Middletown Resident Creates Nonprofit to Aid Displaced Children In Thailand

Writer / Carrie Vittitoe

If you’ve ever listened to the BBC, you’ve likely heard about Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority, fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh. What you may not realize is that they are not the only ethnic group fleeing persecution and civil war in Myanmar. The Karen (pronounced Kah-rin) are another minority people that has primarily fled to Thailand, where many live in refugee camps. For Middletown resident Hannah Ensor, the plight of Karen refugees has become a personal mission.

In 2010, Hannah was living in California and decided to travel for a few months. During her adventure, she wound up in Thailand and fell in love with the country. She returned home and spent the next 10 months saving money and selling everything she owned so that she could purchase a one-way ticket back to Thailand.

When she returned to Thailand in 2011, she settled in Mae Sot, a city close to the Thai-Myanmar border, and began teaching English to children in a Karen refugee camp. While she had no prior teaching experience, the job required a bachelor’s degree and being a native English speaker. She had those two qualifications plus a desire to help.

Although Hannah was the “teacher,” her experience was mostly about being a student: learning about the civil war in Myanmar and why Karen people were fleeing their villages to settle in Thai camps.

For nearly four years, Hannah lived and worked with the Karen people in Thailand. During that time she contracted dengue fever, a mosquito-acquired virus endemic to Southeast Asia that results in high fever, severe headache and joint pain. There are four strains of the virus, so while Hannah became immune to the strain she acquired in 2012 when she came down with a different strain 18 months later, the doctor who treated her said she had to return home to the US. According to researchers, someone who is reinfected with dengue fever is likely to develop extreme symptoms.

Hannah returned to Shelbyville, Kentucky where her parents live. She reconnected with her high school sweetheart, Chad Ensor, married him and gave birth to their son, Kash. During these years, Hannah remained in contact with friends and colleagues in Thailand.

“My heart never left,” she says.

Her love of Karen refugees inspired her to create her nonprofit, Baht Babies, in 2017. Hannah works as a real estate agent with Remax Properties and says, “Most everything I make, after I pay my expenses, goes into my nonprofit.”

Any money she puts into her 501(c)(3), as well as any tax-deductible contributions from others, is used to purchase school supplies, medical supplies and water filters for refugees.

In March 2018, after a five-year absence, Hannah returned to Southeast Asia where she worked inside Myanmar at an internally displaced person (IDP) camp. She plans to return in October 2018 where she hopes to film a documentary to bring increased awareness to Karen refugees. She maintains a website and Facebook page for Baht Babies where she lists upcoming fundraiser events.

It is difficult to imagine what life is like in a refugee camp. Hannah says there are no permanent structures, only makeshift bamboo shelters with leaves for roofs. Refugees basically live day-to-day using rice and charcoal subsidies from international relief agencies to survive. IDP camps are even less functional in part because their food subsidies have been cut off. Residents can’t safely return to their villages due to the military presence and landmines.

“Myanmar has the longest civil war in the world, and no one knows about it,” she says.

The primitive conditions make water filters a necessity to prevent cholera and other water-borne diseases. Hannah takes two types of filters with her to give to refugees and their families. Katadyne filters cost $55 and are portable, which is useful for refugees who need to travel, while Sawyer filters are for more stationary purposes. They cost $60 and have a bucket attached. When Hannah visits the camps, she works with a translator and conducts workshops with refugees to teach them how to properly use the filters.

She is hoping to help build a school because the need for education is so dire. Families in Myanmar are often uprooted quickly, without access to transcripts and other documentation. Even if children receive an education in a refugee camp, Hannah says the international community often does not recognize that diploma.

Hannah says her husband has supported her visits back to Southeast Asia, and she hopes to eventually take both him and their son with her. She wants to wait until Kash is older, though, so that he can both remember and appreciate the experience.

It is difficult for Hannah to put into words how the Karen refugees make her feel.

“I feel more at home in the middle of a refugee camp than I do in a dining room here,” she says. She knows the privileges she has but says “none of that matters unless you help others.”

The refugee work Hannah began in 2011 has taken her onto paths she never anticipated. She started her nonprofit organization with only her passion and a Nonprofit for Dummies” book.

“I just jumped without looking and figured it out,” she says. “I had tons of questions.”

She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in international relations with a focus on conflict resolution at American Public University, and she volunteers once a week at Hope Center Rising Ministry Center.

If you are interested in learning more about Karen refugees and Baht Babies, visit bahtbabies.org or facebook.com/bahtbabies.

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