Sometimes when relatives or friends come to visit the children that live at Baanunurak Orphanage (also called Di Di Safe House) thirteen-year old Parama will watch the interactions with curious eyes. But in the end the experience always makes her sad, filling her eyes with tears.
"I don't know who I am… I don’t know who my parents, my mother or father, or any relatives are, or where they came from," Parama said.
The orphanage records tell part of her story.
After being born in the town’s hospital her mentally-ill mother left her when she was only seven-months old. Parama was cared for at the orphanage in Sangkhlaburi, Thailand, near the Burma border until she was two. It was then that Naw San Aye entered her life. The staff member soon started raising Parama as if she was her own daughter.
"I only know Naw San Aye as my mother. She has taken care of me. She is the only mother I have known," Parama said.
Parama was eight when she was finally told that Naw San Aye wasn’t her real Mom. It was hard for Naw San Aye to tell the young orphan the truth about her life. When Parama found out she was very sad. After learning the truth she constantly queried her adopted mom with questions about her birth mother.
"I love her like she is my own daughter and take care of her. I do sympathize with her. I kiss her. I do whatever I can for her because she is very fragile emotionally," Naw San Aye said.
Naw San Aye brings Parama with her whenever she visited her home in in Pha Pya village in Kyar Inn Seik Gyi Township, Karen state
“She was very happy to go with me because she thought she was going to see her parents. However, when we got home, she asked about her parents. I explained to her it's my home; it's not your real mother's village. She was very upset and began to cry," Naw San Aye remembered.
Parama’s biological mother was an illegal Burmese migrant worker, believed to be from Yangon. Her mother was unable to care for her due to circumstances beyond her control. Parama’s mother also suffered from a mental illness. Seeing no way out, she placed her infant daughter in the care of the orphanage.
Parama’s story is just another heart-wrenching drama that has been played out over and over again in this tiny border town.
A Burmese broker that didn’t want their name used because of their job arranging for migrants to illegally enter Thailand heading to destinations like Bangkok told Phophtaw that about 200-300 will enter Thailand from Three Pagoda Pass every month. Ironically the same numbers that cross over are also nabbed by police and deported back to Three Pagoda Pass every month, according to the broker.
"Some people don't have enough money to go further than Sangkhlaburi. So, they have to live temporarily in the border area. Then they face many problems such as lack of food and no money to buy things. After that, parents will blame and fight with each other. Then they divorce. Some men leave their pregnant wives. These women have no place to live, nothing to eat and no place to give birth to their child. After they do give birth, they cannot provide for their child. Some women suffer from depression and psychological disorders. So, the best thing is for these women to leave their child in an orphanage. It's a safe place and their child can go to school," said the broker.
The numbers of abandoned children keeps rising since the Baanunurak orphanage and safe house were built back in 1991. The children’s care facilities in Sangkhla have also grown from two to twelve since 2004 after children under their care jumped from 50 to over 600.
Di Di Devamala, in-charge of programming for Baanunurak orphanage, said that there are 130 orphans living under the careful watch of 20 permanent staff. Out of these there are at least 15 orphans who like Parama have no idea who their real parents are.
Naw La May Htoo, a staff member, told Phophtaw that most of the children arrive at the doors of the orphanage because their parents are so poor that they can’t afford to take care of them. For others leaving their children affords them enough money to cover the travel costs to look for work. Other parents may be suffering from a health problem that prevents them from working.
More girls are abandoned than boys.
The number of migrants on the border has been steadily increasing after economic conditions in Tanintharyi Region and Mon and Karen states continued to worsen caused by poverty and decades of military rule and civil war with the various ethnic armed groups.
Some of the migrant workers were sold by human traffickers that left them stranded half way without enough money to make it to their final destination. Other migrants left their spouses on the way to Thailand. Many are men that left their wives alone with their babies. Some poor parents just wanted their children the opportunity to attend the free schooling offered by the orphanage
Bannunurak’s safe house finds the funding for orphan children to study in local Thai schools through organizations like Vision Trust. This allows them to learn Thai and English. Already two bright orphans have graduated from Thai universities. Many others have completed their high school.
"We see many children in poor countries who get a low level of education. So, we focus on education for children as a means to decrease poverty by improving their standard of living," said Ko Min Oo, of Vision Trust.
According to Naw Paw Lu Lu, of Huay Malai Safe House, every safe house is struggling financially. Generally, most of the funding and other assistance has come through Christian organizations and UNICEF. However, budgets cuts of 25% this year has meant that all the orphanages in the area are facing difficulties keeping up with an increased case load. They need more food, clothes and land to house the extra children.
Funding problems has also made orphanages more hesitant about taking in additional children. Care workers are growing concerned about who will fend for them if they close their doors.
Only 2% of the children are returned to their parents, according to Naw Paw Lu Lu.
Adult orphans often leave the safe house after marrying. Others, who obtained Thai ID cards, get work and are able to support themselves. Still there are many like little Parama still dreaming about being reunited with their families.
“When my friends ask me doesn't your mother visit you, I reply to them, Mother San Aye is my mother. But, I have known for a long time she is not my biological mother… Who is my mother? I have never seen her but I really want to know my mother,” Parama said.
"I think about my real mother. I miss her. My tears fell from my eyes after I learned my life story… I also want to know why she left me in this safe house. I repeatedly asked to Mother San Aye about my real mother because I want to know her… I am worried how I will live as I grow older. Where should I live? Where Should I go? I am also worried my biological mother cannot find me if I leave this safe house because my real mother put me here.”
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