Student Profile Avi Zellman
Avi Zellman in Thailand

Foster Undergrad Aids Myanmar Refugees

In June 2008, Avi Zellman, Foster School undergrad, boarded a plane to South-East Asia to begin a month-long assignment with the Pattanarak Foundation in rural Thailand. Alongside six other Seattle-area students, he met people who inspired him with stories of loss and perseverance, struggle and faith, and hope and success. Only due to the generosity of family, friends, university students, professionals and total strangers, who contributed over $2000, was Avi able to participate in an experience he calls "extraordinary."

While living near the Burma/Myanmar border, Avi worked at the United Christian School teaching English to Thai, Burmese, Karen, and Mon children as well as helping expand and improve their school's blacktop and roadways. He and his fellow volunteers gained insight into the lives and histories of the local and refugee populations, finding common threads and reasons for more involved future support. Avi was touched by the story of one man, Pi Jorda, a refugee from Burma who had lived in Thailand for the last twenty years.

"Pi Jorda is not more or less special than other Burmese or refugee," Avi said. "Sadly, his story was very commonplace. While living in Burma, his family was attacked by the Junta who burned down his home and looted his possessions for no reason other than 'they could.' Pi Jorda recalled to me the difficult process of keeping his family alive, together and safe. After arriving in Thailand, it took many years before he established a new set of roots and began creating a better life for his children. Currently, he works with Pattanarak tending one of the many community gardens that support the rural communities. He does not want to return to Burma."

Childeren at Home of Joy

Living in Vietkadeesha, a small village about 30 minutes away from Sangklaburi (the largest community in the region), Avi was also able to spend time at Baan Unrak ("Home of Joy"), an orphanage and center for destitute women and children in Thailand. In the face of struggle and frustration, Baan Unrak was a sanctuary filled with laughing, smiling children and managed by a woman, Didi, from Italy who had opened the doors 17 years ago and never looked back. Avi was deeply impressed by the comfort and hope he found at Baan Unrak . Not only did the staff there reach out to support children without parents, they had also created opportunities for struggling parents to remain connected with their children as they worked to develop sustainable lives for their families. There was a sewing and weaving center on site to provide employment and to empower locals as well as build a strong community with a focus on education and holistic development. Avi strongly encourages anyone interested to visit the organization’s website at www.baanunrak.org and consider finding ways to support their influential work.

"Returning to Seattle from rural Thailand has been a challenging process," says Avi. "Conveying my experiences in one or two sentences has been nearly impossible and I understand the challenge of internalizing the issues I encountered with so many worthwhile global (and local) issues to be solved. I have been overwhelmed by the positive and proactive responses I have received from many who want to learn more and make a positive impact."

As of Fall 2008, Avi’s back at the University of Washington, completing two undergraduate degrees: one in business administration and another with a double major in anthropology and international studies. After graduating in March 2009, he plans to work for a consulting firm advising organizations on globally sustainable practices, though his long-term plans are to pursue his interests through work in an international non-profit organization and to work for the World Bank. In the short term, he remains active as co-chair of the Undergraduate Business Council at Foster and serves on the board of the Jackson School Student Association. His current cause, an extension of his experiences in Thailand, is promoting a new documentary film exposing the international slave trade, Call + Response, playing in Seattle and other U.S. cities from October 9 – 16. (For more on the film, visit www.callandresponse.com.)