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Pakistani children waiting in hope for asylum attend underground schools in Bangkok

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Nanchanok Wongsamuth a BBC Thai reporter has recently published an article on the lack of education for asylum seekers in Thailand and the underground schools that Charities like BPCA are creating in partnership with the beleaguered community. 

You can view the BBC Thai article (here)

Our school in Thailand was videoed during our Chairman's trip to Bangkok when he introduced Chris Rogers of the BBC to asylum seekers in 2015.  At the time it was removed from the final edit of the documentary due to being too professional-looking which might have clouded people's judgement of how hard Pak-Christian asylum seekers struggle.

After the first two images in this article (click here) is a video that shows our school operating in 2015, there were around 40 children then in two rooms. You can view the BBC Documentary that was finally aired in 2016 (here)

We have only added images of the BPCA school to this story as it was too short notice to obtain permission form the Lions of Judah School. We are extremely proud of the level of education we provide at our school and the structures we have built to ensure our schools are run professionally, with good hygiene and with a mix of academic and physical education using the open areas around the condo for supervised games. We pay professionally qualified teachers from amongst the Pak-Christian asylum community to operate our schools and front all costs. This year we are adding 5 computers to each of our initial schools and hope to introduce more to a planned additional school later in the year, with your help.

Our work is ongoing and despite a paucity of funds we have recently committed to opening our third school after requests from a new community of asylum seekers we have discovered (click here).     

With your help we can make the lives of many more children one of literacy and educational development with appropriate levels of play and interaction with peers. If you would like to help please donate by clicking (here)

To help you I share an unofficial translation of Nanchanok's article which she has provided for use on our blog:

After four years awaiting refugee status, Pakistani Christians who have escaped religious persecution to Thailand are sending their children to study in underground “schools”- the only place which brings hope, knowledge and childhood back to the lives of the kids. BBC Thai’s Nanchanok Wongsamuth reports on these learning centres, the children and their struggles.  


15-year-old Sunny* remembers the last time he played cricket four years ago. The sport is very popular in his home country of Pakistan, and he and his friends play gather to play every day after school.
After leaving his country at the time, along with five family members, he longed for his past childhood. But his dream came true three months ago when he was able to play the sport again with 15 classmates.
“It felt good and very memorable…It’s been four years that we haven’t been able to go out,” Sunny told BBC Thai in English at a learning centre in an apartment in Bangkok.
A total of 16 Pakistani Christian students aged 4-20 years study at the learning centre. The families of these children have fled religious persecution in Pakistan.
For these families, sending their children to study in learning centres is the best thing a parent can give to their children amidst their illegal status in Thailand.

GOT NOWHERE TO GO

A learning centre called “The Lions of Judah” used to be located in an apartment on the outskirts of Bangkok. The room was owned by Jacob*, a Pakistani Christian who co-founded the centre and is now a teacher there. The place had to be relocated three months ago after some families were forced to leave the apartment for safety issues.
The new apartment, where several Pakistani families reside, houses two learning centres.
With a rental fee of 5,000 baht per month, residents say they feel somewhat safe despite their illegal status, since the landlord understands the situation of Pakistani Christians seeking refuge in Thailand.
Since relocating here, “The Lions of Judah” has had four additional students, and is working with students ranging from high school English proficiency to a nine year old with disabilities.

Out of the 16 students, only three have received refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while the other 13 applications have been declined, even after appeals.
“The Lions of Judah” was set up in April last year with the help of Everett and Laurie Miller, a husband and wife from Alabama. After regular visits to the Immigration Bureau’s Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) and talking to parents, the couple helped Jacob’s family set up the centre using their own experience in home-schooling their three children. Within six months, students at the centre were able to increase their English comprehension.
Laurie said although the centre is not as up to standard as a regular school, it will help the students become more integrated into schools if they do get resettled to another country.
“If nothing else, just to give them hope so they’re not just living in this dark depression,” she said.

GIVING HOPE

On the whiteboard, Jacob meticulously writes down a passage from the Bible which encourages Christians to be patient during persecution.

“The situation is very bad for us, but we’re still patient and pray,” he said.
Passages from the bible, music and art are a channel for the children to express their feelings and emotions at a time when they are still awaiting hope.
The Millers sought funding from a Christian NGO called Baptist Global Response to purchase 10 tablets for the centre to use for learning, using an American-based home-school curriculum.
Only two months earlier, the students had to sit on the floor to studying. But after receiving more funding, they were able to purchase tables and chairs, as well as books and educational toys to use alongside subjects in science, English, music, art and Christianity.
Apart from helping out at the centre, the Millers are also training five Pakistani parents whose children do not study there, on how to home-school. In February, they plan to set up another learning centre for 18 Sri Lankan students.

LEAVING HOME TO TEACH

25-year-old Jacob is among the wave of Pakistani Christians who fled to Thailand in 2014. One of the main reasons was due to the 2013 attack at Joseph Colony, a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore, where several houses were burned down.
At the time, Jacob was a medical student. His family lived in a Christian neighbourhood in Karachi, which was also next to a Muslim community separated by only a small road.
One day in 2013, Muslims from the nearby community wrote down slogans on the walls of a church in Jacob’s neighbourhood. The slogans, which included, “Long live Taliban”, also encouraged the killing of those who didn’t accept Islam.
Residents of Jacob’s community protested against the act, and the Muslim community fired guns as a response, resulting in several injuries. When his community was attacked a second time, Jacob moved to Hyderabad, which is around 140km from Karachi. His family eventually decided to move to Thailand after sensing that it was still not safe.
Jacob said although he feels a lot of pressure from his work as a teacher, he thinks this is a calling from God so he can serve his community.
In an earlier interview with BBC Thai, the Pakistan Embassy in Thailand denied that violence between religious groups existed in Pakistan. Aamir Naveed, a counsellor at the embassy, said there are no attacks on Christians, and Christians have equal rights as Muslims.



BEING DENIED

On the same floor as “The Lions of Judah” is another learning centre with 15 students aged 4-16 years. Most of them have fled religious persecution from Lahore and Karachi.

Ruth*, who has been teaching at the centre for a year, said the number of students is lowering every day - from around 25 students last year- because many of them have returned to Pakistan with their family after being denied refugee status.

Ruth herself has been denied refugee status and submitted an appeal on June 2 last year. She is still waiting for the results.
Ruth claimed that she and five other family members were threatened to death by “Muslim extremists” in Lahore. They chose to come to Thailand because her uncle had arrived here earlier, making her thinkthe country was a safe place. But that decision caused her to have to end her three-year career working as a nurse in a well-known private hospital in Pakistan.
“We can’t go back to our country. If we go back, we die,” the 28-year-old told BBC Thai. “They [Muslim extremists] always think that every person who isn’t a Muslim has no right to live.”



AMIDST FEAR

The centre has two teachers teaching science, religion, mathematics, English and Urdu.
Classes start at 9AM with prayers and singing in English. One a week, exams are held. Ruth said she tries to teach the students English so that they can survive in a third country where English is the main language.
The teachers also provide moral support for students who are constantly in fear of being arrested by authorities.

Ruth said the children are becoming more stressed each day, but she understands how they feel and is able to console them as she is in the same situation.
“In our rooms, when someone knocks on our door early in the morning, we get scared. Maybe it’s the police or immigration,” she said. “Students are also afraid…especially the youngest, who is always depressed and scared. It sends a bad effect to their mind.”
Ruth also teaches the students self-protection, especially for female students, whom she shows the appropriateness of people touching different parts of the body.
Wilson Chowdri, chairperson of the UK-based British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA), said his organisation has been supporting two learning centres in Bangkok BPCA for around two and a half years, and will open a third one soon.
Mr Chowdri said his organisation receives donations from Christians worldwide, and has four safe houses in Pakistan for victims of religious persecution, each holding up to six people.


TARGETS

At the IDC, Nargis Iqbal is dressed in traditional Pakistani clothing as she stands clinging to the bars right next to the area where items are checked. She smiles as she sees her husband, who visits her daily to bring her food.
Visitors are allowed no privacy. BBC Thai talked to Mrs Iqbal at the IDC by shouting amidst the cacophony of voices of the detained and their visitors. Several dozens of detainees are lined up behind 21 m of steel bars while they meet their visitors, who are also forced to stand behind steel bars. The two sides are one metre apart.
Mrs Iqbal said she was detained at the IDC for two years and five months. She used to teach at a learning centre at a condominium in PrachaUtit Road, and was arrested there. At the time, there were 67 students, but some fled during the arrest and others were released after UNHCR negotiated their release.
One of the BPCA’s learning centres was raided in 2015 in an apartment in SuthisanRoad. At the time, 12 people were arrested.



According to the Coalition for the Rights of Refugees and Stateless Persons, there are currently over 40 children detained at the IDC. Almost all were arrested with their parents. Around 20 children are in the process of seeking refugee status.

On Jan 23, another nine children were arrested in the Onnut area.

Hannah Macdonald, an associate external relations officer at the UNHCR office in Bangkok, told BBC Thai that UNHCR opposes the routine detention of refugees and asylum-seekers, particularly for children and other vulnerable groupsas a matter of worldwide policy. In this respect, UNHCR is encouraged by steps taken by Thai government towards ending the detention of children and remains available to support in advancing these efforts.

The Thai government is in the process of creating a domestic mechanism to screen, protect and give rights to illegal immigrants and refugees during their stay in Thailand. This is in line with a cabinet resolution in January last year, in which one of the measures included stopping child detention.
The Immigration Bureau spokesperson could not be contacted at the time this article was published.

Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Busadee Santipitaks said although Thailand is not a party to the Convention on the Status of Refugees in 1951, Thailand is committed to providing humanitarian assistance to these people and is in the process of considering to become a party.

"Thailand needs to seek a balance between law enforcement to prevent the negative impact from migration and the maintenance of the humanitarian principles that Thailand has always upheld. Especially now that many legal and illegal immigrants have sought shelter with the UNHCR in Bangkok, with more than half coming from Pakistan,"she told BBC Thai.

Nargis said she is sick and her mouth hurts, making it difficult for her to eat. She has an appointment with the doctor on Feb 14.

“It’s better to die in Thailand than go back to Pakistan,” she told BBC Thai.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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