An Infant Jesus mission team has been working to serve teachers and children in Myanmar for more than a decade. Darren Boon reports.
A Singaporean Infant Jesus (IJ) nun and a layperson have been helping to strengthen children’s education and teacher training in Myanmar for more than a decade.
Since 2001, Sr Grace Chia and Ms Jacinta Cardoza have been working with a team of IJ nuns and lay partners from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and other countries to boost education in the country (see next story).
In schools, many teachers do not teach fully and children are expected to take tuition from them, Sr Grace told CatholicNews. “The really poor can’t afford tuition. Our mission is to target the education of the disadvantaged and vulnerable children, especially in the remote areas,” said the nun who is in her 60s.
The IJ mission trains teachers to serve such children at boarding houses and village and community schools.
Sr Grace made her first visit to Myanmar in 1998 with the IJ provincials of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Several years earlier, the then apostolic nuncio Archbishop Luigi Bressan had asked the IJ Sisters to help the Church in Myanmar. The Bishop of Pathein also asked them to help set up a boarding house for the educational needs of the girls there.
“On our initial visit, we saw that the call was clear and desperate…the cry of the people was very real,” Sr Grace said.
In 2000, the IJ Sisters organised a fact-finding mission on the needs of the people. Initially, the IJ mission team focused more on formation, retreats and spiritual direction for the local Religious so as to “train the trainers and empower the local Religious who were cut off from the renewal process of Vatican II”, said Sr Grace.
“Moreover, they were the ones who are reaching out to the people in the remote areas.”
The team also taught the Religious to be self-sustaining through projects such as candle production and pepper growing. In 2005, the team moved to Yangon and also assisted the Jesuits there in starting an English programme.
Training the teachers
After the nationalisation of all mission schools in the early 1960s, the Myanmar Catholic Church started boarding houses in parishes located in the small towns. These serve village children who study in the high schools.
The Church presently runs over 300 boarding houses but is not allowed to run national schools, said Sr Grace. According to her, rote learning is prevalent in the education system and so there is no real understanding of concepts.
The IJ Sisters were asked to train the teachers at boarding houses. Ex-IJ students helped plan the first training curriculum and the first sessions started in 2007 around the time of the anti-government uprising led by monks.
Then, only Ms Cardoza was in Myanmar. She was advised by the team to postpone the classes but these went ahead eventually.
The training for the first batch was nine months, but this later increased to 17 months and finally to two years for subsequent batches due to gaps in the teachers’ knowledge, Sr Grace explained. Each cohort does not comprise more than 25 trainees.
After a two-year training stint at the IJ-run Pyinya Sanyae Institute of Education, teachers have to serve underprivileged children for two years. Sr Grace said many are “passionate” in their response.
Meanwhile the missionaries have managed to obtain scholarships for local teachers to further their education overseas so they in turn can be trainers. One teacher has even studied at the National Institute of Education in Singapore and is now doing her internship in an IJ school.
Serving the children
The IJ mission has now expanded to areas such as Maubin and Bago in Yangon Division, Kanazogone, Maungmya and Nyaungdon in the Ayeryawaddy Division, Mazaw and Kalwin in Thanithari Division and Palana in Kachin state, said Sr Grace.
The mission has also introduced “learning corners” at boarding houses to help children develop skills such as in computing, reading, conversation and creative thinking.
An IJ Sister was even flown in from Ireland to train the local teachers in art therapy for children who survived the devastating Cyclone Nargis, who lost their parents, or who have been internally displaced from insurgent areas.
One IJ school in Singapore also launched a programme in which children here help provide their counterparts in Myanmar with two to three eggs a week.
Sr Grace noted that the Myanmar children have gained greater confidence and are generally happier. “I feel this mission is a gift. It’s God’s gift,” she said. IJ schools and many others have also been very supportive, she noted.
Sr Grace said the team intends to introduce Montessori education, and reach out to children in detention camps and rehabilitation centres.
The nun observed that it is much easier to do mission work in Myanmar these days. There was a strong military presence during her first visit to the country and foreigners’ movements were restricted, she recalled. “Last time, any good one tries to do was considered ‘subversive’,” she said.
The nun said she feels that Myanmar is now experiencing its “Exodus” event, and that God has heard the people’s cry.