One woman's quest to show displaced, stateless kids their lives are worth celebrating
As we board the rental van in front of our hotel in Mae Sot, Thailand, the leader of our group, Pauline, notices a dog wandering in the street. It's not an unusual sight—stray dogs roam everywhere here—but this mutt looks particularly mangey. "Oh, that poor dog!" Pauline says. "When we get back, I'll see if I can bring him something to eat."
This is Pauline Tee in a nutshell: compulsively compassionate and immediately thoughtful. The friend we share in common had described her as "a sweetheart," but that was an understatement. Pauline is someone who puts her energy, time, and money where her heart is, with a pure generosity that makes you believe humanity has a decent chance after all.
Pauline tee has spent nine years serving displaced and stateless Burmese kids in Mae Sot, ThailandPhoto courtesy of Pauline Tee
As we set off for one of the three Burmese schools we'll be visiting this week, Pauline goes over what we'll be doing and who we'll be seeing. Mae Sot sits along the Thai side of the border between Thailand and Burma (also known as Myanmar) and is home to tens of thousands of Burmese people of varying statuses. Many are refugees who fled their homeland during several decades of civil war and unrest. Some belong to ethnic groups who are persecuted in Myanmar. Some are migrant workers who legally or illegally make their living on this side of the border, contributing to cheap labor in Thailand.
And thousands are displaced children—some orphaned, some stateless—whose well-being depends on adults willing to help them and whose future depends on getting an education.
Burmese school in Mae Sot, ThailandAnnie Reneau
"Stateless" is a strange status to have as a human being. In the simplest terms, it means having no official nationality, no identifying documents to prove what country you belong to. Without such documentation, it's often difficult or impossible to access resources, qualify for aid programs, or receive support from official sources. Statelessness can occur under various circumstances, but the end result is a sort of humanitarian limbo where people have few options, and children in particular are vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation, and abuse.
The Burmese migrant schools in Mae Sot give displaced and stateless kids a safe place to learn. But they are also challenged by the poverty and instability that mark the lives of children they serve. Pauline, who is originally from Malaysia and now works for an international bank in Singapore, got connected with some of these schools nearly ten years ago on a volunteer trip with colleagues. Since then, she has returned to Mae Sot at least twice a year, and single-handedly created several programs for children here.
One morning, we go to the Thai/Burmese border, where a large, colorful marketplace sells clothes and trinkets, and a line of duty free shops sells mostly cigarettes. Pauline points out an area just beyond the shops, a strip of land between the countries known as "No man's land." Both countries claim jurisdiction over this area, but neither country effectively polices it. Hundreds of stateless Burmese people, including children, live here in makeshift huts made of plastic tarps draped over rudimentary wood structures. Though Thai soldiers loosely monitor it during the day, lawlessness, drug deals, and child exploitation go largely unchecked.
RELATED: She can't study or start a family all because of what happened at 15.
"I just can't walk away from the children after learning their living condition is as such," Pauline says. "The only way I can describe it is just like if you saw an injured person on the road, you just can't walk away from the person without helping them. And that kept me going back to Mae Sot again and again and again."
A glimpse of "No man's land" between Thailand and MyanmarPhoto by Annie Reneau
With the help of her partner, Fun (pronounced just like the English word), Pauline has spent the past decade pouring time and resources into serving these kids. She's set up a Lunch Every Day program at several schools, to ensure that kids get a nutritious lunch at least each weekday. She sponsors Burmese kids to go to Thai school, assisting with fees and transportation, to give them greater educational opportunities. And she organizes big birthday bashes—complete with cake, presents, games, and music—to celebrate the lives of these kids, some of whom have no idea what day they were born.
Twice a year, Pauline invites friends and acquaintances to meet in Mae Sot to help put on these events. Our small band of birthday volunteers includes people from Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and the U.S. We are also joined by a 19-year-old Burmese college student named Jo Jo, who grew up in one of these schools and now returns to help Pauline with the birthday parties. Our job is to take care of logistics, help with organized games and activities, light candles on hundreds of cupcakes, hand out goody bags and t-shirts, and generally provide a day of celebration for the kids.
Jo Jo, a former Burmese migrant school student, returns each year to help translate and organize birthday activities Photo by Annie Reneau
The first day we visit the largest school—230 kids—and Jo Jo brings a dozen or so Burmese teenagers with him to translate and help organize games. After spending just a few hours with Jo Jo, it's clear that he's an extraordinary young man—a natural and likable leader. Pauline first met him when he was 10, and she was impressed by his innate confidence even then. (He was one of the first students to call her "Pauline" instead of the standard "Teacher.") He got a scholarship from an Australian NGO to go to university in Myanmar, where he's currently studying International Relations.
Jo Jo says he loves coming back to help Pauline put on the birthday events. "The annual birthday party is such a great party for refugee kids," he tells me in English, "because the kids can know how important they are." He has started organizing a similar program himself at an orphanage in Myanmar.
Birthday fun at Burmese school in Mae Sot, ThailandPhoto by Annie Reneau
Knowing the vulnerable status of these kids, Pauline decided from the beginning that if she was going to do these birthday events, she would return to the same schools each year without fail. She will only add a new school to the program if she's 100% sure she'll be able to keep it up, and that long-term commitment has paid off. Kids at the five schools she supports—close to 600 children—look forward to Pauline's birthday parties the same way kids everywhere look forward to their birthday.
Birthday celebration at Burmese school in Mae Sot, ThailandPhoto by Scott Smiley
"A lot of people call us 'The Happy Group,' says Pauline. "I used to call ourselves the 'Independent Volunteers' [because] we don't belong to any NGO. We're just a group of volunteers who want to bring happiness or joy, no matter how little, to these kids so we can make their lives just a little bit better."
However, she points out that the birthday parties aren't just about providing a day of fun. "Celebrating a birthday is a celebration of our existence in the world. So for these kids, when we do the birthday program, it actually has a larger meaning than just celebration and fun and joy and goody bags and snacks. It's actually a celebration of their existence." It lets them know they are not only seen, but valued as human beings.
For three days, we throw birthday celebrations for about 430 kids, ranging in age from preschool to high school. I note that most of the kids wear some sort of school uniform, but some have put on their best dress-up clothes for the occasion. Most also wear a traditional skincare product called thanakha—a paste made of ground tree bark that's used as a sunscreen and skin softener—on their faces. Burmese people of all ages wear thanakha daily, a distinguishing feature that makes them stand out in Thailand.
As a trained teacher, I've been around a lot of children. No matter where you go, kids are always kids. Within an hour, I could spot which kids in each age group were the teacher's pets, which ones were the class clowns, which ones were shy at first but would warm up as they got more comfortable. I saw the silliness, teasing, and expressions of friendship you'd see in any large group of children. I watched teenage boys be teenage boys, challenging one another to arm wrestling competitions, alternating between being goofy and shy.
Preschool classroom at Burmese school in Mae Sot, ThailandPhoto by Annie Reneau
What I couldn't see, of course, was which kids hadn't eaten, which kids had been orphaned, and which kids were being exploited or abused before or after school. We know that's reality for some of these children, and as much as we wish we could, we can't change their individual circumstances. That's why Pauline does what she does—to show them that they have not been forgotten by the world.
"The very first time being exposed to the true meaning of being stateless and displaced in a foreign country, I saw how vulnerable they are," says Pauline. "The other thing is they are children. They're not strong enough to protect themselves. They are purely at the mercy of the world, the adults in the situation they are in, and that keeps me going."
Pauline knows, of course, that Burmese kids in Mae Sot are not the only children in need. But she chooses to focus on this one place and these specific kids so she can make an impact. She says:
"I know that there are so many children who are vulnerable. There are lots everywhere...I just happened to have met them first. If I had gone to Indonesia or Cambodia and met a group there, maybe I would do the same. But I went there. I met the kids. I learned about the children and decided to help. Instead of doing a little bit here and there, I wanted to focus my energy on one place. Already in this one place, the needs are just enormous and I can't cover everyone. I might as well focus on this one door so that it's more sustainable rather than going all over the place. That's why I keep going back to them."
Fun helps Pauline to keep her programs running. As a stress management coach by profession, he's also added a social/emotional component to their work with the children. "We need to give a lot more psychological support to these kids, because they don't get any," says Pauline. Fun brought in a self-mastery program and hired a local teacher to help implement it. He Skypes in with students on a monthly basis, and they've gotten positive feedback on the program from kids and teens who say they've gain strength, self-awareness, and emotional tools to help them cope with their challenges.
RELATED: Millions of refugees live in limbo. Here's one initiative offering hope and purpose.
I ask Pauline if she's considered consolidating her efforts into an official NGO. She says she's thought about it, but the stateless status of the children and some of the adults she works with means she would hit funding road blocks. Companies want to avoid situations where they can't determine exactly where funding is going, and with some of the services Pauline helps with, that's a problem. For example, at some schools, a driver picks up kids at the border and drives them to school each day. Sometimes the driver might be a stateless person themselves, who may or may not have a legal driver's license. They may have to bribe the police every month to get the kids to school—that's just the way things are done here—but no organization would be able to support that officially.
Some kids are picked up at the border and dropped off at schoolPhoto by Annie Reneau
Pauline is also worried that running an official organization would take energy away from what she does best, which is to serve the children directly. So she keeps her fundraising efforts personal, pays for the majority of their projects from her own pocket, and oversees her programs herself. "I know there are certain activities that will drain me," she says, so she sticks with what works and what she can keep up with in her free time. Though her successful banking career is an accomplishment in its own right, she now sees it as a means to one end—funding programs that help the stateless, displaced kids that live in Mae Sot lead healthier, happier lives.
"I say it's a calling," she says. "I found my passion with children. I know what to do now. My job is just a job to finance my work with children."
I look at Pauline and think of the many unsung heroes out there—people working at the grassroots level, helping specific groups of people in specific areas, without fanfare or recognition. Seeing her in generosity in action is humbling, and I don't know whether I feel more ashamed or inspired by her selflessness. All I know is that the world could use a whole lot more people just like her.
If you'd like to support Pauline's efforts, a GoFundMe has been organized to help fund the birthday and lunch programs for the schools she serves in Mae Sot. A few dollars here goes a long way there.