Insha'Allah through my projects, we will be able to help The Muslimah Centre of Pattani. Since I can't speak, write, or understand Thai, my corresponce with the school is done through my friend Pa, who is right there in Thailand. (Jazak'Allah Pa!)
A school in the South is helping poor young Muslim women continue their education despite the odds
Without desks and chairs, the students sit on the floor to study.
There is a Muslim teaching that says "be the hand on the top rather than the hand below".
Maryam Samoh, the founder of the Muslimah Centre of Pattani for young women who are orphans or destitute in the southern province, loves to challenge her students to say what they think the phrase means.
She lets them discuss it before revealing the hidden meaning of the phrase. That the hand which does the giving will always be on top of the hand that does the begging. And God wishes his followers to give more than to take.
A devout Muslim, Mrs Maryam, 50, knows this teaching by heart for her hands have done both.
When she was young, her parents could not afford for her to continue studying after secondary school. But her wish to continue in a religious school was too strong to accept this easily.
As the eldest daughter-with seven younger siblings-she told her parents she would work for her education fees, but she wanted their blessing to allow her to pursue her education.
"It was a real struggle for children in a poor family like me to be able to continue a proper education as I wished," said Mrs Maryam.
In 1969, she was accepted into Yayasan Pengajian Tinggi Islam Kelantan, a religious school in Malaysia, where she could complete grade 10, the highest level of Muslim religious study.
"As the day for me to depart to Malaysia was due, I had only one baht in my pocket. I had to borrow money from the school where I was teaching (Satri Pattana Suksa School) and I received 1,000 baht for my travelling fees," said Mrs Maryam, now a mum of four.
From then on she never asked for money from home. She worked as maid, babysitter and teacher while she studied to try and make ends meet.
Teachers at the Malaysian school also helped provide financial support until she completed her studies in 1974. (The religious study combines religious texts and other formal school subjects like geography, health education, mathematics and even inheritance dividing.)
Mrs Maryam greatly appreciated everyone who had given her so much support and she told herself she would do anything to give that support back.
When she returned home she taught at various schools. And at the same time she persuaded a group of her close friends to start a project to provide educational support to orphans and poor Muslim children.
"I knew there were many children out there who needed help just like me," Mrs Maryam said.
"At first our group had 15 members. Since we all came from similarly poor backgrounds, the cost to start was a problem but we agreed we wouldn't give up," said Mrs Maryam.
It is a real struggle for children in a poor family to continue to have a proper education. I knew there were many children out there who needed help.'
In 1984 the group decided to start a pre-school centre. From the tuition fees the school earned they started to save money to buy a plot of land for their project.
After a few years of slow fundraising, the group finally concluded each of them would find 20,000 baht in addition to the money already raised to get the project off the ground.
With additional donations from their friends in Malaysia, the group bought a seven-and-a-half rai plot at Bana subdistrict in Pattani Muang District for 400,000 baht.
A multi-purpose two-storey brick and wooden building was constructed and members began looking for young women who urgently needed their help.
The centre started with 25 students in 1990 and now cares for 119 students aged between 12 and 20. The students usually stay for five years until they complete grade 4 religious studies and the non-formal study of mor 3 (secondary school). No tuition fees are required.
A five-by-ten metre room on the upper floor serves as the classroom while other rooms serve as dormitories. A small space on the ground floor is a tiny office.
The students are divided into four groups, with each group taking a corner of the same classroom, sitting on the floor in their uniforms which include the traditional Muslim veil or hijab. Although there are no chairs or desks, the school has brought new hope for many young women.
A Pattani native, Maehsong Kuteh, 16, was an outstanding student although she had to work to help support her family in which there was 10 children. At harvest time she worked in the rice fields for 30 baht a day and at other times she tapped rubber trees.
She was distraught when her parents asked her to leave school after she completed prathom six, three years ago. A teacher who knew the centre took her there and she was accepted.
An active young woman who studies hard, Ms Maehsong was voted head of the 119 students. "When I first came, it was hard for me to get up so early in the morning. But now I'm happy and glad to have the chance to continue my studies. I hope to complete grade 10 of religious study and teach," Ms Maehsong said.
Pasiya Radaeng worked as a fruit vendor after leaving school with grade two a few years ago. A teacher in Pattani's Yarang District brought her to the school three years ago.
"I've learned more here and also I've been taught how to be self-sufficient. I can make things I never could. I can cook, care for fish and ducks and I know how to sew and make batik. If I left school, I could earn a living to support my family. The teachers have taught me to have confidence," said Ms Pasiya.
Nuramah Arong, 19, came from Narathiwat. Her mother died and her father's small earnings from tapping rubber trees were too meagre to provide a comfortable life and education for his five children. Her aunt brought her to the centre when she was 12 after she completed compulsory education.
"I'm glad I got the chance to continue my studies here," said Ms Nuramah, who is the only one in her family to get higher education.
She finished last year, but wanted to continue her religious studies further. The centre has allowed her to stay. She earns some income by sewing Muslim veils and making handicrafts to cover her tuition fees.
"I'd like to continue my non-formal education too. But I need extra income to realise my wish," she said.
She hopes when she completes her studies, she can help support her younger siblings back home.
The centre runs on 25,000 baht per month-a very limited budget. This money includes a salary for seven teachers who get 1,000 to 1,500 baht a month, and other running costs like water and electricity bills and food.
Meals are simple. Breakfast is khao yam. And lunch leftovers are often reheated for dinner. "If we have fish, we share two fish for five people. If there is chicken, we make sure each of us enjoy one small piece," one student said.
Since they have a flock of 100 ducks there are eggs and the students have eggs as an extra dish. The students who are accepted into the school are asked to provide eight litres of rice and some pocket money for products like soap and detergent. But those who cannot afford even these simple requests are not turned away.
"We would like to increase the teachers' salary but can't do right now," said Mrs Maryam.
The students get up at 4:30 a.m. for daily prayers and to read the Koran. Then they do chores such as cleaning the rooms and watering trees. Then they take a bath and have breakfast. Morning classes start at 8:15 a.m. with religious studies and the afternoon session is for the non-formal curriculum.
Vocational training includes batik and dress-making, which are taught by experts from the Vocational Development Centre in Pattani and the Continuing Study of Prince of Songkhla University (Pattani campus).
The students make batik, key chains and hijab for sale. This provides extra income for themselves and the centre. But money is tight and extra development demands a bigger budget.
The classroom roof leaks when it rains and the dormitory on the first floor floods. And extra sleeping space is needed to allow increased student numbers.
"And sometimes it would be really nice to have a desk to sit at," said Asanah Wangni from Songkhla.
"We raise funds by having a charity tea party once a year. Those who visit us also give donations and those who know about our project also provide support," said Mrs Maryam. "We collect support little by little, so it takes years before we can make any big developments to the centre.
"We'd like to see the students have a library as well as better education kits and better living quarters."
Saripa Doloh has been teaching at the centre for nine years. Though the salary is low, she says she is happy to be with the children. "They talk to me when they have a problem. I'm glad I can give them some consolation. It's a warm experience between us."
She has also learned much from skill training sessions.
Mrs Maryam comes to the centre twice a week. Altogether she teaches at 19 institutes in the four provinces in a month, as well as attending meetings concerning women and children's issues and political matters. Her workload means constant travelling and working seven days a week.
"I love to do it. It gives me happiness," said Mrs Maryam. "The core of our project is to teach the students to be self-sufficient and to be willing to help others who are less fortunate. So far 300 girls have completed their studies at our centre. "And I hope at least some teachings will stay with the students when they leave us to pursue their own lives," said Mrs Maryam.
:: Name of organisation: The Muslimah Centre of Pattani
:: Address: 45 Moo 1, Bana subdistrict, Mueng District, Pattani 94000.
:: Contact person: Mrs Maryam Samoh
:: Tel: (073) 333-837
:: Savings Account: 2670615844, Bangkok Bank, Pattani branch.