Red Cross Backpack – Bawk Nu Awng
In this camp for internally displaced people (IDPs), Bawk Nu Awng is like a celebrity; her family lovingly mock her by saying she is now very practiced at giving interviews. This is clear – throughout our discussion, she is laughing, smiling, and giving the kinds of details that bring stories to life. She talks confidently, and at length. During Phase I of the Durable Peace Programme, she attended peace and civic education training, and became something of a spokesperson for it; she highlighted how understanding politics, and conflict, is crucial to enable IDPs to advocate for their rights, and to work towards long-term solutions.
Now, Bawk Nu Aung is working hard to finish her Master’s in mathematics; “when I calculate maths, when I get the answer, the feeling of being able to solve this is a very good feeling. Math is everywhere – since we are born, everything is also math. When you go to the market and buy things, this is also math. And sometimes even when you’re looking at the wind …”.
I ask her to take me back through her educational history – I want to know if she’s always felt this way about learning; if it was always so intuitive for her.
In her teenage years, her family sent her to a kind of boarding school in Myitkyina – like a student hostel, with live-in tutors. Due to stretched financial resources, Bawk Nu Awng’s mother suggested she take a year off school, while they get the money together, but her father was determined to find a way – “When my mother said just stop, I felt really sad, but when my father said he would do it for me, I felt really happy. It’s not just the matriculation class, it’s also later, always my father supports me very much. He really trusts me – he trusts that I can do it, he supports it. Even though he cannot support with money, he can support with encouragement and mental support.”
This wasn’t an easy thing to do. Being IDPs, her family simply did not have the money for the school fees (although before the conflict, her family was quite well off).
“From the beginning, my father paid just a little bit, when he did odd jobs. The teachers asked other students for money, but they didn’t ask me. I also knew that - if I cannot pay - I have to work hard, so the teachers love me. After school, after the exams, I stayed for a week with the teachers, looking after their children and helping in their homes, so it was okay that we paid later. … But,” she admits, “when I cooked for them, the rice was not cooked very well.”
When Bawk Nu Awng first started at the new school, she turned up wearing a branded backpack provided by the Myanmar Red Cross – “an IDP backpack” as she calls it. She was the only person at school openly using such a backpack; though she later learned there were three other IDP students, they only admitted this months later.
For a while, she felt excluded, and like being a displaced person made other students look down on her – especially as they were months ahead of her in terms of their learning.
“I felt very different. Some said, ok you go just sit at your place. I moved from a remote village to a city school, so my style and everything was also very conspicuous. I cannot speak Burmese very well – so even when I have Burmese friends, I speak in Jinghpaw. Even other Jinghpaw friends, I felt they didn’t treat me the same.”
The unlikely turning point was a physics exam.
“I got 24/ 25. Many of the students who had already taken the prior classes failed, but I got this really high mark, and from then on the way people treated me changed.”
Bawk Nu Awng wore the Red Cross backpack until it finally fell apart; now, years after her displacement, she maintains optimism about the future of Kachin, and of the capacity of the context to change radically. She is in the final year of her master’s degree, volunteers at the World Food Program, is the spokesperson for the Kachin IDP Youth Committee, helps high school students with English and Math, and studies computing in the spare time she manages to carve out around all of those activities.
“I’m getting more and more work and more and more things to do. We are not the same as others, we are IDPs – we have to try two or three times harder than anyone else.”