Down a dusty lane in Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar township is a home-cum-school that stands out as a splash of color amid the traveller’s palms and thatched houses.
Swe Chin Mae pre-school and outreach and summer school program Exodus operates beyond its pink arch and blue balcony—a sanctuary for some of Myanmar’s most vulnerable children.
Founder Cung Khin Dim, 33, known to her friends as Rody, began the charity in 2008 for young girls, but she now hosts four boys and 34 girls who all board there for free.
The older children attend the nearest government school, while local students aged from three to six years old for a monthly 5,000 kyats join the preschool, whose uniforms are made by Rody’s mother.
Coming from remote parts of the country, some of the children who arrive at Swe Chin Mae bring tales of abuse, or show signs of having endured it. “When they come here we are sad,” says Rody. “We try to find how to help them.”
Newcomers are greeted by a big countryside mural overlooking a wooden stage and an impressive library of Myanmar and English language books that Rody has amassed over the years.
Months after the first building was completed, Cyclone Nargis raged through the Irrawaddy Delta, and, as the only concrete structure in the area, locals flocked to Swe Chin Mae for shelter.
Over 120 people crowded in her home for three days, recalled Rody, as “almost all the houses” nearby were damaged by the cyclone. Although the community was grateful, suspicious over the school’s agenda were high because of Rody’s devout Christian faith.
“Some parents from the community thought we’d try to convert [their children] to Christianity,” said Rody, who is from the majority Christian Falam city in Chin State. “But they found out we never teach the Bible or religious things in the preschool.”
Another example of the modest place improving lives comes in the form of Rody’s father, a doctor who regularly helps turn the school into a clinic to treat the children and locals. Hospitals are far away for many in Hlaing Tharyar, the poorest, biggest and most populated township in Yangon.
Her father impressed the importance of education on Rody and her four siblings, moving the family from Chin State to the city in 1991 so that his children could benefit from better schooling.
Rody and her siblings were “crying everyday,” struggling to cope with the new food, language, people and environment. “I was so angry I decided to try hard in my studies—that changed my life,” she added.
She went on to study English in Dagon University and also spent five months studying in South Korea and 15 months doing a master’s in rural development management at Thailand’s Khon Kaen University.
Now the mother of a one-year-old baby, Rody manages the volunteer-run charity, which receives its funding from her siblings’ salaries and support from NGO Global Hope Myanmar.
She also teaches Myanmar language to foreigners and can be contacted at [email protected] or Facebook at Rody Dim.