Erin Terzieff didn’t set out to change the world when she boarded a plane for Burma in January 2007. But within six years, she helped change the lives of an entire refugee village in Thailand, especially its children.
Shortly after returning from her first trip working in Burmese orphanages in January 2007, Terzieff crossed paths with Suzy Cameron, the wife of filmmaker James Cameron, who had just founded the MUSE school in Malibu.
“I remember showing Suzy pictures from Burma,” Terzieff said. “She cried.”
Cameron hired Terzieff as global education coordinator for the MUSE School. The MUSE School, with Terzieff ’s urging, sought to establish a sister school in Burma, but the political climate in Burma would not allow it.
That’s when the Burmese Migrant Workers Education Commission stepped in. Representing more than 10,000 students across 26 schools, the BMWEC had established schools for the Burmese who had escaped oppression and fled into Thailand. Yet, things were not much better for the Burmese migrants—as Burmese nationals they had few rights in their new country and jobs, health care and basic necessities were hard to come by.
With the help of the BMWEC, Terzieff toured 15 different schools in search of a partner school for MUSE, finally settling on the Good Morning School (GMS) of Mae Sot, Thailand, a small village less than two miles from the Burmese border.
“The conditions are dangerous and bad, but still better than they would be at home,” Terzieff said. “There is still a lot of tension. They hope that someday they will be able to return home. They miss Burma. But thing are going to have to change.”
Six months after Terzieff ’s first flight to Burma, in June 2007, the Good Morning School became the sister school of the MUSE School in Malibu.
“When I first got there, I couldn’t believe it. Everyone was so malnourished, their eyes were glazed over. The floor was just a dirt floor. The conditions were awful, but it was all they had,” Terzieff said. “I had picked the Good Morning School because it was about the same number of students (as MUSE)—about 40—and it was nursery school through grade four. And, it was one of the schools that was in the most need.”
The school started with 40 students and three teachers. Six years later, GMS has 250 students, ten teachers and a beautiful new school, built in 2010. The school has also hired many parents of the students as cooks, aides, gardeners—providing a livelihood for many in the town.
But it was a long road to get to that point. The improvement has been spearheaded by a combination of Terzieff ’s on-thegrounds activism and financial contributions from the Malibu community. Terzieff has made 44 trips to Thailand, guiding the development of the school and, in turn, the Mae Sot community. The guidance of the Camerons, specifically the commitment of Suzy Cameron and the MUSE School, and a number of financial sponsors, big and small, has lead the way.
One of the first steps Terzieff took was to establish a lunch program for the school, as well as building a deep-water well to serve the school and the town.
“Essentially,” she said, “the people of Malibu (who donated money) funded and built the deep-water well for the (Mae Sot) community.”
The lunch program evolved into part of the curriculum. “We grow a lot of what we eat ourselves,” she said of the farm, which raises pigs, chickens and goats, as well as growing vegetables. “We used to buy everything in bulk. Now we harvest a percentage of what we grow for use.
Most importantly, in the classroom the students are seeing the opportunities that an education can provide and allows them a vision of the world beyond Mae Sot, Terzieff said.
“The program is thriving,” she said. GMS has “completely surpassed expectations,” and has benefited from its relationship with the cutting-edge programs developed by MUSE in science, math and technology, not to mention classes in yoga, dance and language arts.
“Most rewarding,” Terzieff said, “is the relationship between the students. We’ve had this amazing relationship (between the schools). MUSE’s global program was really robust in its interaction with the Mae Sot students. MUSE has also been a steady donor for this migrant school to make sure that the students are taken care of. They have done some extraordinary things for that school.”
Also, the commitment of fund-raisers and donors here in Malibu has been “really pivotal,” she added. “It costs about 25 cents a day per student, two or three dollars (a day) to pay a teacher’s salary. So you can see even how a $10 donation is significant.”
For Terzieff, her work is not done. She is laying the groundwork for opening her own nonprofit called All You Need Is Love in the next few months.
“It will give me the opportunity to work independently and pick the projects and branch out,” Terzieff said.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Good Morning School or in making a donation should contact Terzieff at email@example.com.