Guest Blogger Dennis Guikema : Interview with our Director!

I stumbled across the Thai Freedom House when on a short walk only a few blocks from my guesthouse in Chiang Mai. I was drawn in by a small chalkboard that both touted their mission of serving refugee and indigenous communities as well as advertised the small café that helps to fund the program. I met Lisa Nesser, the founder and director, as well as two long term volunteers, Moon Hong, from Seoul Korea, and Katie Shultz, from Birmingham, Alabama. I returned on July 29, 2009 to talk with Lisa more in depth about the Thai Freedom House as well as her personal experience as a leader in Thailand.

{ Founder & Director Lisa Nesser }

Lisa has a rich and fascinating history of working with refugee communities, starting in her home of Saint Louis, Missouri, where she worked with a Bosnian community that moved into the neighborhood where her family had owned a store for over 100 years. Later she traveled to India where she volunteered with Tibetan refugees. Lisa enjoys facilitating connection for refugee communities to their culture in a new place as well as to building bridges and connections between communities.

Lisa came to Thailand about six years ago to work with refugees, first in an orphanage on the Burmese boarder, then with teacher training. (She has a degree in education and was an elementary school teacher in the United States.) She moved to Chiang Mai and continued to do this work. In talking with kids selling flowers and trinkets to tourists, she began to build connections. She started teaching English informally. Soon kids were waiting at her home for her when she returned. They began to bring siblings, then families, then they began inviting Lisa into their homes. Eventually Lisa started scheduling classes, hired a Thai language teacher, and did community outreach to help supply basic needs, identified by the community, such as mosquito netting and water filtration. Two and a half years ago, a year after she started doing this work out of her own home, she started Thai Freedom House in its own location, moving to the current space four months ago.
Currently, most of the youth and families served are from the Shan minority of Burma. The Shan have fled extreme oppression and poverty. While some are registered as “refugees” by the United Nations and have basic rights in Thailand, most are not. These children are not able to access any education, and their families are not offered even the most basic social services. Life for these kids is hard. One 14 year old boy, for example, who comes to Thai Freedom House most evenings, works in a noodle shop from 3:00 AM to 5:00 PM each day for a pitiful pay. He is new to Chiang Mai from Burma and does not speak Thai.

The Thai Freedom House serves people from 5 to 27 years of age. There are about 25 kids registered at any given time. Classes are offered Monday through Friday from 6:00 to 8:00 PM: two nights of Thai instruction, two nights of English instruction, and one night of arts or music workshop.

As one can imagine, there are many challenges that Lisa faces in this work. One is financial. She started the Thai Freedom House with no outside support, working a job during the day to provide the service at night. She now receives small donations from a number of patrons and has both foreign and Thai volunteers helping. Still, with no large foundations or private donors behind her, she still funds some of her work with her own credit card. Other challenges include confronting the misconceptions and stereotypes about refugees in Thailand (similar to negative attitudes toward immigrants in the United States and many other countries.) “The Thai press does a great job of keeping people in the dark about why the refugees are here,” she points out. As a result there is a lack of sympathy and understanding between communities. “It is a lot easier, then, to ostracize than understand,” Lisa observes. For this reason, she was very cautious when she started Thai Freedom House, waiting for it to be well established before making a visible presence in the larger community. An additional challenge Lisa faces is common in any aid work: burnout.

As I have seen from my own observations, both in the Thailand for School Leaders program and in my own visits to schools in Thailand and Laos, there is an enormous inequity in quality of education a child might recieve. Lisa cast more insight onto this. While Thailand claims to offer all citizens an education, many receive an education that is substandard, others in more rural villages have no access, and those who are undocumented refugees can not attend. Of the 25 youth who attend Thai Freedom House, fewer than five are attending school, and the five who do attend “temple school.” Lisa described many challenges presented at these schools. The teachers are mostly new and inexperienced, often without a connection to the population they serve. Most instruction is from a television, which is broadcast from Bangkok. One teacher will monitor three classes. Kids have no opportunity to ask questions or get personal attention.

As a school leader, myself, I was curious to know more about Lisa’s leadership style. When I asked her to describe her style, she said, “I’m changing that”. Lisa wants to move from the current situation of being “the face of the program” and the person responsible for every aspect, from instruction to management, to investing others with more responsibility. This shift is slowly happening and is evident in the curriculum and volunteer handbooks that were completed by Moon Hong, a volunteer from Korea. “I want to see that the school can run without me,” says Lisa. “The goal is to give this over to paid local staff. But I need to be a strong example first.”

I appreciate Lisa and her volunteers for the time they generously shared, and have a deep respect for the transformative work they do. I intend to “give back” by hosting a dinner party when I return home, showing off my pictures and new found Thai cooking skills. At the dinner, guests will have the opportunity to donate to the Thai Freedom House.

This interview was graciously provided to us from Dennis Guikema who is currently working as Assistant Principal at Urban Promise Academy in Oakland Unified School District.

You find out more about the Thai Freedom Hou

se at http://www.thaifreedomhouse.org/.

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