Listen to this story:
Helen Margaret Hall is an Australian teacher who first went to teach in Thailand for one year as part of the Adventist Volunteer Services in 1982. She is now 80 years old and is still there — the longest-serving and oldest active AVS missionary.
Question: What took you to Thailand originally?
Answer: In 1982, the Karen government school (on the Thai side of the border) needed someone to come and work there, and a local pastor asked me to do it. I was given a leave of absence from the Victorian Conference in Australia where I was employed as a teacher at the time.
I had barely arrived when the Thai government announced that all refugees must return to Burma. I was faced with a dilemma: Should I go back to Burma with the Karen refugees or return home to Australia having accomplished nothing?
The answer was not hard. I decided to go back to Burma with the school refugees. They built me a house, but it took some time. So for the first semester, I lived on the Thai side and commuted back and forth by boat.
You founded and run Eden Valley Academy, a school for Karen refugees who have come over the border to Thailand from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). When did the school begin?
I spent two years on the Burma side of the Moei river, but when bombing of refugees began, we had to move back to Thailand. I was still working in the same capacity in the government school, but then in 1984, some Americans donated money to the local Karen people, and they chose to use it to open a school for refugees in a remote area of Burma and asked me to run it.
The Karen people said they wanted a Christian school like the one Eric B. Hare, the Adventist pioneer missionary to Burma, started in 1915. The school was named Karen Adventist Academy, and we stayed in our first location for two years.
When we were forced to move because of attacks and after Burmese spies tried to capture me, we moved to Thailand. In the new location on the Thai side of the border, we called ourselves Karen Adventist Academy Kler Ko.
A Karen Adventist leader was very upset because we used the same name for the school after leaving the Burma side of the border. He tried to get me arrested in Thailand and made a lot of trouble. He has since defected to Burma and tried to start Karen Adventist Academy up again in another refugee camp in a very remote location. But soon no one had anything to do with their former leader. No one trusted him. We help that school a little but can’t help very much.
We changed our name to Eden Valley Academy. We tried to run a branch school for the Thai Karen, close to us in Thailand but were not allowed to call it by that name because the Thai education department said a “valley” was a tourist resort! I managed to start that school for the Thai Karen regardless but was then forced to choose either to work with refugees or in the Thai school. I chose the refugees.
Why did you stay in Burma and Thailand instead of going home to Australia?
When my leave of absence was up, the Victorian Conference in Australia told me that I needed to come back and put down roots—otherwise I would be on my own.
I chose to stay, and although there were tough times when we were running from bombing and Burmese who crossed into Thailand to attack us, I saw the resilience of the people and felt if they could cope, then with God’s help, so could I.
How many students attend Eden Valley Academy? How many do you expect for next year? How many teachers are there? Do you have other administrators?
We currently have 760 students from last year who will continue this year in their studies, and we expect to take another 100 from the more than 400 new students who have applied.
I expect we will have at least 850 for the next school year.
We have 55 teachers, plus a cook for boarders. We work as a team, with a principal at the “down below” school and another at the “up top” school. (The school is in two sections: one at the foot of the mountain and the other at the top.)
We felt the boarders were safer higher up the mountain than near the road.
I don’t like being an administrator. I want to teach and still do as much as possible.
Where do the teachers come from and how long do they stay?
Our teachers now are refugees or Thai Karen who have been through the school. (At first, the Thai government advised people in our area to send students to our school, which was not in the refugee camp but nearby.)
We have had some Thai Karen students who have been in the school since Grade 1 and graduated in Year 12. They then were sent to Mission College, the Adventist church college near Saruburi, Thailand, where they studied for a degree in education. We had help from the Union for this, but the school had to raise 25% of their school fees, plus all extras needed.
This college is now known as Asia Pacific International University. Our students have returned, and each has served the school for four years, which is their bond, and have then moved on to work for NGOs in the area. Many would like to stay longer at the school, but we can’t afford to pay much. We are the lowest-paying school in Thailand, with degreed teachers getting 6,000 baht per month. If they work for NGOs, they get 20-30,000 baht per month, so they make a considerable sacrifice to work for us.
As well as Thai Karen, we have managed to send refugees to university and they have all come back and served faithfully.
What is a typical day like for you? Do you teach every day?
I have young teachers and several students who live with me. I usually rise before 5 a.m. so I can have a quiet time with the Lord. We have worship at 6 a.m., then everyone prepares for the day at school. I pick up other Thai teachers living in the same town, and we leave for school, which is 30 kilometers away, by 7:30 a.m. School begins at 8:30 a.m.
I teach every day. I teach English—some grammar but mostly vocabulary-building and comprehension. After teaching, I do office work or prepare materials for first-year teachers.
We leave the camp about 4 p.m. or later to come home and prepare for the evening meal and night study.
Have you considered retiring?
I have thought of doing so, but there is no one else who is free to take my place and continue to run the school.
I feel that while I am well and able to work, I should stay. I would be very bored at home, and most of my friends are dead or in other places.
This year's senior class of Eden Valley Academy has just graduated. How many graduated? What are these graduating seniors like? Where did they come from? Do any of them have particularly interesting or inspiring stories that you can share with us?
This year, we had a graduating class of 54 from Year 12. Some are very enthusiastic and lively; others are quiet and just want to help their families. Very few have grown up with their families though some have been born in the camp.
We have two graduates this year, one girl, and one boy, who have had definite experiences this year. They have both been with us since Grade 5. The girl is from a Baptist family and wanted to be baptized into the Adventist church when she was in Grade 6, but her family told her not to rush things but to wait and be sure what she is doing. Her last year at school was difficult because her father went off with another woman, and her mother divorced him. She decided to be baptized even though her father forbade it. Now an uncle who has resettled in Canada has agreed to sponsor her to do a teaching course at Asia Pacific International University.
The lad was baptized in Grade 6 and became the only Christian in a Buddhist family. He did not immediately tell his parents what he had done for fear he would be withdrawn from the school. They eventually discovered and have disowned him. He has continued at school with the help of former teachers who have resettled in Australia and in the U.S. He is going to teach and help in the dormitory at school this year. He wants to continue his studies after that if the Lord makes a way for him.
Will the graduates stay in the refugee camp indefinitely? Will they have a chance to make a career or pursue further education based on their studies at Eden Valley Academy?
Right now NGOs and governments are trying to persuade the refugees to go for voluntary repatriation to Myanmar(Burma). Most would like to go back, but the cease-fire agreement between tribal groups and the Burmese has collapsed. The Burmese keep breaking their agreement. People have no land, no houses, and no work, so how can they go back?
Any Eden Valley Academy graduate has no problems getting work, either inside the camp, to teach in other schools, work in the health sector, and so on, but many are looking for ways to continue their education. Some have relatives who have gone to the States, Australia, Canada, Europe, and they send money for them to study. We still support three each year but would like to support more. Some students get scholarships to study in the local NGO-run courses and then apply to go overseas. (These students are not Adventist as they would have Sabbath problems with exams and lectures in universities.)
One girl has a scholarship to study law in Hong Kong and will do her final year in Harvard. She is top of her class.
Three others are also studying in Hong Kong in education and business. Two have gone to Europe, one to study architecture and another engineering. One is a Muslim and is amazed that at his university people understand the problems he faced in Burma.
How is Eden Valley Academy funded?
Most of our funding comes from private donors, who do not require tax deductibility, and former students.
The funding that comes from ADRA is very complicated. Because of the new regulations and the rules imposed by the Australian government, we have to pay ADRA by the hour for the work they do for us, and the amount is more than our teachers get in a week.
But God provides for our needs.
How are you able to run a school in the very uncertain conditions of a refugee camp? How have conditions changed during the time you have been there?
People in the camp want us there and flood to us for help. By requiring all graduates to work for a year, we have sufficient teachers to run the school. Those who come back from university mentor the new teachers, and we get by.
It is more difficult now in some respects because the camp is enclosed by a wire fence, there are guards on the gates, and refugees who even walk outside the camp without permission are arrested.
Every year we get a number of students from areas in Myanmar.
Along the Myanmar (Burma) side of the border, there is much instability and fighting, and so the schools that do exist are of very poor quality. In other places, there are no schools at all. We have become famous, so people flock to come to our school. And NGOs gave food rations to students who came across the border for education. Hundreds came to the camp for this reason. But now people think it should be safe for the refugees to return home, and so the funding is drying up. Now donors—mostly governments—have reduced or stopped funding for refugees and have now announced that they will no longer support these students with food rations and so on. Only those already registered in the camp will get some help although no one is sure how much.
Most recently, because of the Rohinga situation, people are learning what the Burmese military government is really like. It is not a democracy.
In the early days, it was physical danger people were in. Now it is instability and insecurity for the future that worries people.
Just this week, we got a message that students in schools run in Burma by two of our graduates have had to flee from Burmese attacks. We haven’t heard anything more yet. People are trying to arrange peace talks, but if they fail, there will be a lot of fighting in the country this summer.
What are the biggest challenges you have had to overcome with the schools in Thailand and Myanmar?
People think that the school must be big—they want quantity of numbers and want it to be famous.
I have always wanted quality.
Teaching people to reason is a difficult challenge as they have grown up doing what they are told without question.
Another challenge is, of course, the war situation which means you can’t plan much in advance but must be ready to change overnight, when necessary.
Right now the biggest challenge is finding the money to pay teachers even a small stipend to work for us.
What has been the most rewarding and fun part of your work? What makes you keep doing it?
The most rewarding part of my work is to see students open their minds and learn to reason. They have learned to trust God when the going is tough. Even the other week, when our very first students, all married with families, gave me a birthday party, I was amazed that they wanted to sing the songs we used to sing every morning and night. Even those who are no longer Adventists still send their children to Adventist schools and uphold our values of honesty and helping others.
It is seeing the need that keeps me working. Both of my parents died while I was still in my 20s, and I had no relatives that I knew. Since I have no family, I am free to do this work, while others can’t because they have families to consider.
What can people do to help?
People can help by praying for us and sending donations to feed the students and pay teachers’ stipends.
It is too difficult to get volunteers in the camp now, as we once did, when we were outside the camp. As all changes in the camp take place with no prior warning, it would be very difficult if I had people here and then the camp was closed. This happens frequently of late.
Many parents or relatives have come to plead for us take students this year. Teachers are pleading for their neighbours who are in great need. These families have no money, and some of the children are orphans. We need people to sponsor students. We need $125 to support a day student and $200 for a boarder.
Photo courtesy of Helen Margaret Hall
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
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