`They miss their parents. They cry and we look after them'

21st August 2015 at 01:00
Why pedagogy means parenting for the teachers in India caring for Burmese refugees as young as 4

Avi Nakhro cannot provide her pupils with a family. But she tries to make sure they always have sweets.

"The younger pupils - it's not easy for them," she says. "They miss their parents. Sometimes they cry and we have to look after them. You have to keep some sweets to give them. When you give them sweets, they stop crying."

Ms Nakhro, pictured above, is an English teacher at the Straightaway Mission School, which sits on a hilltop in a remote corner of Nagaland, an isolated province in north-east India.

Although teachers in England are seeing their responsibilities for safeguarding children increase, those duties are placed in sharp relief when compared with Ms Nakhro's position.

About a third of her pupils are unaccompanied refugees from Burma, sent by their parents for a better life in India. Some of them are as young as 4 or 5. For Ms Nakhro, it is almost impossible to separate her job as a teacher from her work as a surrogate parent.

"It's difficult," she says. "Sometimes, if one child cries, the others also cry again. Then they have to go back home for a day or two because they can't stop. They will come back, though. Their parents always make them come back."

The Straightaway Mission School is metres away from the frontier with Burma. This is deeply rural, tribal country, and much of the border is unmarked.

When the school was established three years ago, it was only older children - aged 10 and above - who were sent by their parents across the border. Now, four year olds are regularly dispatched to live with siblings a few years older.

Most of them have no adult supervision; three or four families might build a hut for their children in the village near the school and the older children are expected to care for the younger ones.

Life on the edge

At the end of the school day - which for many of the refugees includes after-school remedial classes - the children will go into the jungle to collect firewood. Then they will cook dinner. Sometimes their parents bring them rations. Occasionally, a child will go home during the holidays and bring back food for the others.

Travel home to Burma, however, is not easy. The roads, basic enough on the Indian side, are near-impassable. Naga tribespeople from Burma regularly walk for a day to buy groceries in Dan, the village nearest the school. There is no electricity or running water on the Burmese side of the border.

"Living is hard there," Ms Nakhro says. "People who come this side of the border usually don't want to go back."

More significantly, they do not want their children to return. Of the 229 pupils at Straightaway, about 80 are unaccompanied refugees from Burma.

Straightaway is a collection of wooden and corrugated-iron huts, perched among the deep-green Naga hills. Rows of pupils are crammed into tiny classrooms, with 15-year-olds often squeezed next to children half or a third their own age.

"If they don't know English, they cannot go into the higher classes," Ms Nakhro says. "So they have to start from the beginning again."

Adrift in another world

All of Straightaway's lessons are in English, but Burma's schools teach in Burmese only. Many children speak no English when they first cross the border. "When children come, we can't talk to them at all," Ms Nakhro says. "We have to start with actions. But they're quick learners."

For teachers in the developed world, the idea of sending unaccompanied four year olds to a place where they can barely communicate is almost unfathomable. "But, actually, those children who are living without parents are doing better than the other children," Ms Nakhro says.

"Students who are living without their parents can do homework. The other students here don't have the support of the parents in their studies. Most of their parents are farmers, illiterate. They want their children to work on the farms with them. That's something very challenging for us."

Most children live in Dan village. Ms Nakhro, meanwhile, lives in a small house on the school site. Although the house itself has electricity, by 9pm the hilltop is pitch-black and eerily quiet.

For Ms Nakhro, who was raised in the Nagaland capital of Kohima, this has required some adjustment.

"People don't usually want to work in this kind of area," she says. "But I studied theology. I dedicated my life to God and to serving him. So I wanted to work somewhere where other people don't want to work."

The troubled history of Nagaland

Straightaway Mission School, on the Indo-Burmese border, is run by missionary Christians. Many of the schools in Nagaland operate on a similar basis.

Until the late 1970s, the region was populated by tribal headhunters, who proudly displayed the skulls of their victims on walls around their homes. But, since the arrival of Baptist missionaries in the mid-20th century, Christianity has spread; the area is now 90 per cent Christian.

Burma's military government actively discriminates against Christians, and many struggle to find jobs.

The Burmese children who attend a mission-run school in India are therefore unlikely to return home.

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