Nineteen-year-old former Marist College (Mt Albert) student Laura McLellan tried not to have too many expectations when she went to do missionary work in Ranong, one of Thailand’s southern provinces.But what she saw made her re-evaluate her life.

“When I arrived in Ranong I felt a sense of grief, for my past life, and all the years I hadn’t been listening to God’s call,” she said. “I realised when I got here I had been so distracted by the materialistic and tangible things that consumed my daily life that I forgot to say I
love you to my family. I forgot to notice the small things that I see people rejoicing in every day here.”

Miss McLellan arrived in Ranong at the start of May.

“My spiritual background and the Marist influence throughout my life has fuelled the passion within me to serve others, and when I hit my early teenage years I felt particularly called and drawn to doing mission work. So I just followed the call of my heart and the opportunity arose,” she said.

Through her Marist connections (she was a “connecter” in the Marist youth development group, Logos), plus half a year of prayer and saving up, she became a volunteer with the Marist Asia Foundation community in Ranong teaching English and Social Studies to Burmese migrant children.

Miss McLellan was confronted with the systemic struggles faced by the migrant community daily.

“For Burmese migrants things such as assisted health care, education, employment and simple protection from harm or injustice by law are just simply not in the picture or very hard to attain,” she said.

Thai law prevents Burmese migrants from owning land, property or business, she explained. New migrants often do not know how to speak, read nor write in Thai language. The only choice for them is to work in fishing, frozen food businesses, charcoal factories or plantations.

Factory work is long and intense, starting at 5 am and often ending well past 7 pm. Standard payment for a migrant is in the range of NZ$12-14 a day.

Ms McLellan quickly learned education was “a vital catalyst in breaking the cycle of poverty here in Ranong”.

“This (situation) is restricting and often very degrading, so by giving migrant children an education it allows their generation to look into other areas of employment and broaden their opportunities,” she said.

Miss McLellan said the foundation community she is with teaches children personal development skills as well as critical thinking.

“It encourages students to look at things through perceptive eyes and be able to have the confidence to step out of their community and experience the wider world,” she said.

“I think by bringing my different background, beliefs and religion I also expose migrant students to new ways of thinking and outlooks on life; it is important that we all share our diversity and still celebrate each other in unity. I try to give them a safe space to express themselves while learning and continue to grow into the person they want to be,” she added.

Despite the struggles, love and life abound.

“Even with the language barrier I’ve never felt more welcomed into a new space than here,” she said.

“Sharing food, laughs, stories, tears and more with this new group of people that I call family has reinforced to me why diverse backgrounds, religions, cultures and lifestyles make relationships so much more fruitful as everyone has something different to bring to the table.”

Miss McLellan said people in New Zealand can help support them by being involved in “Small change, Big Difference”, a campaign wherein people donating $20 a month can support a student’s cost of tuition and transport. Donation of books or furniture or funds for
teacher training is also welcome. For more information the visit the website: www.maristasiafoundation.org/current-fundraising-campaign/

Miss McLellan, who extended her stay in Ranong from December this year to March next year, said each person she has met has a story of struggle and hardship to tell.

“That makes their loving spirits shine so much brighter to me. I find it hard to fathom how people facing such difficult and trying situations continue to bring such positivity and light into my world each day,” she said.

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