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The man who sold his house to build a school

columns Updated: Jul 01, 2010 12:05 IST

Around the world in 56 weeks
Destination 1: Thailand

If I look out of the window in my room, I see lush green mountains, thatched roof huts, a mud brick making shed with a clumsy playground in the foreground. This update is coming to you from the Community Learning Center in the little village of Ban Nai Soi in Mae Hong Son district in Thailand. I’m just eight kilometers from the Burma border.

There is a jovial old man here, who with some help from his lovely daughter is changing the future of dozens of young people.

As a young man, Mr Kyaw Hla Sien fled Burma after being forced to work as a porter for the military junta for seven months. He woefully recalls a curb on freedom of movement, censoring in education and stagnation of any essential amenities unless a bribe was assured. He says, “The only way the junta could lead the Burmese people, was through violence and intimidation. I was forced to carry forty five kilos of rice for miles through the forest, and if you stopped or complained — you were shot on the spot.”

He even managed to make his way to India, after crossing over illegally from Mizoram. He studied briefly at the Imperial College in Pune, eventually returning to Burma only to escape into Thailand. This village is the first place he truly calls home.

All his life he struggled to get an education, knowing perfectly well that it was his only way out. Even though life in Thailand was peaceful, he saw too many children slip through the cracks in the education system. They were either too poor (from families with incomes of less than 50 Baht per day) or un-entitled (children of migrants can only attend school upto the sixth grade without official status and papers)

So he sold his house, put himself in debt and started the Ban Nai Soi Community Learning Center. This school is a refuge for 58 students currently. They don’t pay for tuition or board and even with the bare boned structure of the school building and dorms, their life here is a lot better than the one they’ve left behind.

Unfortunately, three years ago, Mr Sien was in a gruesome motorbike accident. It left him incapacitated for a long time. So his wife and then 17-year-old daughter took charge. For the fourth years running, they’ve kept the school afloat, swinging from debts to desperation but never giving up. Only too aware that if not for this place the children would end up as dishwashers in seedy hotels or in brothels in big cities.

The students were warm and curious. Big beaming smiles, asking hopefully if I’d come to teach them English. It was sad to disappoint them, but they continue to call me Teacher, probably because the only other foreigners to have visited were Volunteer teachers. Though, I did get coerced into giving a lecture about India to the senior class! They wanted to know about the Taj Mahal and my life in India and if there were good universities they could apply to.

The sense of pride the students have in this humble haven is admirable. They all have rotating duties to cook, clean and make mud bricks to build an extension for the school. In the winter months, the students return home and are encouraged to think and act for the benefit of their communities.

Previous graduates from Mr Sien’s school have become respected community leaders. His face lights up as he shares their achievements.

Mr. Sien is very proud of his mud brick workshop, he says it’s his attempt to tackle the global warming crisis. His mud bricks don’t need to be fired in a kiln and they don’t even need wooden frames for the building. The bricks are then smoothed over with a mud, sand and rice glue mixture. “Better than cement, this is nature’s cement”, he says.

His daughter Rosie, who is all of 21 now, teaches a class where most of the students are older than her. She’s a gentle soul who shares her father’s passion for educating. I spent half the day with her writing e-mails to volunteer organisations and donor agencies. Her passion is deep and sincere and belies her young age. Right now they’re surviving on a small donation and a big heap of will power. In this little corner of the universe this father-daughter duo are changing the world, one grateful student at a time.

Tithiya Sharma is on a year-long journey across the globe to find 100 everyday heroes — and hopefully herself — along the way. For more on Tithiya's adventure log on to