeking to serve members of their community. Among them is Ko Phyo, who has dedicated nearly a decade of his life to the organization. According to him, his journey with BEAM started in Chiang Mai, 2004.
“I was visiting a friend working in migrant education, and I was offered a chance to help him organize migrant teachers’ training. I helped him for two months and really enjoyed it. I soon realized that this was the kind of job I wanted to do in the future. So afterwards I went back to Yangon, worked for 3 years and came back in 2007 to help out in education work.
First, I taught basic computing classes to migrants who worked in the many Chiang Mai-based construction companies, or as waiters and waitresses, assistant chefs and the like. I did that for 2 years, until BEAM was founded in 2010.”
Ko Phyo first joined the BEAM team as a physics and math teacher - a job he relished greatly due to his interactions with migrant workers.
“I really enjoyed my time as a teacher because when our students finish our courses, I’m sure that they will have gained skills from our training and classes which can be applied in their daily lives. This inspires me because it shows that everyone can learn new things, regardless of how busy you are with your other responsibilities. I felt that migrant workers’ lives were improving through courses provided by BEAM and other organizations.
Ko Phyo was promoted to Finance and Admin Coordinator in 2014. “My time is now mostly filled with administrative tasks. I still miss teaching,” he tells us.
Ko Phyo completed his Masters of Business Administration (MBA) at Payap University. Like most of his coursemates, he was interested in human resource management. However, there were no specific courses in Chiang Mai for that subject - consequently, he decided to study for an MBA.
Alta adds; “He did all that while working for BEAM and raising 2 little boys with his wife - who’s also a teacher and a student in Bangkok. I really don’t know when he sleeps.”
Alta is relentless with her praise. “It’s been nine years, yet he never thinks of quitting. Whenever someone asked him what he was going to do after he graduated, he would tell them that he planned to continue doing the same thing he’s done for the last decade. I don’t know what BEAM would do without him,” Alta says. Ko Phyo chuckles, and says that he merely tries his best.
We find out that Ko Phyo identifies as pure Burmese - the ethnic majority in Myanmar. “In Thailand, there are many ethnic groups from different parts of Burma. Personally, I’ve found my experience in BEAM to be especially positive because I get to interact and engage with other ethnicities. I did not get to do so growing up in Myanmar, because there were always only 1 or 2 students of other ethnicities in my class. They were discriminated against, because they spoke Burmese with an accent, or less fluently. But in BEAM, there are people of many different ethnic backgrounds living and learning together.” He smiles.
Taking it Personally
When asked if this work takes an emotional toll, Alta chuckles.
“I hike every Saturday. I get out, leave.”
Taking breaks from work is difficult because as a teacher in her position, Alta feels that she’s never off-duty; when students ask questions, she wants to be able to answer them. Despite this obligation, she knows that she needs her personal time, and she takes measures to ensure that she gets adequate rest.“
I didn’t download Messenger on my phone, and I don’t have notifications for emails. If I want to check my inbox, I will [...] it’s my time and I have to control it. I do this to preserve my sanity.”
It’s a paradox baked into social service work – that those passionate enough to cross oceans for a humanitarian cause are sometimes required to maintain an emotional distance on the job. Alta is no exception. She describes her challenges with her last batch of students. 27 of them passed a recent exam – a staggering majority - but that means that a couple of students did not – and that’s a phenomenon for which she takes personal responsibility.
“English results are especially hard to accept. If they fail, it’s like ‘oh, I failed!’ So 27 of them passed, which is really great, but - still - I know not all 27 of them can afford to go to college.
That’s something that keeps me up at night. I have to try and work through that.”
However, when their students succeed, the BEAM team celebrates alongside their young charges. Ko Phyo smiles, as if recalling past victories enjoyed by his students.
“When students graduate from our course and are admitted into university, it warms my heart to see them in a university uniform. I’m always happy to see them fulfill their goals, because we can never be sure about their futures when they first come to us. Seeing that they’ve achieved what they set out to do is inspiring, as is their interest to contribute back to the community.”
For more Spotlight pieces about Skillseed’s Community Partners, click here.
To learn more about Skillseed’s partnership with BEAM, click here.