Rebecca “Becca” Rosenzweig ’19 keeps close to her heart friends on the other side of the world—refugees who escaped Myanmar only to struggle to overcome poverty in Thailand.
Now, thanks to a $10,000 grant from Projects for Peace, this summer she will coordinate the building and operation of a student-run shop so young refugees can develop business skills to improve their long-term career prospects, and futures.
Rosenzweig, the first freshman at Wheaton to win the Projects for Peace grant, has visited Thailand multiple times over the years, as a family friend lives there. In high school, she volunteered there for a summer, teaching English and befriending refugees there known as the Karen people—villagers persecuted by the Myanmar government who fled to Thailand.
“I became really close with some of the refugees, and then I heard stories about how many of the people are stuck in a cycle of poverty,” she said.
Many of these refugees do not speak Thai, nor have the vocational skills to find jobs. In search of work, occasionally they leave their villages and move to cities. Often, they end up in modern-day slavery and trafficking situations, Rosenzweig said.
“The Karen refugees are kind, down to earth and intelligent people. It is the most welcoming community I’ve ever met,” said Rosenzweig, who also is interested in contemplative studies.
It was during her First-Year Seminar class at Wheaton when Rosenzweig learned of the Project for Peace grant. In the course “Social Empowerment through the Performing Arts,” students were required, as an exercise, to develop an idea for a Projects for Peace-like proposal.
The Projects for Peace grant itself calls on youth to design grassroots projects that promote peace building. The grant is possible thanks to funding from Kathyrn Wasserman Davis, who chose to celebrate her 100th birthday by committing $1 million to Projects for Peace. She is the mother of alumna Diana Davis Spencer ’60 and received an honorary degree from Wheaton in 2008.
Professor Julie Searles, who taught the First Year Seminar (FYS) class, described Rosenzweig as a student with unusual depth who demonstrated strong listening skills and independent thinking during the class. “The assignment we do in class was developed to teach students the multi-faceted skill sets it takes to get a project like this off the ground. Becca was the first one to successfully submit her project,” she said.
For Rosenzweig, the Projects for Peace grant is an opportunity to do a project with the Karen people—something she has wanted to do for a long time, she said.
The idea of a student-run shop emerged through conversations over Skype with local people and volunteer coordinators.
“At the high school, the children are learning basic Thai and English language skills, but they are not necessarily getting the vocational skills to have a stable future,” she said. The project will teach students basic budgeting and communication skills, and proceeds raised will support sustaining the shop and families in the village.
The store will sell not only foods like papaya and other local fruits, but also handicrafts. The Karen people weave traditional baskets and attire, she said.
Rosenzweig’s friends at the children’s home and high school were “super excited” when they learned that she won the grant, she said. Already, she is coordinating with volunteers to begin construction of the shop in mid-April. She expects it to open by June, right before the influx of volunteers and tourists—a natural customer base.
“It’s amazing how much can be accomplished with this sum of money,” she said, noting that it covers construction costs, including electricity and plumbing, and appliances.
With support through the grant, Rosenzweig will go to Thailand this summer to get the shop off the ground and running smoothly.