Nap Dow is from a small town called Mong Nai in Shan State, Burma, where after years of little employment and mass hardship her family ran out of money to send her to school when she was only nine years old. They then quickly ran out of money to survive in their economically devastated village. So, like many other families from Shan State, they opted to flee to Thailand to find work to avoid starvation.
They had to walk most of the way. It took over two weeks, as much of the time was spent hiding in forests from the police and military authorities, who would either keep them there or send them back. It was a very hard two weeks, especially for Nap Dow, but the prospect of finally being able to go to school again in Thailand made the many 100s of KM walk (over the mountains) bearable on Nap Dow’s ten year old feet.
When her family ultimately arrived in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand (and where they settled), she was told by every school that since she did not know Thai, she could not study there (there are no remedial classes in Thailand). While this may excite many children, this was heart breaking for her. Going to school and learning were her favorite things to do. So much, that in Burma when she came home from school in the evening, she would do her homework and read by candlelight, as her house lacked electricity, or wake up at dawn to finish.
This crushing blow, not being able to go to school, also forced Nap Dow to begin working, full time, at 10 years old. And to add insult to injury, the one job she could find that would hire such a young girl was pushing a cart around to sell fruit to school students. She did this for nearly a year and a half before she discovered a school that would accept her: Thai Freedom House.
While she still needed to work in the daytime, TFH allowed her to continue learning in the evening. She was able to improve not only her Shan language skills, but also learn English and Thai along with weekly art and traditional dance classes.
Four years ago, when she was 14, TFH opened a charity cafe, Free Bird Cafe, to attempt to support the school financially. Here she was able to become the server and leave the fruit selling behind. As she worked at the cafe, her English skills improved dramatically extremely quickly, as she was using English everyday. She continued to take classes each night as well and began reading books in Thai well above her grade level. (So much for that whole not being able to learn Thai business all the Chiang Mai schools told her…)
In the past four years she has been everything at Free Bird Cafe: the server/barista, the cook, the cafe manager in training, and a part time intern in TFH’s office. As if this is not enough, she also teaches traditional dance to many of the TFH students and manages the Shan Cultural Preservation project at TFH, which help ensures the students have ties to their roots, even as their lives have been uprooted from their country. And if that was not enough, she has spent the past six months, at least three times a week, going through what I like to call Grammar boot camp with me, so that her written English skills correspond with her verbal ones. She is doing this so she can get into a GED program this coming January, so she will be able to go to college, one of her dreams that until very recently she was afraid she would never reach.
If you are asking when she is able to sleep, don’t worry… you are not the only one.
She is an amazingly funny and artistic. She takes excellent photos (she has even made me look amazingly photogenic on more than one occasion) and while I can easily see her as a photographer, she wants to be a teacher or a lawyer. Both these careers appeal to her so that she can help her community, both as refugees and when things improve enough that she and the other millions of Burmese refugees can return to Burma. The pride she has for her people and the amazing amount of time she dedicates to helping already makes me think her future desires will make her unstoppable. I can easily see her being both a teacher and a lawyer, but most of all a community leader dedicated on helping those around her.
Early next year, she will be joining her GED class. And frankly, this is the most exciting thing I am looking forward to in the new year. Lisa, the director of TFH, and I spoke to one of her soon to be teachers this week and we both commented on how it felt like we were parents asking way too many questions as we try to get our child into some exclusive school. This was funny at the time, as this is just a high school equivalency program and what is so exclusive about that? Then I thought of how many people are denied access to such essential institutions as education and I realized the “funny” metaphor we compared it to was not so funny at all.
And then I wondered just what would have happened to Nap Dow if TFH did not exist. How would she have been able to continue her lifelong love affair with learning? How would she have been able to grasp hold of her dreams and be able to go to high school and then college? Just how long would she have been forced to sell fruit to kids, who had access to school, everyday, all the while, longing to be able to sit in those schools and learn? Without this education, how would she be able to assist her community as she plans?
How many other students also fall behind, without access to education? Actually, how many other people fall behind, without access to education? Well the numbers are sobering: just look at how many girls are being currently being denied education. But those are just numbers and not faces.
Nap Dow is a face.
Much more than a face.
So much more.
She is a person with dreams, struggles, aspirations, flaws, drive, and rights — one of which is clearly education. She is not the other 49 students that grace TFH 7 nights a week, learning Thai, English, Shan, Burmese, Chinese, art, dance and music, after they have worked all day and have rushed over to learn and share with their community. Their experiences are vast and many, and far larger than this post.
So what would happen to these amazing students without Thai Freedom House?
I simply do not have the answer to this question. But…. I can tell you it is not a positive answer. Not at all. It could easily involve trafficking, exploitation of all kinds, jobs paying well below minimum wage, and on and on. It also would not include many of these 50 students reaching their dreams.
Yet, Thai Freedom House constantly struggles to find the funding it needs to survive. So please, if this piece has moved you at all, if you are inspired by Nap Dow’s story of determination and the assistance she got to go along with it, if you would like to see others follow in her footsteps and succeed educationally, if you view access to education as a right we all share please check this out and during this season of giving help TFH continue to grow and bring the dreams of all their students to life.
Nap Dow’s dreams are starting to materialize. There are 49 other students who have equally as big and bright dreams as her. And not only do they need TFH to help them grasp their dreams, they deserve no less.
So yes, please share what you can for these amazing students. Share Nap Dow’s story with your friends, loved ones, and family. May the inspiration Nap Dow fuels me with daily, inspire you as well.