The Story of Gyaw Gyaw

Line Ramstad is a Norwegian Landscape Architect, with an additional bachelor Degree in Anthropology and Geography. After 5 years of work practice in private Norwegian architect office, Agraff as, she founded Tyin Barnehjem together with two architect students. The goal was to explore possibilities for use of architecture in development work. By chance they met a Norwegian who ran an orphanage for Karen children on the Thai/Burma border. Design and construction of new dormitories for his orphanage became a case for their study.

The orphanage is situated in a village named Noh Bo on the Thai side of the border. It’s a migrant village with mainly paperless Karen refugees who has fled the Burmese army’s constant attacks and eventually decided to cross the river to Thailand.

Since paid work is rare, “the whole village” signed up for the Norwegian project and progress escalated rapidly. The dormitories, later known as “The Butterfly Houses”, were designed and constructed in half a year. The orphanage had also got better-suited outdoor areas that additionally will prevent the site from further erosion. In cooperation with NTNU, the team also arranged a workshop for the university’s architect students, resulting in a library for Safe Haven Orphanage. When this was accomplished, the two students decided to move on. Line decided to stay.

Phillipa, Peter and Pah Me had all been day labor on the dormitory and library projects. They invited Line to accompany them and together they started out as construction workers for other NGOs in the area.

The most used terminology in between them, as well as from others, was: Gyaw Gyaw – slowly, take it easy, step by step.

After a year on the border, Line went back to Norway as planned, but instead of going back to normal Norwegian life, she quit her job, sold her apartment and made Gyaw Gyaw a registered organization. She also signed the first sponsor programs, sponsors that have faithfully followed the team ever since.

With sponsors on board, the team was finally in a position to build projects based on their own philosophy: Sustainable architecture with a basis on local knowledge and materials, with a strong focus on function and climate adaptation. With both locals and a foreigner in the team, Gyaw Gyaw could also introduce new techniques and alternative use of existing materials. As long as it was done small steps at a time, and in close cooperation and a mutual understanding with the village representatives and future users.

One of the biggest steps was the introduction of adobe as building materials. This is locally produced sun dried earthen blocks. In comparison with concrete, the most used alternative to traditional timber and bamboo construction, it is both cheaper and more ecologically, economically and culturally sustainable. Thick adobe walls also keep inside temperatures more stable and in combination with natural ventilation the results are comfortable good spaces, perfect for learning.

Since the beginning, Gyaw Gyaw has collaborated with all aspects of the society where they live and work. The church, the monastery, military and refugees have all been their cooperation partners, and the village in general now embraces them and promotes their work. This opens doors to new projects and gives them the opportunity to spread their knowledge, philosophy and democratic examples, to an increasing number of new areas.

Line, Phillipa, Peter and Pah Me are still going strong. On the team are another 7 proud Karen colleagues and a Norwegian one. In every project they also hire local workers who get income for their families, contribute to a common knowledge exchange and secure ownership to the building for future maintenance. Gyaw Gyaw has also done two cooperating projects with Agora architects situated in Mae Sot, and they have designed and built two projects with BGET (Border Green Energy Team), that are also locally based. A recent collaboration with local CBO Solbakken is also initiated. With a similar sustainable approach, they provide electricity and water access/clean drinking water to the projects, and complement the work of Gyaw Gyaw in a beneficial way for both the organizations and the projects.

With an exception of a two weeks workshop every year, Gyaw Gyaw don’t take international interns or volunteers,

After all these years, Line is better integrated in the community and her colleagues are more used to a different cultural understanding, but the cross-cultural combination is still a winning concept. The local knowledge and ties are priceless when it comes to local affiliation and culturally determined use of the buildings, while the western architectural knowledge can question the established truths, suggest small changes and show architectural examples from other places in the world.

Gyaw Gyaw, slowly, step by step, project by project, the team is gaining knowledge, acceptance and confidence, the projects are simplified and strengthened and the democratic aspect is steadily becoming a bigger part of their job. It’s an everlasting development, both internally and in cooperation with the society around them, but the road has only just begun.

Personal stories

Phillipa

My name is Phillipa I was born in (1976) Hlaing Bwae Township, Karen State, Burma.

When I was eight years old, Burmese troops arrested my father and asked him to carry ammunition for them. Later the Burmese troops arrested my father again and accused him of rebellion. They tied him up and took him away. We were very scared because usually if a person would be accused of rebellion, he would be killed. My father disappeared for two nights before he came back home. From that point on, we had to hide in the forest and move from place to place. At that time, I had six siblings. Our lives were very difficult.

Later on, we moved to the Thai Burma border. Unfortunately, my father died when I was 14 years old. I moved away and got married in 2000. Now I have three children. Life is still difficult, as it has been since the day I was born.

I met Line in 2008, and she gave me possibility for a job in Gyaw Gyaw team. We are working full of happiness and love.

Line Ramstad/Nee Ga Mwee

My name is Line Ramstad/Nee Ga Mwee in Karen which means smiley face. I was born in Vormsund, Nes, Akershus County, Norway in 1975.

I grew up on a farm with my parents and my younger sister, with grandparents and the whole extended family around us. My parents both had education, jobs and a lot of interests. They took good care of my sister and me and my biggest concern was being the smallest in class, too small for Levis 501 at the point these became popular.

As with all Norwegians, I have an identity and better rights then most. The question was not: “Are you going to study?” but “What are you going to study?” I could choose freely within the frames that my high school grades would allow me and followed my interests through my eight years at university. The result was a bachelor in Anthropology and Geography and a bachelor and master degree in Landscape Architecture.

After five great years as a landscape architect in a Norwegian architect office, I came to a Karen village at the border between Thailand and Burma in a temporary architect project. The day labour became my friends and together we founded Gyaw Gyaw. I am happy and grateful they gave me the trust and opportunity to stay with them and to develop Gyaw Gyaw together.

Paw Eh Wah

My name is Naw Paw Eh Wah. I was born in 1988 December 26th in a small rural village outside the city of Taungoo, Burma. Our village was nestled in a beautiful landscape with dense jungle, rivers and waterfalls.

Our house was completely made of bamboo. We also used bamboo for cooking pots and the leaves for eating plates. The rich jungle gave us fruits, leaves, herbs and vegetables. Everyone helped each other and had a good heart. It was a good place to grow up.

We planted rice, in the fields, and also grew veg food and vegetable for eating. We also had gardens vegetables and betel nuts. When we to much food, we sold it on the market in the town. In the summer we went fishing in the river. We dried the fish, and made made fishpaste – a Karen delicacy.

I am the youngest of 12 chiIdren. I used to have 7 brothers and 4 sisters, now 4 of them are dead. When I was one and half years old, my father died, and my mother had to take care our big family, working very hard to give us food, clothes, education. So everything was very difficult for her, but she loves us so much. Many times she got problems and lost energy, but she did not show us her problems. She sent me to get education step by step. She did not have the time to take care of me herself, but she left me to someone else to take care. I learn from her behavior and I try to do by my self.

When I was 18, I moved to the refugee camp Ma la Oon. I was a teacher there for one year before moving to the village of Noh Bo. One day I heard about the opening of a new orphanage and I went to  live and work there.  At the orphanage I also met my husband, Saw Dee. At the same time I studied in the Academy School for two more years. My life has been a struggle in many ways, but I happy and also I learned a lot during the tough times.

We married when I was 21 years old. At first we stayed in a chicken house, because we did not have anywhere else to live. We did not have enough money to buy what we needed for the house. We had to take care of many chickens to get money.

In March 14th, 2009 I gave birth to my first child. His name is Arn Leh Moh. Later we also got two beautiful daughters, Deborah and Geerah. I am so happy about my family, and I love my family so much. I hope we can stay together forever.

Pah Me

My name is Pah Me, and this is my story.

I was in Tha Koh Poh, Karen State,  Burma. It was a big village in the middle of the jungle, with a market and a monastery. I grew up with my mother, my father and my little sister. My father worked very hard in the rice fields as day labor. My mother took care of me and my little sister.  When I was very young, how young exactly  I dont know, my mother got very sick. She was taken to a clinic far away and died, and I never got to see her again. I had to take care of my baby sister. My uncle helped my family, and I got a job herding his cattle when I was around 7. I never went to school.

There has been war as long as I can remember. The Burmese army came again and again, burning down the rice fields, and stealing our food. We had to hide in the jungle every time they came to not be killed. We rebuilt, only for them to attack us again.

Life was difficult. Never enough food, and even if someone had money, they could not buy because of food rationing. When I was around 15, I join the Karen army. I felt safer in the frontlines of the war then I did in my village. I have been a soldier ever since, and until recently, still went to army meetings. It is hard to be a soldier. We had to walk for days with a lot to carry in dense and  hot jungle with little food. I have been shot many times. My knee is still painful.

I met my wife in Noh Bo. His husband ran away after their second baby. It was very difficult for her, and she needed someone, so I decided to marry her. Her two kids are like my own, and now we also have 3 beautiful grandchildren.  I love my family.

I am very happy to work with Gyaw Gyaw. We are doing an important job helping our people and children to get a better future.

See Da Pah

When I was child, we were very poor. My parents were not able to get enough food for the whole family, so my siblings and me often went to bed hungry. My parents were rice farmers. One day, on the day back from the rice fields, they encountered the soldiers from the Burmese army. Being held at gunpoint, my parents were sure that they would be killed. But answering correctly to the soldiers questions saved their lives. The soldiers stole the rice, and asked for 300 baht. But my parents did not have any money to give them, so they were beaten. They arrived home very late that night, and my brothers and sisters and me had already been sleeping for hours. They made us rice porridge, that tasted delicious, because we hadn’t been eating all day.

Life was hard; never enough food, never any money, and in constant fear of the Burmese army. My mother and father took the decision to leave the village, and go towards the Thailand border. We settled down in Noh Bo, on the Thai side of the border.

In the beginning it was not easy to come to a new place. We didn’t know anyone, and we didn’t have any job or money. Sometimes I could get a day job for a neighbor, paying 20 baht a day. It was hard work, but I was grateful, because we needed the money to buy food for the family.

One day my father got very sick. I had to spend a lot of money on expensive medicine. We had to work very hard to pay for food and his medicine. I looked in the eyes of Mom, and I saw her tears falling down her chins. Mom was crying, and it made me really sad, because I knew how she felt. I encouraged Mom to stay strong, and promised her that we would make it, even if it was going to be hard. The most important thing was my Dad recovering. After a few visits to the clinic, he was slowly getting better, and eventually recovered.

After Dads recovery, I decided that I wanted to get married. I had never thought about marrige before, I had always had to much to worry about in my life.

When I met my wife for the first time, she was very poor. She had no place to live, and stayed at her brothers place. When her brother died, she moved into her nephews house. I felt so sorry for her, and I knew she needed someone to help her, so I decided to merry her.

Together we have to sons and one daughter. My family means a lot to me. Every day I go to work with the Gyaw Gyaw team is a good day, and it makes me happy. I am very grateful that I have a job, and I would like to thank Line for her wanting to help our people.

Saw Dee

My name is Saw Dee. I was born in Mae Wah, a small village in Karen state, Burma. I was very tiny as a child, and sick all the time. My mother was concerned that I would not survive. We did not have enough money to buy the food, medicine, or clothes, but we had rice from the field, fish from the river and fruit from the jungle. We were living a simple life.

We did not have blankets neither, so we made a fire at night to keep warm. One night, when I was 6, I slept to close to the fireplace and my blanket caught fire. I was seriously injured. One year after that incident, when I was 7,  the Burmese Army came to our village. They destroyed it, and burned down  everything to the ground. They stole the little we had of food, and destroyed our rice fields. We had to flee to the dense jungle to save our lives. But we couldn’t stay there for a long time, and we finally arrived to Klo Pa Klo refugee camp in Thailand.

I went to school in the camp, continuing my education until 4th grade. I wanted to continue further, but my parents could not afford the school fees. I got a job in a Thai village, but since I was just a little kid, I was not paid a lot for my job. After one year of working, I  manage to save up enough money to pay for my education. I finished 5th to 10th grade, working in the Thai village every holiday to pay the school fees. When I was 14 years old, we  moved to Mae La camp. I was accepted at the bible school in Noh Bo after 10th grade. It cost 2000 baht pr year, and I did not have that kind of money. But with the help of good friends, helping me with paying for school fees and school uniforms, I was able to finish bible school in 2 years. After Bible school, I got a job at Blessed Home, an orphanage here in Noh Bo. Here I met my beautiful wife, Paw Eh Wah, and we got 3 adorable children. Arn Leh Moh, Deborah, and Geerah.

I am very happy working with the Gyaw Gyaw team, and I am very proud of the work we do.My wish for the future is that the Karen people will be free, and that there will be peace in Burma.

Ste Pha

My name is Ste Pah. I started working for Gyaw Gyaw in 2010. Before that I went to the bible school. The school would not let me continue my studies because I was not married with my girlfriend, who was pregnant at the time, so I was kicked out. Then Gyaw Gyaw gave me an opportunity, and I worked with the team for 2 years. After two years, I worked a for the church a little while, before I returned to Gyaw Gyaw the summer of 2014.

To be a part of Gyaw Gyaw is something I am very proud of. I feel lucky that I have a job where I can help to improve the future of our people. The team is great, and we are more like a big family than just colleagues. I really like that we use local materials, and that buildings we build are giving Karen children better opportunities in the future.

During my time in Gyaw Gyaw, I have learned a lot, and developed as a carpenter. In the future, I would love to learn more about the design process, and maybe also learn how to make drawings on the computer.

In 2010 I married my beautiful wife, and together we have two beautiful children, A little girl named Sky Blue, and a little boy named Star Blue. I love my family, they mean the world to me. I am very happy now, and life is good.

P`Enge

P`Enge has been a full member of Gyaw Gyaw since October 2015. He is a superb carpenter with great handy skills and understanding of construction. Since he can not read and write, someone need to write down the story for him. On the ground, this does not have first priority, but it will be presented here on our webpage as soon as we have it written down.

Kee Kee Pah

Kee Kee Pah has been a full member of the Gyaw Gyaw team since January 2016. He is a smart and clever man who has been working for several NGO`s along the border and in Mae La camp before joining us in Gyaw Gyaw. His spoken english is quite good, but he does not feel too confident in writing it, so he will write his story in Karen and get it translated before it´s posted here. So stay tuned!