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American Lisa Nesser Gives Free Education to Stateless Children from Burma

Lisa Nesser in her school in Chiang Mai, Thailand

American Lisa Nesser moved to northern Thailand six years ago to help refugees from Burma. Lisa discovered many minority children from Burma were unable to attend regular schools in Thailand so she started giving the children free evening classes and her small group of students soon grew into a unique school. As we hear from VOA's Daniel Schearf, Nesser is making a difference in the city of Chiang Mai through her school - Thai Freedom House.

Lisa Nesser chops watermelon slices in the kitchen of a traditional Thai-style wooden house. The fruit is for about 15 stateless children from Burma who are sitting on the floor, having their evening English class.

Nesser says she never planned to open a school for stateless children from Burma. But when she saw children late at night on the streets of Chiang Mai who had no access to education, she decided to teach them herself.

Word spread about the free classes. And as more students showed up, Nesser enlisted volunteers, hired a small bus and used her own money to turn her house into a school.

"So I was really trying to get them into regular schools," said Lisa Nesser. "And they just wouldn't take them, even when I offered to sponsor fees."

Most of Lisa Nesser's students are children of migrant workers from Shan state in Burma. They do not have Thai citizenship or language skills - making it difficult for them to enroll in Thai schools.

Many of her students do not have the time or money for regular school because they have to work to support their families.

"So I have a lot of 12-year-olds that work," she said. "They work on a construction site; they mix cement; they carry buckets; they clean up. Some of them work in noodle shops, maybe from like a street stall, from 5:00 p.m. till 2:00 in the morning. So they can't go to school at 7:00 in the morning."

Nesser says that in the last few years, her school, Thai Freedom House, has taught about 200 children English, Thai and art. The school also teaches the Shan language because most students did not receive a good education in Burma.

Nesser also arranges for craft makers to teach the children how to make things they can sell to help support their families.

"They don't have a country," said Nesser. "They don't have their family structure here to support them. But if you can give them education and language and ways to express themselves, which is why we focus on the arts, that gives them another kind of freedom that otherwise they wouldn't have."

Fourteen-year-old Nam Gao says that when she moved to Thailand three years ago, her parents tried to enroll her in a Thai school. But because she does not have a birth certificate, she was rejected.

"I want to say, 'Thank you,' to the teachers [at Thai Freedom House]," said Nam Gao. "If there was no home like this, I would have no place to go to continue my education. Thank you for Freedom House."

Lisa Nesser has spent most of her savings to keep the school open. Although she solicits donations for the school, Nesser says they are never enough.

Still, she says, educating her students is worth the struggle.