News / Asia

Burma Hike Inspires School-building Mission

Students at the Nan Ouw School in Burma recite the Burmese and English alphabet for
Students at the Nan Ouw School in Burma recite the Burmese and English alphabet for "Build a School in Burma" founder Bob Cornwell. (Courtesy Build a School in Burma)
Jan Sluizer
Three years ago, Bob Cornwell was a financial advisor to several foreign governments with a lucrative stake in a financial consulting firm. Today, he is building schools in Burma.

“We’re really trying to help kids on the margin who wouldn’t otherwise get an education," Cornwell said. "Kids not having an education is just a recipe for every type of personal disaster in their lives.”

Cornwell first met the children who inspired his mission in 2010, when he and a friend hiked from village to village in the hilly northwestern province of Burma, an area of the former British colony known for trekking.  

“We walked and walked and each night we stayed in a village, slept on the floor," he said. "None of these villages had electricity. Many of them are not really accessible even by road. And lots of kids. Maybe five on average per family. No school.”   

With an annual per capita income of about $460, Burma is one of the world's poorest countries, according to the United Nations. Under a military government, Burma faced tough international sanctions for 25 years. Today, with a newly-elected government still evolving, international aid has begun to arrive, but very few resources are allotted for education in remote villages.

Cornwell was amazed to learn the cost of building a primary school in Burma was $15,000 to $20,000, modest by American standards.

He sold his interest in the firm he’d started 25 years earlier, and established a nonprofit called Build a School in Burma. He focused on under-served villages that demonstrated their committment to building schools by contributing land and labor.

Among his volunteers is Rick Heizman, a leading expert on Burmese music. “Burma kind of struck my heart when I went there in the '80s.”

Heizman has been doing humanitarian and education projects in Burma for more than two decades. He and his wife, renowned Burmese harpist Su Wei, live in San Francisco, but return to Burma often to visit the school projects. Su Wei says the children are excited to learn to read and write and their parents are hopeful that getting an education without leaving home will allow their children to break a long cycle of poverty.

“Most likely they’re like workers, farmers," Su Wei said. "Usually they have to take care of the business. The school is inside their village, nearby, so, at least, they don’t have to worry about taking the kids to the school in faraway places.”

Visiting some of these remote areas, like the Pharagyi village in western Burma where a monastery school for 120 students is being built, can be challenging. The first day is spent flying from Rangoon to Sittwe on the northwest coast.  

“The next day go by river about eight hours, and then the day after that, go by jeep across some hills to another river, and then take that river by boat another five hours, and then you’re there," Heizman said. "It takes half a week to get there and half a week to get out of there.”

The organization has built two schools so far, a third is almost done, and in June, construction or renovation began on two more. Cornwell attributes much of that success to creating partnerships with local civic groups.

“They have a very good connection to the local people. They understand what the needs are. They speak the local language which is really important, because about 40 percent of the people in Burma are not ethnic Burmese and they don’t speak the Burmese language as their first language and they’re often very  intimidated by officials," he said. "So having someone who really understands the local situation is crucial.”

Cornwell continues to write applications for grants and is seeking donations to build as many schools as possible. He says bringing educational opportunities to under-served communities has made his retirement years happier than he ever could have imagined.

You May Like

UN Fears Rights Violations in China-backed Projects

UNHCHR investigates link between financing development and ignoring safeguards for human rights More

Boko Haram Violence Tests Nigerians’ Faith in Buhari

New president has promised to stem insurgency; he’s scheduled to meet with President Obama at White House July 20 More

Social Media Network Wants Privacy in User’s Hands

Encryption's popularity in messaging is exploding; now it's the foundation of a new social network More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs