CSAM Myitkyina Students. Photo: Fr. Kurt Zion Pala SSC
The Kachins love to fish. During the rainy season, when the river and stream waters are high and when empty dry ponds are filled with water, the fishes seem to grow in number. Many Kachin's young and old gathered at some spots even along the roads with their fishing rods, patiently waiting to catch fish. But fishing is no longer an enjoyable activity. Many streams and rivers are now polluted by human activities like mining and banana plantations. Environmental degradation is worsening with the current political crisis in the country.
"All the Fish Died" was the headline of one magazine in Myanmar. The fishes were dying from two streams where chemical runoffs from a Chinese banana plantation mixed with the water. The villagers also get their water from these streams for drinking and washing. These days it is not just fish dying but also young people and their dreams.
“Masha langai hpe lani mi sha 'Nga' (fish) jaw sha na malai, shi prat tup, 'Nga' hkwi sha chye na matu sharin ya u.” This Kachin proverb means, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."
A popular adage many of us heard reminds us that helping another person is more than just giving the person material things and resources but giving the person the opportunity to learn the skill to provide for themselves. Many young people struggle with life, and some are just surviving, not finding joy and meaning in their lives.
Since arriving in the diocese, I have worked with university students for the past three years as chaplain and spiritual director to the Catholic Student Action Myitkyina (CSAM), a ministry to university students. But the pandemic and the coup closed all educational institutions in the country. Many of the students I worked with could not complete their university education. One of them is Philip Hka Naw Seng. He is now the interim CSAM president. Together with the committee, we try to continue to minister to the students and youth. He was into the 2nd year of his Bachelor of Science Major in Chemistry program when he, like most young people, had stopped going to the university in protest of the military coup. The new military regime is ruthless in suppressing protests and resistance, especially the youth.
The pandemic and the coup revealed many weaknesses in the country's education system. Many young people are now not work-ready, which means many of them, even those with university degrees, are not readily accepted or employed by organizations and companies because they lack the basic and necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes.
Furthermore, the Covid19 pandemic and the country's ongoing political crisis have led to increased stress and trauma among children and youth. There is an increase in cases of anxiety, worry and other mental health problems among children and youth, which contributes to the stress and depression in young people causing loss of interest in life, an increase in substance - abuse (drugs, alcohol, other substances) among youth.
Philip. Photo: Fr. Kurt Zion Pala SSC
Why is education essential for you?" I asked Philip. He replied that education means a promising future for him. Many young people suffer because they do not have access to good education. He shared that he is the only one to reach a university education level in his family. He cannot go to university these days, but he finds alternative ways to continue his education. He also wants to become a good teacher to teach his people and improve their lives. He added that most Kachin people rely on the abundant natural resources alone and extract them without considering the impact on the broader environment like jade and gold mining have. Many young people are now working in the many mining fields of Kachin since the closing of universities and other learning institutes. Many are losing interest in studying because of the situation in Myanmar. Philip shared he also feels lost and depressed.
Mary Ja Seng Lu, another university student and member of the Catholic Student Action Myitkyina, shared that the pandemic and the country's political situation created many challenges for her. Her family could not support her in pursuing her studies, so she struggled to balance university life and work. She was doing well until the coup happened, and these days she feels lost and confused.
Mary with another volunteer. Photo: Fr. Kurt Zion Pala SSC
Philip and Mary are not alone. Thousands like them in Myanmar hope for real peace and justice in Myanmar. Many young people are lost and uprooted these days, and some join the armed resistance. Pursuing studies in other countries can also be challenging for many young people, especially those from rural areas with little to no opportunities and information on scholarships and training. These days young people feel their dreams and their future is gone.
When Pope Francis came to Myanmar, he met the young people, and to them, he said, "Be brave, be generous and above all, be joyful." Many are trying their best, and if given the right opportunities to learn and gain new knowledge and skills, they will be able to survive and make a difference not just in their lives but also in the lives of many other young people. Mary Seng Lu added that "…we should give them opportunities and platforms to keep learning new things in their lives."
So together with Philip and other young people, we are opening a Student Resource Center. The centre will have a computer laboratory, a library, a counselling room, classrooms and meeting rooms. The centre will provide a safe space and an alternative learning centre to provide skills training (English language, Computer, Accounting, Life or soft skills) and mental health services. Livelihood training will also be an essential component of the centre to encourage business entrepreneurship among young people. We do not just want to give them fish, but we want to empower them by giving them the proper knowledge and skills to succeed in life and have meaningful lives.
Please help us help young people help other young people through supporting this student resource centre. The centre will be run by the youth, with the youth and for the young people.
Columban Fr. Kurt Zion Pala lives and works in Myanmar.
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