The Karen Project
The meaningful family holiday with a social impact
It started with our family wanting a different kind of holiday. In the past, our family would travel to Thailand (Phuket, Bangkok) or Indonesia (Bali) together with our in-laws. These were cheaper destinations that had everything from sunny beaches, shopping destinations and good food. It was a wonderful way to bond with the extended family and we spent many a holiday swimming and snorkeling, watching waves and sunsets, eating and shopping. However last year, we started to notice something incongruous about our situation which my daughter, Mary Claire (age 11) articulated. She felt uncomfortable because while we were on holiday enjoying ourselves, we were surrounded by beggars and handicapped children, struggling to survive. There were so many of them and how was it possible to help them all?
An idea came to my mind when I heard from friends, about their experience on mission trips to Cambodia. Can’t families also go on mission trips as well? Would the families be able to go on a holiday and spend a meaningful time bonding with each other and with other families by helping the community, even though in their own way? Wouldn’t it be a wonderful way to prepare for Christmas as well?
I passed the word among our friends, which eventually led us to Myrna Arasakul, a wonderful woman who does a lot of apostolate with the Karen Tribe in Suan Pueng, Rachaburi, Thailand. She has two centers: one for the religious community and another for over 100 Karen children. Most of the children come to her center daily for schooling, meals and Christian formation, others live in dormitories. We learnt that the children came from poor families; many of them live in the mountain regions around the town of Suan Pueng. The Karen people are Myanmese and live at the border of Thailand and Myanmar. They are settlers living in refugee camps, while waiting on their legal residential status. Karen were restricted to living in Suan Pueng and could only get jobs as plantation or manual workers. As a result, many of the families earn barely enough to survive. With the help of many friends, we had raised enough money for school fees to support 110 Karen children in school for a year.
In the months preceding our trip, we exchanged ideas on how best to prepare for the occasion. We decided the activities would revolve around preparation for Christmas, since we were celebrating Advent.
Soon, our families found ourselves in Bangkok in early December 2012 where we spent our first night. The next day, we travelled down to Suan Pueng, Rachatburi which is 160km west of Bangkok and stopped to visit the Chompon caves in Rachatburi on the way. We stayed in a small resort near Karen Centre and made final preparations for our Nativity Play. We prepared powerpoint slides as a backdrop to depict the main events of the Christmas Story with Thai subtitles.
While in Suan Pueng, we were met by Myrna who brought us to the community center named “Ban Prapida”, dedicated to God the Father, father of all mankind. We received a warm welcome from the children, they sang to us a welcome song and presented us each with a rose which we later placed at the feet of the statue of Our Lady. After introductions were made, we shared about life in Singapore. To entertain the Karen children, our families sang a Singapore song, “My Island Home” with Thai subtitles.
Then the fathers in our group built a crib for the center using bamboo – that was hard work but they managed it, thankfully! Meantime, the mothers together with our children and the Karen children split up in 3 groups for Christmas craft activities. We made sheep (for the crib) out of clay, Christmas decorations for the Christmas tree, wrote prayer petitions for Christmas and set up the nativity in the prayer room. We had arranged for a special lunch with coconut ice cream as dessert for the children. Myrna remarked that it was like having a fiesta. In the afternoon, our families preformed the Nativity play. The Karen children also performed for us with a bamboo and festival dance that they were practicing for the Christmas celebration at the local parish church, Our Lady of Fatima.
We then assisted in the first harvest of the Karen community’s vegetable plot. Later in the evening, we brought the produce to the Bishop’s residence as an offering before attending Holy Mass.
The next day, we visited the Ban Thumhin Border Police Patrol School that has a population of 240 students ranging from kindergarten to secondary levels. The school has been around for 27 years and was set up by the border patrol police for the Karen children. We met the principal, Lieutenant Wanchai who welcomed us in his full uniform. After introducing us to the primary school children, we played ice-breakers. Our children performed the Chicken Dance and then taught it to the students, much to their delight. We played games and there was much cheering especially during the races between our children and the students. At recess, they also played soccer with our children.
After a special lunch treat where more coconut ice cream was served, we also did Christmas craft activities and helped to decorate a dry branch which became a Christmas tree. We performed the Christmas play and sang “We wish a Merry Christmas” in Thai.
The Karen Project was indeed an enriching experience – the families bonded very well over the months of preparation. Parents learnt from one another and from their children. Personally, I felt the strong affection that they had for one another and for their children.
The children made firm friends and continued to call on each other even after the end of Project to greet each other and organise play dates. They talked for a long time about the things they did in Rachatburi, about the bugs they saw, about the pineapple fields where they played games, about the jokes they exchanged, about how Joseph was teased and called “Jo-E” by the Karen girls!
A fond memory etched in my mind’s eye from among the many wonderful experiences is the picture of the pineapple plantation with the heads of the children bobbing up and down as they raced between the groves! It depicted their carefree spirit– I thought: that’s how we should be always before God – cheerful, without a care in the word, self-possessed and racing towards Him!
Our families are looking forward to planning another family service.