Mae Not Allowed to Swim for Thailand

The following is from “The Globe,” a magazine for children to learn about child rights issues around the world as a part of World’s Children’s Prize. Learn more about World’s Children’s Prize here and on their website.

Click the images to enlarge them and click again to zoom in, or scroll to the bottom of this post for a text version of the article.

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Mae not allowed to swim for Thailand

Bang! A shot echoes around the tiled walls and the girls dive down into the water from their starting blocks. Mae, 12, is the first to each the other end. But her joy doesn’t last long.

“I love winning. It’s as though all the tiredness just runs off me,” says Mae, pulling off her wet swimming cap. “But afterwards I feel sad.”

Today Mae is competing in the regional championships in Northern Thailand. The winners go through to the national youth championships. All of them except Mae. “I don’t have Thai citizenship, although I’ve lived here my whole life. Whoever comes second will get my place.”

Doesn’t exist

Mae belongs to the Akha hill tribe. Her parents fled to Thailand from Burma. They were poor and couldn’t find jobs. Eventually, they started selling drugs to survive, but they were caught by the police and sentenced to life in prison. At first Mae lived with her mother, but after a while she was able to move to Sompop’s home for orphaned and abandoned children.

“I started school and received food, love and care. They became like my new family. Still, it always feels like something is missing when you can’t live with your parents.”

Water brings health

Mae and the other girls at the home had had difficult lives, and they often fell ill. Sompop heard that water could have a healing effect, and took them to a swimming pool in town. But the man at the desk looked irritably at the little girls in their torn clothes. ‘They are not allowed in our pool – they look dirty” he said.

Sompop was furious. He found another swimming pool, but the adults there said mean things too. Some parents didn’t want their children to share a pool with the children from the mountains.

“I’m going to build the best swimming pool in Northern Thailand,” said Sompop to his wife. “And any child who wants to swim in it can do so.”

Sompop used the last of his money to get the swimming pool built. Now the children could swim every day, and it soon became clear that Mae was fast as an arrow in the water.

Mother died

After several years in prison, Mae’s mother fell ill and died. “My father had his sentence cut. Now he’s working in China,” says Mae “I wish I could live with my dad all the time, but he wants me to go to school. He’s very proud of me.”

When Mae started winning medals, many people were surprised. How could a hill tribe girl swim faster than the rich children from exclusive private schools?

‘That makes me proud! Even if I can’t swim for Thailand I can still swim for the Akha people!”

Sompop’s school for Akha children

Among the paddy fields outside the city of Mae Chan in northern Thailand, a whole village has been built by refugees from Burma. These families from the Akha hill tribe have fled poverty and forced labour. Life in Thailand wasn’t easy for them either, before Sompop came to their aid.

“At the beginning we weren’t allowed to go to school and we had nothing to eat,” says Boo Su, 10 years old.

Nobody in the village has a Thai residence permit, not even the children who were born here. It’s hard for the villagers to find work. They don’t speak very good Thai and they don’t  have the permits to move freely outside the village. “If we leave the area, we are harassed by the police,” explains Boo Su’s father. Even so, none of the villagers want to go back to Burma.

“The army forced us to work over 200 days a year for free,” says one of the village chiefs. ‘They took our food and livestock, and they beat us when we protested. Some rebel soldiers, who were fighting against the regime, treated us just as badly.”

Sompop built a school

Sompop heard that the children in the Akha village had no food and no school. He contacted one of his old students, a girl who belongs to the Akha tribe. She and Sompop started a school in the village and an organic farm. Every family now has a little bit of land, where the children can learn to look after their crops using traditional Akha methods along with their parents.

Hat reveals age!

When an Akha girl becomes a teenager, she swaps her simple child’s hat for an adult woman’s head dress. It will change throughout her life, as she gradually decorates it with embroider, beads, tassels, fur, feathers, silver coins and rings. Every head dress is unique, and the heavier it is, the more things it has hanging on it, the older the wearer is!


Apia, 12

Lives: At Sompop’s swimming home in Mae Chan

Happy when: I win!

Sad when: I’m not allowed to compete in the Thai national championships.

Loves: My father, Sompop and my ‘family’ at the home

Wants to be: A chef and a professional swimmer

Dream: To swim in the Olympics. And to fight against trafficking and for children’s rights.


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