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Updates from Marissa McArdle as she serves in Laos
Hi everybody! Sorry it’s been a while.. a lot to catch you up on!
I’ll start by saying, THANK YOU SO SO SO much to everyone who sent me cards on my Birthday. It really made me miss home and all of the great people in my life. Thanks to all who donated to the “Marissa McArdle Birthday Scholarship Fund”. You raised a total of $1,300! Because of your donations, so many children in Laos will be able to attend school without struggling to pay for it. How amazing is that!? I am beyond happy; I really couldn’t as for a better Birthday gift. Thank you so much!:)
This year, I spent my Birthday in Vietnam. I celebrated with international friends, and they surprised me with a delicious Vietnamese cake! Madame Xuyen and I travelled by bus to the south of Vietnam..27 long hours..on November 7th to celebrate National Social Work Day. It was a beautiful ceremony with many speeches, dances, music, and fun. Although everyone spoke in Vietnamese, I could still feel the enthusiasm and dedication to their profession and love of helping others. Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures with me right now, but I will upload them as soon as possible. I’ll blog more today about my latest adventures–just wanted to say a quick “thank you” for the wonderful Birthday gifts!
Hello all! I have been in Thailand for the last five days participating in a workshop led by “Save the Children Sweden”. This organization is funded by the Swedish government, and runs international training programs in six African and seven Asian countries on medical and psychosocial services for children in especially difficult circumstances. In 2010, Save the Children Sweden held a four week training in Sweden where they taught thirty representatives from China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Africa, and Laos different aspects of child and women protection. At the end of their training, each participant developed a pilot project that they took back to their country. Two years later, they have all gathered back together in Thailand to discuss the progress of their project implementation and to learn about some of Thailand’s human rights organizations and child protection laws. Madame Xuyen was invited by the Swedish to be the consultant for the Lao team (a pediatrician, two social workers, and a health educator at the Lao Ministry of Health), so she brought me along! I’ll break it down day by day with a few pictures and a summary of each activity so far (I apologize for the length–a lot has been going on!).
October 25-29: Visiting Model Sites
The Lao team and I arrived in Bangkok around 9am, and headed to our hotel to meet the rest of the participants. Once we were all settled in, we went to a government meeting at The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. This ministry promotes welfare and the protection and empowerment of vulnerable groups. During this meeting, we learned about Thailand’s child protection laws and were able to ask questions about the problems they face and the implementation of these laws.
We traveled to Klong Toei (the biggest slum in Thailand) at 8:30am, and met in the Duang Prateep Foundation headquarters. DPF works to help poor people throughout Thailand. Their main focus is on the urban poor with an emphasis on community development, and they strive to give the best possible opportunities to the people they care for. DPF has a variety of projects that can be categorized into five groups: education, health, social services, human development, and emergency fund. This foundation was started in 1978 by a woman named Duang Prateep Hata. Ms. Hata was raised in the slums and became a child laborer at the age of 10. Although she only had five years of education, she aspired to be a teacher, and eventually started a small school out of her parent’s house in the slums. She is now a successful Thai activist noted for her work with slum dwellers in Bangkok. A former senator for Bangkok, she was awarded the 1978 Ramon Magsaysay award for public service. Before touring around some of DPF’s model sites, I was fortunate enough to meet the incredible Ms. Hata after she gave our group a brief welcome speech and introduction of DPF and the Klong Toei slum.
I’m trying to find the words that will accurately portray my thoughts and feelings after visiting the Klong Toei slum, but I’m finding this to be very difficult. Seeing a community of 87,000 in an urban setting living in extreme poverty was a very eye opening experience for me. I saw ‘houses’ sandwiched together surrounded by trashy water, families of 5 living with no door, toilet, or shower in a room smaller than my kitchen, starving people hardly clothed laying in the street, and trash piled everywhere. As I walked along the tight sidewalk in the scorching heat, all I could think was, “Why are there people living in such inhumane conditions while others (myself included) live a lavish life with luxurious houses, clothes, and cars?”. Although, to me, this seems a bit twisted, I understand that it is the reality, so I want to make sure I live a flexible life; I should be able to sit at the same table as the President of the United States, but also on the street and eat with the homeless. After all, we are all united in our humanity. It makes me absolutely ill when I hear people back at home (you would be surprised at how often I hear and see things like this..especially on Facebook) bashing others like these slum dwellers, saying things like, “they need to stop being so lazy. Get a job like everyone else and make a better life for yourself.” Almost everyone I saw in this community, including children, were doing something to make money and provide for their families. I saw people cleaning their ‘houses’, women and children cutting up chicken feet to sell, men selling food on the side of the road, and women carving dolls out of wood to sell for money. I can tell you one thing, these people are not lazy, and they deserve just as much respect as anyone else. Thankfully, there are people like the ones I’m in Thailand with, who dedicate their lives to helping people who are living in poverty and other difficult circumstances, and I intend on doing the same throughout my life as well.
At 3pm, it was time for another government meeting at the Nonthaburi Provincial Administration Organization Center for Protection of Children and Women. This center has the authority to provide social work and quality of life promotion services to children, women, elderly, and vulnerable persons. Nonthaburi province has been recognized as the best in Thailand in terms of education management and environmental protection, so the group was very excited to learn from this organization and their goal to promote quality of life and to protect the rights of women and children.
Day 3 & 4:
We had a free weekend to tour around Bangkok, and I went to some of the biggest outside markets in Thailand for a good day shopping! On Sunday, we visited the Grand Palace in the heart of Bangkok (the pictures do not properly convey its beauty!!!).
The group and I left Bangkok around 7am to go to a city about two hours away, called Pattaya, where we will stay for the last four days of the workshop. Once we arrived, we met in the Social Welfare Division of the Pattaya City Hall. There, we were given a presentation on Pattaya city and an overview of their strategic plan on the development of children and youth and their quality of life.
After the first meeting, we visited the Pattaya Police Station’s Center for the Protection of Children, Women, and Families. There, we heard from the head of the station, and watched a video on the work they do. This video depicted the seriousness of child trafficking and the sexual exploitation that takes place in Pattaya by showing images and videos of children ranging from 4-16 years of age being sexually assaulted by men over the age of 35. Saying the video was hard to watch is an understatement, but I learned so much at the station and was honored to meet policemen and women who work hard everyday for the safety and well being of children.
Our last stop was to the ATCC (Anti Human Trafficking and Child abuse Center). This is a child protection and life skill development center for trafficked, sexually abused, and street children. This is an absolutely amazing center that takes in these abused children and gives them a place to live and develop. The children not only go to school, but also clean their rooms, garden, cook, take care of animals, and create a family relationship with one another.
I do not have the pictures from Day 5 yet, but will upload them as soon as possible!
Donkoi school held a celebration for older persons’ day (October 1) on Saturday October, 20th. About 200 people gathered at 6am to participate in a three mile walk around Donkoi Village in honor of the elderly. There was a live band that played on the back of a pickup truck and followed us while we walked. The music was great and most were dancing instead of walking! Once we returned to the school, everyone enjoyed coffee and bread, and some local doctors and nurses came out to check everyone’s health. This was such a fun morning! I enjoyed getting to know some of the older people of Donkoi as we shared jokes, sang many songs, and did a lot of Lao dancing! One woman was even making plans for me to marry her grandson! Ha! I was very impressed with the amount of people who came out to honor the elderly. The people of Vientiane take this day very seriously, and I too believe this is such an important day to celebrate the lives, health, wisdom and achievements of senior citizens.
My one month visa expired today, the 16th of October, and in order to get a new one I needed to exit the country, so Madame Xuyen and I took a fun day trip to Thailand! Here are some photos from the day.
Along with people constantly asking to touch my nose and hair, I get many requests to sing in Lao. Because of this, performing and singing has become a very regular event for me. I have memorized multiple Lao songs, so everywhere I go (this is NOT an exaggeration) Madame Xuyen makes sure I sing! I’ve gathered lots of photos of me singing for the Lao people, and thought I would share some. Let me remind you,I’ve only been here a month, and these are just the time’s we’ve had a camera at hand…
On Saturday, Madame Xuyen and I visited the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) National Rehabilitation Center. COPE is an amazing center that provides prosthetics and mobility devices for people who require them–free of charge if they cannot afford to pay for them. They also work to promote awareness of the unexploded ordnances that are scattered around Lao PDR from the Vietnam war. UXOs are ‘explosive weapons that failed to detonate when they were fired, dropped, launched or projected, and still pose a risk of exploding’.
These UXOs pose a serious threat to those living in the country side. People living in remote villages often look for these bombs and scraps of metal to sell for good money. This, however, can be extremely dangerous because while digging for the harmless scraps of metal, it is not uncommon for them to come across an UXO. There are an estimated 80 million of sub-munitions that failed to explode after the Vietnam War and an estimated 50,000 people have been injured or killed as a result of UXO accidents between 1964 and 2010. The human cost of UXO incidents in Laos is ongoing, and requires immediate actions to ban future use of cluster bombs and to provide resources to rehabilitate the affected people and land. The COPE center in Vientiane has a great exhibit that is filled with informative displays and documentaries that help to educate visitors from all around the world.
After touring COPE, we visited the National Rehabilitation Center, a center for the blind, and deaf, or those who have lost a limb. We spent time with some of the disabled children and adults and sang songs, played games, and made different crafts such as door mats made of cloth. This has probably been my favorite experience yet; it was so humbling to spend time with these people who live without things that I mistakenly take for granted everyday..It was especially inspirational to see a lot of people who previously lived ‘normal’ lives, but had some sort of accident that caused their lives to dramatically change forever, come out of their rooms and joyfully participate in these activities with a smile on their face. It was amazing to see how such a simple task of visiting them could brighten not only their day, but also mine, so much. They laughed as I attempted to sing and speak in Lao for them, and we had a great afternoon filled with lots of laughs and story telling.
Some of the fifth graders with their teachers after presenting each of them with flowers and a gift for teacher appreciation day. The students had no classes and instead performed lovely dances, site songs, mind and poetry in honor of their hard-working teachers.
Madame Xuyen and I visiting the Center for Disabled Women outside of Vientiane. We brought them multiple books, see maps, illness pens, viagra and pencils, and I donated an avocado tree for them to plant in their garden. In this center, the women learn different tools such as cooking, weaving, gardening, reading, and writing to help them live an independent life. This center was such an inspiration; all of the staff are disabled as well and they are such great role models for these women.