I met John Paul when I first arrived in Myitkyina, a diocese in the northern part of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Together with his committee, he helped me to organize the Catholic Student Action Myitkyina, the pastoral ministry of the diocese to students in the different government institutions. The first two years before the pandemic and the coup we were very active organizing different programs for Catholic students. Then we also reached out to the University Christian Fellowship, an organization organized by different Christian students mostly led by the Kachin Baptist Convention. We also reach out to non-Christian youths and organized interfaith youth camps to provide safe places for young students from different faith backgrounds to meet and build friendships. Youth ministry is about empowering young people to become change agents in their own communities. One of these change agents is John Paul. Here he tells us how about his work from being a youth leader to now the program coordinator of the Student Learning Resources Center (SLRC).
My name is John Paul Nhkum Htoi Awng, and I am currently working for a newly created education center named Students Learning Resources Center (SLRC) as a program coordinator. Our small center is located in Shatapru quarter, Myitkyina city, Kachin state, Myanmar. I want to tell a brief history about our center. The Student Learning Resources Center (SLRC) was founded by Fr. Kurt Zion Pala from the Philippines, and he is a Columban missionary priest.
I met Fr. Kurt when I was youth president of the Myitkyina Diocesan Youth Commission (DYC). He was invited to lead the Catholic students of the diocese by then Bishop Francis Daw Tang. He had the idea to form a Catholic student organization. In fact, there was a Catholic student organization before, but it disappeared because of many reasons. So, we needed to form a new Catholic student organization.
There are 24 parishes in Myitkyina Diocese. Every parish has a youth committee to lead youth activities and programs. We have a huge number of young people and also have strong communication between parishes. The Myitkyina Diocesan Youth Commission is leading every parish’s youth committee. There are seven universities and colleges in Myitkyina Diocese. Five are in Myitkyina city and two are in Mohnyin City.
We visited all the universities and explained all about our plans to the students. After three months of planning and preparation we could hold the first meeting with the students. Finally, on February 10, 2019, we successfully formed the Catholic student organization of diocese which was named Catholic Student Action Myitkyina (CSAM) at the second University Students’ Gathering, organized by Myitkyina Diocesan Youth Commission. Under the leadership of Fr. Kurt, the Catholic Student Action Myitkyina (CSAM) became one of the most active youth organizations in Myitkyina.
The Covid-19 pandemic started spreading all around the world. The universities were closed, and the youth movements were also stopped for two years in Kachin State. Then the coup happened and things got worse in Myanmar. Most of the students decided to stop going to the schools, universities and join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). But there are also some problems besides being involved in CDM. Most of the youths are not employed because of the lack of skills and certification. Most of the jobs are asking for the graduates who must have experiences in related fields and ask for certificates of the courses. After four years of volunteering as youth president in DYC, I stepped down on January 30, 2021. I was studying English as a major in Myitkyina University, but I decided to join CDM and stopped going to university.
I stayed in my house for almost a year. I struggled and didn’t know how to keep going. I completely lost my way. I was born in Phakant where there are many jade mines. My father does jade selling and trading. My father wanted me to work for my uncle’s jade company, but my ambition is not to become a jade seller and trader. So, I refused and waited for other chances. After one year of struggling, Fr. Kurt told me that he is planning to open a student resources center. I decided to join and help him.
The parish priest Fr. Peter Hka Aung Tu allowed us to use a compound with a small house. We prepared to open the center for about three months. We finally opened the center on August 15, 2022, the feast of the Assumption. The name of our center is Student Learning Resources Center (SLRC). Our center is mainly sponsored by the Columban benefactors, and we collect some amount of funding from the donors locally. The center is collaborating with Pinnya Thagar Academy, Confide Psychological Services and Advance Accountancy Institute. There were seven staff in the beginning. Most of the staff are university students who joined the civil disobedience movement.
We are currently running three programs. The programs are Positive Youth Development Program (PYDP), English Elementary Class, Pre- Intermediate class and Information Technology and Communication (ICT). We only offered PYDP in the first semester. Positive Youth Development Program (PYDP) is a nine month program and especially for the youths who are trying to get employed. There were twenty-four students in the first semester of the first batch of PYDP. The specific courses that we offered to the PYDP students in the first semester are Basic English, Basic Computer, Accounting, Work Skills and Life skills and Mental Health Care. In the second semester, we replaced some special topics and internship preparation programs as the replacement of the accounting subject. The number of students also reduced from twenty-four to thirteen. Now, we are currently in the third semester and running English Elementary, English Pre-Intermediate and ICT with PYDP. We teach the seminar topics instead of special topics to the PYDP students. We also offer them various topics on relevant issues like gender sensitivity, human rights and entrepreneurship.
Even though I am working as a program coordinator in SLRC, I really do not have a good education background. I was volunteering in the Catholic youth ministry for about ten years. Most of the things I have done before are related to social work and church activities. So, I still have many challenges to face and overcome. I have been learning and challenging myself each day since the center was founded. I have strong communication with each of the staff, so I do not have many difficulties in the office. Every staff member has the same commitment to make success for the center.
Most of the young people from Kachin state have to move to other cities like Yangon and Mandalay to find educational opportunities. Although some youth can get support from the family, most of the youths cannot get support from their families. Most of the youths had to do physical work for their education and livelihood. Some of the youth have to work in the mines such as jade, gold and rare earth. Those that work in the mines are also facing drug problems and other diseases like HIV/ AIDS.
Things are getting worse now after the pandemic and military coup. The civil war is still happening in Kachin state. Many people are dying every day. Crime rates are increasing each day, and there is no way to stop them. Young people are no longer educated. Many young people no longer see any hope for them if they stay in this state and in this country. So, I believe SLRC can be a very big help for the young people in Kachin state.
SLRC is just newly formed but the director Fr. Kurt and the staff have the same goal and commitment to succeed and to help the youth. So, I believe that SLRC will be a very important resource center for the youth. As for me, I am committed to working for the youth, and I made up my mind to keep helping the youth of my country.
Originally from the Philippines, Columban Fr. Kurt Zion Pala lives and works in Myanmar (formerly Burma).