Campaign: Curtis Scholarship

Mae La Refugee Camp to Kliptown

Sophomore at Carrboro High School lives in North Carolina but originally from Thailand.

I woke up to the van rocking back and forth between the holes on the imperfect dirt road. Once I opened my eyes I noticed right away we were no longer in the familiar part of Johannesburg. The crumbling buildings we drove by were covered in heartfelt graffiti and the bundles of children were playing in the worn out field. We have arrived at Kliptown, the oldest district in Soweto. The very place where political organizations such as the South African Indian congress, the South African congress of democrats, and the Coloured people’s congress united together to create an anti-apartheid document which became know as the Freedom Charter. Instantly, as I looked at the “informal settlement” of the shacks I remembered the “temporary” bamboo huts in my birthplace Mae La Refugee camp located at the border of Thailand and Myanmar. Mae La Refugee camp was established in 1984. My grandparents fled from Myanmar to Mae La because of the direct military attack on ethnic minorities.

As I contemplated about Kliptown, my attentions focused on the two young mothers walking side by side, each carrying a baby on their backs; including a toddler. As they walked and talked, I carefully watched and found a piece of myself in them. In Mae la, many Karen girls get marry early and if a girl gets pregnant she will be expelled from school. I remember I had a friend in Mae La whom I have lost contact with since moving to the United States. When I questioned about her I found out she had already been married and have a baby. I was shocked because at the time I was only fourteen and she was not that much older than me. I believe the key to empowering women is to educate them because education inspires and encourages one to seek a better future and not stay trapped in the cycle of poverty.

Kliptown has a population of forty-four thousand with an unemployment rate of 70%. The parents can not afford school uniforms, textbooks, or school lunch for their children. In addition, if a person falls sick or is in labor, the nearest hospital is out of town and way too expensive. They live in an environment where schooling, a full meal, and basic health care is a privilege and not a right. This is why the chances of breaking out of the cycle of poverty is so difficult because the material that will raise one of poverty is so expansive. But the material that keeps one in poverty is cheap and free. It should be the other way around. This is why Kliptown Youth Program exist the director Thulani Madondo aid the youth of Kliptown to take charge of their future. He built a program that offers tutoring, athletic opportunities, and creative art to inspire the whole town to have hope and dreams for the future.


Poverty is not the only glue that connects Mae La refugee camp and Kliptown together it is the close knitted community that always seems to have a smile on their face. Growing up in poverty I realize everyone smiles despite being in hardship and terror because the smile represents even if we have nothing and lost everything we are still alive. And no matter what happens as long as you're alive, there is still hope. Thulani Madondo told us, “if a person was hungry they could ask their neighbors and be full.” At a young age I learnt that people depend on each other in order to live in harmony. Now I leave Kliptown knowing life is like gumboot dancing - I would have to slap the boot harder and sing louder to overcome hardship. Our difficulties don’t go away by themselves we have to take action and use our voice.

WATCH: Umbiyozo dance troop perform gumboots dance at Leap Schools

WATCH: Global Citizens take part in gumboots dance with Umbiyozo during visit to Leap Schools

As I arrived back to North Carolina I was eager to tell my community about my wonderful experience in South Africa. I have decide to create a Global Community club to welcome the students to build an inclusive place for everyone. I want to keep Kliptown alive in my memories by creating an awareness in my high school. I might not make a groundbreaking change but I can make a difference by informing others on the importance of education, water and sanitation, climate changes, and equality. I also hope to inspire my peers to be better global citizens by taking action to better our world. I have made it from Mae La Refugee camp to the United States now to South Africa so I believe anything can happen in this world.


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