Bill Dickson laughingly says, “I think I was a Karen in a former life.” How else can he explain his deep commitment and appreciation for the Karen people he has met in Thailand, Myanmar and Geelong? When Bill stays at Mae Lid school in Mae Hong Song Provence in Northern Thailand to support the school with a variety of projects, he sleeps in a tiny hut that the community built for him. He happily lives a simple and frugal life just like the staff and students. Bill spends about half his time each year in Barwon Heads and the other half in Thailand and neighbouring countries, increasingly in Myanmar.
He first encountered the Karen people near Chiang Mai through his work as a teacher with Kardinia International College Thai Chiang Mai program in 2003 – 08. If students at Mae Lid school want to study beyond Year 9 they need to move to a nearby town. For the children of subsistence farming parents, this is only possible if there is financial help. Consequently, many of Bill’s friends and associates are sponsors and there are now over 40 sponsored students. Some of the sponsors have visited the Chiang Mai region to meet their sponsored students and visit the remote school or have contributed to the annual River End trip. This special trip exposes the students to many new, exciting and diverse experiences, they travel with the teachers and supporters south to Bangkok, culminating with a two day stay at a beach.
In 2007 the first Karen families from the large Mae La refugee camp on the Thai Myanmar border settled in Geelong. “I made friends with some families within the community and I volunteered to act as a ‘postman’, taking letters and photos to relatives from Geelong to the camp and returning with letters and photos,” Bill explained. He has met inspiring, resilient people in the camp who teach children in two of the many schools, he has a close association with the head teacher at one of the schools. With the support of Diversitat in Geelong, he has provided much needed computers to the two schools. He has also provided funds that have been used to assist the students in a variety of ways.
In 2014 Bill, with a photographer friend, Jay Watson and a former Kardinia student, Emily Scicluna, organised a travelling exhibition of Mae La student’s own photos of their life in the camp. Bill exhibited the collection in Geelong at GPAC. They were also displayed in Nhill, Barwon Heads and Aireys Inlet.
His work and involvement is never ending but Bill Dickson seems to achieve a good balance in his life.
Photo: Clockwise Karen News Years Day celebrations in Geelong. Children in school at Mae La Camp. Bill’s tiny hut at Mae Lid school. Pako Festa Parade. Scene of Mae La refugee camp. Students at school assembly, Mae Lid.