An educational lifeline

A British-based charity is offering badly-needed schooling to some of Bangkok's most vulnerable and forgotten children − Pakistani Christians fleeing persecution with their families

Ten-year-old Andrew* and elder sister Angelina*, 16, are from a family of six Pakistani Christian asylum seekers whose only respite from anxious thoughts is when they attend school.

This place is not what most children would think of as a school: Victoria Memorial Christian Community School is located in a rundown one-bedroom apartment building in outer Bangkok. Open Monday to Friday, where class runs from 9am-1pm, the school was founded three years ago by Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA).

Victoria Memorial is one of two schools currently serving children of Pakistani asylum seekers in Thailand. Twenty-five children attend the school, which is located in the same building as where they live. Even though the constant threat of an immigration crackdown weighs on their minds, they try to carry on a normal life in a city far away from home.

Housed in a narrow alley of a deep sub soi, the school is an ideal location away from prying eyes. Pin-drop silence permeates the dimly lit corridors of the 6th floor apartment block where young Pakistani-Christian asylum seekers, aged seven to 14, are huddled in a tiny room learning English, Urdu, science, maths and the Bible.

Students are taught by two teachers, one who has received refugee status and the other, Mary*, whose case has been rejected. There is little ventilation in the 30m² apartment unit which has a tiny toilet and an adjacent balcony.

Despite the cramped and humid conditions of the classroom, which is fitted with a whiteboard, computers and chairs, but no proper tables to write for the older children, the students are having a whale of a time learning and discussing with their teachers and peers.

Their chatty and smiley faces are an indication that they are escaping temporarily from the uncertainty of living in a country where they are not recognised as asylum seekers, and are open targets to raids by the immigration at any hour.

Feisty Andrew, who is in 3rd Grade, shares his excitement of attending school, saying: "I don't really have much to do the entire day if it wasn't for school. Frankly, it's really nice to be able to get my mind off the immigration police catching us. School time is really special because I get to learn new stuff and share my ideas with my teachers.

"I love science and English. I can speak some Thai, and if given the chance, would like to learn the language."

Andrew misses his life in Pakistan where his father had a toy shop. He tells us about the big family house they once owned and the many friends he had. Despite his young age, he understands why they had to leave a good life.

"Some people wanted to harm my family because of our faith so we had to run away to Bangkok. I like being here but hope we could live in the country freely... without fear of the immigration police."

Angelina, listening intently to her younger brother, adds her 2 cents worth to the conversation.

"I am grateful to attend school because otherwise I would get depressed," she says. "Even though it is a small school, we get to learn and have fun. Like my brother, in Pakistan, I studied in a co-ed private school with over 1,500 students.

"Of course, I am sad to leave my country where I had the freedom to go and do whatever I wanted, but we had to leave Pakistan because of persecution. People began to force us to become Muslim. First it was just harsh words, later our life was being threatened."

Both little Andrew and his sister hope the UN will realise repatriating them back to Pakistan is not the best solution to this situation.

Teacher Mary, 28, who went through depression due to a morbid fear of getting caught by the authorities, said: "The UN tells us that our case was rejected because we did not face persecution. My family has lived in Thailand for over four years. If the UN can guarantee that our lives will not be in danger if we decide to return, we will definitely reconsider our options. Nobody has taken the step to do so."

Mary remarked that raid by immigration police have caused a number of children and adults to develop emotional problems. She hopes that Thailand can have a softer stance for them.

"In my time here, I have found Thais to be loving and caring people. It is my hope that the authorities will not come down hard on us like they do in such raids because our only fault is that we are here because of religious persecution."

School founder Chowdhry explains why he decided to start Victoria Memorial Christian Community School.

"When I first visited Thailand to investigate reports of a burgeoning Pakistani Christian asylum seeker demographic over three years ago, I was surprised to see that there were so many children," he said.

"In Britain, we have become used to stories of single men between 14-31 constituting the majority of the asylum-seeker community but in Bangkok it was evident that the make-up of the Pakistan Christian community was different. Whole families had fled together. Faced with the choice of being killed due to a blasphemy allegation or leaving everything behind and escaping to another country, Christian families chose life.

"At the time, there were no schools set up for the children at all. I watched as parents were unable to provide any facilities for their children, allowing them to play in the streets despite the danger of kidnap, injury or arrest."

According to Chowdhry, Thai schools are open to receiving "foreign" children as part of their international commitments but they stipulate that those attending speak and write the Thai language. This naturally excludes Pakistani Christians. Moreover, families obviously fear arrest when travelling to and from school even if their children are able to understand the local language. What makes things worse is that Thailand has not signed the UN Conventions for asylum and has been incarcerating visa overstayers in notoriously brutal Immigration Detention Centres, even those with UN asylum registration or refugee status.

"At every location that I met the Pakistan-Christian community, I was met by children first and was surprised that most of them did not understand any English, whereas most of these children would understand the basics in Pakistan, where English is taught ubiquitously in schools," he said.

"When I spoke with parents, most of whom could speak some English, I realised these children were becoming part of a lost generation. Their absence from any educational system was going to leave the destitute children without any qualifications wherever they ended up. This skills deficit was in juxtaposition to their parents who all seemed to have varying degrees of qualifications and skills from the middle order to higher order of society.

"What became very apparent was that parents did their best to educate their children but struggled with the onerous hours of employment for a pittance in exploitative illegal work. Moreover, with mothers often having to complete household chores alongside shorter cleaning jobs, survival took precedent over their children's progress.

"When I spoke with parents it became clear that they set their hopes for their children's progress on gaining asylum in the West [Thailand does not accept Pakistani asylum seekers] and their children catching up on lost time through the perceived vastly superior education systems in the respective refugee hosting country."

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