She Lived It and Now Returns to Thailand to Help Refugees With Mental Health, Education Needs
Taw Meh ’25 spent part of her childhood in a refugee camp in Thailand. This summer, she returns to her home country to work with children, organize events and promote mental and physical well-being among refugees there.
Taw Meh’s family relocated to Winston-Salem in 2009, following her parents’ cousins who had already moved to North Carolina. When they arrived at the airport, they were welcomed to the U.S. by Tim and Jody Cross, founders of the Open Arms Refugee Ministry, who had already helped several other Karenni families settle in the area. The Karenni are a sovereign indigenous ethnic minority that has endured persecution since Burma (now Myanmar) achieved independence in 1948.
This summer won’t be the first time Taw Meh has returned to work in Thailand. Over winter break, she received a Dean Rusk Travel Grant to teach English and volunteer in clinics in refugee camps near the one where she spent part of her childhood.
“There aren’t a lot of teachers,” she said, “so part of my work is making sure that every child has the ability to learn.”
Since the 1980s, a rising number of people fleeing the decades-long conflict in Myanmar have settled in refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. Today, Thailand hosts more than 90,000 people across nine camps that have become permanent homes for many. Taw Meh’s work this summer, funded by the Davidson in East Asia Grant, will help build educational, medical and mental health resources in these already tight-knit communities.
“Mental health is a big concern in these communities,” she said. “Mental health resources are scarce, and on top of that, it’s very stigmatized in Asian communities. My role is to help children learn coping strategies and behavioral skills. I want to direct people to the resources that do exist.”
A psychology major, Taw Meh understands the importance of mental health care and finds it especially rewarding to work with children, but education is just one piece of the puzzle. Just as critical is the creation of shared community spaces, social events and celebrations, which provide opportunities for fun and fellowship.
When she isn’t teaching this summer, she will coordinate music festivals, sports tournaments and art showcases for community members of all ages to enjoy. She’s also planning to create a community arts studio where anyone can showcase their work or practice a new skill—anything from painting to photography.
“When I was younger, I was always surrounded by a community of people who cared about me. Seeing adults who want the best for you goes a long way,” she said. “Having events where kids can be kids and adults can enjoy themselves, too, is a really important part of mental health.”
Taw Meh first learned about Davidson College through a friend in Winston-Salem. She participated in the RISE program the summer before her sophomore year, working with Biology Professor Mark Barsoum to research the DNA makeup of herbal supplements. She quickly discovered a passion for nutrition and neuroscience, specifically related to children.
Volunteering with first and second graders at the Ada Jenkins Center in Davidson has strengthened her love of working with kids. As a classroom mentor and tutor, it’s her job to motivate and encourage students.
I’ve learned that teaching with love and patience motivates them to do well.
Next year, Taw Meh will be vice president of the Women’s Leadership Conference, an annual intergenerational meeting designed and run exclusively by students. She aims to use her role and experience to expand the reach of the conference. Instead of just one large event, she hopes to create additional opportunities for mentors and mentees to connect throughout the year.
“Having mentors is so useful,” she said. “Growing up, everything was a first for me. I met a mentor through church in high school who taught me to be really present in my life, and I want others to have that experience, too."
Part of this article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2023 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.