“IT’S been a life-changing experience I will never forget” – these were the sentiments used by an 18-year-old Littlehampton student to describe a humanitarian trip to Thailand, to help orphans and refugees.
After almost a year of determined fund-raising, six kind-hearted students from The Littlehampton Academy, alongside 13 other people from across the area, visited the Nu Po refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border.
A-level students Toby Roddham, 18, Cherrelle Dythe, 18, Naomi Orr, 18 and Laura James, 18, went on the 12-day trip with fellow AS-level students Summer Dineen, 16 and Matthew Reynolds, 17.
Now, two weeks after returning from the camp, the courageous teenagers have spoken about their experiences with the Karen – a Burmese minority group, forced to flea from their country due to years of political unrest – and how it has changed their lives, forever.
“The trip was one of the most emotional things I have ever done,” said Cherrelle. “So many of us were crying and breaking down.
“We saw a poverty and way of life that I simply didn’t believe existed. I know it’s changed the way I think about things.”
Naomi agreed: “When I arrived, I couldn’t believe what I saw. There were loads of children – some missing limbs. They all looked at you like you were there to save them.”
During their visit, which was arranged by the humanitarian charity, the CRED Foundation, the team worked at the refugee camp and two nearby schools.
They helped to teach youngsters of all ages basic language, science and sport skills. Many felt that they had made “friends for life” with some of the orphans.
Toby said: “I feel homesick, now that I’m back in England. I really bonded with some of the children out there.
“They were the most friendly people I have ever seen. Even though they had so little, what they did have, they made the most of.”
During the visit, the students were humbled after learning of the harrowing ordeal faced by Burmese political prisoners, during a special visit to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma.
The team was told about the countless thousands of young people who died in Burmese prison camps, simply because of their political beliefs.
Team leader and academy chaplain Paul Sanderson said this was CRED’s second visit to the Karen.
“It’s a real eye-opener for us. It’s our job to spread the Karen’s message to the wider world.
“They were betrayed by our government, after the Second World War. Winston Churchill promised them freedom and independence – a state they could call their own. That never happened.
“Now teens – who are no older than some students at the Academy – are persecuted for their political beliefs. If they protest against the government, they could face a 20-year prison sentence.”
He added: “The young people out there have a genuine thirst for knowledge and a passion for learning. We need to help them achieve their full potential.”
Toby has already written a letter to Bognor Regis and Littlehampton MP, Nick Gibb, and Arundel and South Downs MP, Nick Herbert, appealing to them to raise the issue in the House of Commons.
For the students, the experience will remain with them forever, with all vowing they will return to the camp as soon as they can.