Danh, a 21 year-old Vietnamese refugee, walked slowly towards the center of the stage when his name was called. His steps were unstable but proud. He was handed a certificate that acknowledged his successful hard work. He smiled at the camera while his fellow students and teachers gave him a big round of applause. Danh is differently abled, but it does not define him.
Danh received his certificate for completing the language and skill training provided by the Urban Education Project (UEP) of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Thailand. The project, offered to urban refugees and asylum seekers in Bangkok, provides a six-month course of Thai and English classes, as well as vocational skill training in computers, sewing, and hairdressing. The 2018 cohort had 27 refugees from various nationalities, all 27 finished their training in June. The UEP held a graduation ceremony to celebrate their success.
Danh plans to give some support to the school as soon as he graduates.“I will prepare the classroom and make sure that class materials and devices are ready. I am truly blessed to have had the opportunity to be in this program, and now I want to give back by providing my support to the school.” Danh is a good example of where there’s a will, there’s a way. He has lived with a physical challenge throughout his entire life and has demonstrated how to be successful. Danh’s story is not about what society can do to help people who are differently abled, but rather, what people who are differently abled can do and give back to the society.
The JRS developed the UEP because educational opportunities for refugees are scarce in Thailand. Most refugees and asylum seekers living in Thailand are undocumented. This makes it difficult for them to access schools. Nonetheless, there is one door to education in Thailand that remains open to refugees. In 2005, the Cabinet Resolution on Education for Unregistered Persons provided the right to education for all children in Thailand, regardless of race, sex, nationality, and legal status. The Resolution gives them the right to 15 years of free basic education.
Unfortunately, there remain a number of obstacles that limit learning opportunities for refugees in Bangkok. Security is the first and most difficult. Thailand is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention of 1951 and does not provide a legal status to refugees. Therefore, refugees are not protected by law. They are often afraid to go outside of their homes because they fear arrest. Parents are afraid to send their children to school alone or even walk them to school. In addition, classes offered by non-profit organizations are non-formal.
This means that the classes refugees take in non-formal programs are not recognized officially. They cannot be used in formal education (I.e. technical colleges and universities) in order to obtain diplomas or degrees in Thailand or in their countries of resettlement. “Even though the legislation for education exists in Thailand, there are still gaps and needs when talking about education for refugees and asylum seekers in the urban context,” says Khun Kornkaew Phimoei, Project Director of the UEP.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.