On Thai border, a rare refuge for Burmese children

Dulci Donata opened Home of Joy to serve ethnic minorities fleeing violence.

Simon Montlake
Sanctuary: Children play at the Home of Joy near the Thai border.
Jack Kurtz/Zuma Press
Dulci Donata: Ms. Donata, known as Didi, opened Home of Joy, near Thailand's border, in 1991 as a haven for destitute children.

In a whitewashed office, a young Burmese mother cradles a sleeping baby. Ni Lar Win is waiting to hear if she can leave her 2-month-old son at the "House on the Hill" in this Thai border town.

Her husband left six months into her pregnancy, she says, and now she wants to move to the city for work, so she can repay some debts and help her sick mother. That means finding someone to take in her newborn. So Ni Lar Win has come to find the foreigner at Baan Unrak (Home of Joy) to ask if there's room for her son, at least for a while. "I heard it's good for children here. They can stay here and study. There's no need to worry."

Ni Lar Win's plight is one Dulci Donata hears of often: debt, poverty, illness – and an unwanted child. In 1991, Ms. Donata founded Home of Joy as a sanctuary for destitute kids, mostly ethnic minorities fleeing war and political upheaval in Burma (Myanmar). Now, she has more than 140 children in her care, crowding a three-story building on a hillside above a steep ravine.

But Donata proposes something else: Ni Lar Win should take a job at Home of Joy and bring her mother and baby to live there.

As Ni Lar Win, an ethnic Mon, heads back to her village to consider the offer, Donata explains that by taking in struggling single mothers, she hopes to keep mothers and children together and help the mothers to rebuild their lives. Most children here aren't strictly orphans, but are born into broken, demoralized families. "To serve mothers is to serve babies," she says.

Serving others is second nature to Donata, an Italian nun in Ananda Marga (Path of Bliss), a spiritualist movement founded in India. Every morning, she rises at 5 a.m. for meditation and spends the rest of her day taking care of the children and managing the house, which relies on donations to cover its expenses, which exceed $15,000 a month. [Editor’s note: The original version misstated the home’s monthly expenses.]

At night, Donata, whom everyone calls Didi ("sister"), shares her sparsely furnished bedroom with several children. When it gets too noisy, she rolls out a mat on the floor in her office. Her only breaks are occasional trips to Bangkok, six hours away, to browbeat government officials into untying red tape that thwarts undocumented migrants.

After two decades of humanitarian work here, initially providing relief services to Burmese refugees after a failed 1988 uprising, her determination has won her many friends. "When I came here, people doubted me. There's not the mentality of pure service [to humanity], so they couldn't understand.… [Now] I get respect, prestige."

Located on a lake created by a downriver hydropower dam, Sangkhlaburi has a population of 26,000. Ethnic Karen and Mon outnumber Thais, and migrants continue to cross over from Burma, along a route where Japan built a notorious "Death Railway" using prisoners of war during World War II. Today, the town sees an influx of weekend Thai tourists.

In 2005, Donata opened a primary school in town, which also enrolls nonresident Thai and Burmese students. For migrant children, a Thai education is a route out of poverty, but few public schools offer remedial classes to pupils who lack Thai language fluency, as Home of Joy does.

At the home, Donata applies a "neohumanist" philosophy. All but the smallest children attend twice-daily meditation and yoga classes. All meals are vegetarian, homeopathic medicine is practiced, and organic food is grown. She also deters mothers from taking "immoral" earnings from prostitution and insists that employees and guests don't drink or smoke and remain celibate. "This is an immoral society, everyone is cheating. Now they see us trying to follow a straight line," she says.

Children aren't put up for adoption, but nurtured into adulthood, while mothers are encouraged to stay involved. As Donata's children have grown up, their horizons have lengthened: nine are currently attending high school elsewhere in Thailand, paid for by sponsors. Four have gone on to university.

Boonsom Pangsiri is hoping to be next. Two years ago, she graduated from high school in Bangkok, and is living there while she applies for a university program that begins in June. In between, she has lobbied government officials to improve the electricity supply to Home of Joy.

Ms. Boonsom dreams of studying in Canada after university. She already has a career plan: working for Donata, whom she loves "as a real mother." Sometimes she goes back to visit her birth mother, but finds she has little in common with her other siblings. Asked about Donata, her eyes light up. "Didi is very special. She has a good heart and never thinks of herself. She always sacrifices for others. I see it. Even when she's very tired, she's still working, serving people."

How you can help

To donate to Baan Unrak (Home of Joy), go to www.baanunrak.org.

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