It was around April when a girl at my gym asked me this question. She asked it with absolute shock, disbelief, and a hint of scorn. I had clearly, in her eyes, made a stupid decision- one that I would regret, sooner probably, rather than later. And fair enough, quitting your extremely stable, reasonably well paying job at a lovely school with wonderful teachers, understanding leadership and seriously great students does sound pretty extreme… but, to be honest, extreme was what I was going for.
6 months ago, I waved goodbye to freezing cold Melbourne, Australia- home of my heart and soul- and moved to the hot, wet embrace of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had all sorts of reasons for doing so- I needed to get out of my comfort zone, test my ability to trust God, give myself a chance to heal from my clean eating and exercise obsession, do something different, get out of Melbourne winter… the list goes on. But one of the most important driving factors which forced me to buy an (initially) one way ticket to Thailand was my passion for refugees.
This is not the blog post for discussing the human rights abuses my government is currently committing in my name- if you want to talk with me about that, we can do so at another time- but their actions, or sometimes lack thereof, made me want to do something real related to the refugee crisis. I’ve always donated food and money to local refugee organisations, participated in online and physical protests, incorporated refugee narratives into my classes (in a remarkably unbiased manner, I’m proud to say), and voted with my feet and money by visiting and using organisations, enterprises, restaurants, businesses etc which support, educate and employ refugees who come to my beloved nation. I’ve tried to make them feel welcome, even when media rhetoric spews out bile indicating that they are not.
But it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to do something long term, sustainable and helpful- and I still want to do this when I get home. Combine this passion with all my other reasons for flying the nest, and you come to the answer to the above question:
I couldn’t NOT do it.
But the story started much earlier than that encounter, obviously, and even earlier than I’m going to go into here (again, not the purpose of this piece), but my journey tangibly began when I first started researching what was then a mere pipe dream. I spent hours, stolen in between feverish marking, exam supervising (sorry…), workouts, brunch dates, and episodes of Masterchef and Doctor Who, googling the different opportunities there were to teach English in Thailand.
Spoiler alert: There are LOTS.
Many of them are paid jobs in either local or international schools, some of them place you as a live in tutor in a (very) rich family, some of them are more like an agency which sets you up as a substitute teacher in different schools. I decided I didn’t want a paid position- it wasn’t my purpose in coming to Thailand.
So, I narrowed my search: “volunteer English teaching in Thailand”.
Again, lots of results. All over the country. Lots of very short term placements came up, with beautifully curated websites with lots of pictures of happy children being hugged by happier westerners. These looked promising… but as I looked more into it, delving into google to try to find blogs about the experiences of people on these programs, I started to realise that these were also not the sort of organisations I wanted to support. They were often quite new, geared toward people with no teaching experience who they expected (it seemed from blog posts) to come up with lessons on the spot with no training, resulting in a lot of games being played and not a lot of learning. They were geared toward one or two week placements… not something long term like what I wanted.
So I thought about what I really wanted, where I wanted to go, prayed a lot, and found myself googling:
“volunteer english teaching + chiang mai + refugees”
And there it was. Maybe 5th or 6th on the first page of results:
“Thai Freedom House: No one is free while others are oppressed”
I clicked. I read. I knew, instantly, this was going to be the place for me.
The volunteer information listed on the website was detailed and thorough- there was clearly a precedent for long term volunteers, and they weren’t going to mess around with just anyone. You could tell that this was a place that valued commitment and was not just a halfway house for privileged white travelers (of which I am totally one) to get their happy snaps with kids before moving on to the next party. This was a place that had existed for 12 years (10 years when I first started researching it) and was clearly doing incredible work. They also had a vegetarian (now vegan) healthy cafe and didn’t just teach English, but provided a space for Burmese (specifically but not exclusively; Shan or Tai Yai) refugees to call their own, feel safe and express themselves authentically. They provided art, Thai, Burmese, and Shan classes so students of all ages could be creative, exist more harmoniously in the place they were currently living, be able to communicate with government officials if they ever returned to Burma, and most importantly- stay connected with their heritage and learn their mother tongue. They also had Shan dance and cultural classes. I knew I wanted to be a part of this experience.
I favourited the page, downloaded the application, and set myself a date in about 6 months for when I would complete it- roughly a year before I was intending to depart.
That date came quickly and I sent off my application. Emails to and from Lisa Nesser (the founder of Thai Freedom House and Free Bird Cafe) followed and we finally decided on a start date- 6 months later than I initially intended- but which ended up being perfect as it meant I was absent for the low, smokey season, but present in the busy lead up to the dry, high season. I will forever be grateful to Lisa for looking out for me in my planning.
In that time, I bought my tickets, roughly planned the other parts of my travel which I’m doing post-placement, wrapped up my school year, started another couple of jobs to tide me over and provide me with a bit more spending money, and paid my dues to TFH. I decided that I would go with the option to be hosted by them, meaning that I paid a flat rate and they would provide me with accommodation, lunch every work day, the placement, a bike, a sim card on arrival, in country orientation, pick up from the airport/train/bus station, some Thai language materials and other handy bits and pieces. I’m so glad I did this- my apartment is awesome, close to everything, has a beautiful view and I didn’t have to think about it at all, so good for me, as you sure as hell know I would over think it in a major way.
I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous when I was arriving in Chiang Mai, as I knew Lisa was still in the States herself (our skype interview had taken place the week prior) and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really needn’t have worried. I was met by one of the past students and then staff of Thai Freedom House who is now studying at university in Chiang Mai! He took me first to my apartment, then took me to Free Bird Cafe where I met the staff of the cafe- all of whom welcomed me warmly and made me feel part of the Freedom House Family immediately. I was given a tour of the market, shown where a chemist, post office, and 7/11 was, along with some Thai lessons and a lesson on Thai culture and etiquette.
This feeling of family only increased when Lisa arrived. She and I sat down together to first discuss the goals of the organisation, the history of both TFH and Burma’s issues with its ethnic minorities, and her personal history which led her to this point. This orientation was so appreciated, important and worthwhile; it placed me in a headspace of respect for the work of TFH and made me place immense importance on what I do here.
As we talked, we sorted out what needs TFH had and what I could do to meet those needs. We decided that I would work on developing a 12 week curriculum for the beginner and intermediate English classes, along with a partnering curriculum for students looking to go into further study- known as “The Pathways” curriculum. I would also help with the Hospitality Training program as both a tutor for the cafe’s amazing waitress, and a contributor to lesson plans, activities and resources. In addition to this, I would also be teaching English one night a week to a class of students ranging from 8 to adults. My hours would be 10-2 on Monday and Friday, 10-8 on Tuesday and 10-6 on Wednesday and Thursday. I would have a lunch break at 1 where I would receive the lunch the chef made for me (best. part. of. the. day) and could grab a tea in the morning when I came in.
This structure and the obvious needs I would be fulfilling warmed my heart and continues to do so today. Lisa is so encouraging and direct about her expectations that I was always sure of what I would be doing and how it would be used- there was never a point where I felt like I was doing busy work- every thing- whether it be a lesson plan or finding the right picture for a flashcard- had a purpose and a point and this became a trend as I started completing tasks and still is, even now, with less than a week left. My time is valued by Lisa and by our students, and because of that, it’s extremely easy to value theirs and live up to the expectations set by Lisa’s example.
While my days are structured and consistent, they’re also varied and exciting! On Mondays, I teach and chat to our server about the different things she needs to know as a waitress. I’ve even had to teach some very basic maths (bye, bye comfort zone!)! After class, we have lunch together as a family- a highlight of my week, one which really emphasises the power of this organisation and the way it empowers those who pass through its doors.
Tuesday nights, I get to spend my evening with a group of crazy kids who love John Cena, Harry Potter and GOT7 and who are SO eager to learn that they come to TFH after already spending the day at school.
Wednesdays, I get to host a lunch which invites the women of Chiang Mai- every nationality, creed, colour, religion, class, career- to meet new people, make new friends and connect in a city which could be quite isolating if you let it. I’ve met so many people through this lunch and I’m so grateful for the chance to host it and help other women find their tribe-for-a-time.
My days are never dull, never boring, never repetitive (except for that stage when I was making flashcards…) and most importantly, never worthless. I know, for certain, that the work I do here has lasting consequences, lasting impact and lasting worth.
Thank you to Lisa for making me feel so at home in this place and giving me so much responsibility. You are an inspiration to all who meet you and to many more who never will. Thank you for the hope that you spread, the education you freely provide (and not only to the students, but to all those who come to Free Bird Cafe), and the example that your life displays that one person can choose to make a difference- regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.
If you’re considering volunteering in Chiang Mai- or anywhere, really- I urge you to find a place that will make you feel the same way. Not just for a moment, but for good.
Because that’s why we do it- that’s “why I would do that” random girl from gym…
(And if you are coming to Chiang Mai, come and visit Free Bird Cafe. If you’re looking to volunteer somewhere and want a truly worthwhile, work based volunteer placement, check out Thai Freedom House.)