John grew up in Tonzang, a town in a remote region northwestern Myanmar, called the Chin Hills: a mountain range that extends northward into India’s Manipur state. In his teenage years, John faced difficulties pursuing further education, as schooling did not continue past age 15 in Tonzang. At first, he travelled across the border into India to work as a labourer, carrying wood, but received no salary. After this, he travelled with just two spare shirts and a Bible to Yangon to pursue better opportunities, before settling in Mae Sot, Thailand. In this border town, John was able to study at a migrant school where he learned art. Art quickly became a passion for him, and this led him to become a teacher with Kickstart Art, an NGO providing art classes in migrant learning centres in Mae Sot.
Since its inception, Kick Start Art has filled a gap in art education for the children of migrant workers from Myanmar, who form most of the population in Mae Sot, even outnumbering local Thai’s. Though its primary activity is training in art, the aim of the organisation is deeper. It strives to promote creativity beyond the classroom, in all aspects of people’s lives. Art is the key to an open and creative frame of mind. Over the course of more than half a century Myanmar youths have been prevented from creative learning, as education has been chronically underfunded and neglected by the military regimes running the country.
After eight years with Kick Start Art, John Khai was appointed as its director having learned a great deal of skills in collaboration with artists from different countries. A small international advisory group continues to support John and the other artists, who are rooted in the local community and best understand the need of youth from Myanmar. Art therapy and education are being given to vulnerable groups in the local area, including those who have only recently fled from Myanmar. Art is used to foster self-expression, and to provide a temporary mental escape from the difficult circumstances of each child and their families.
Recently Kick Start Art has also expanded its reach geographically by providing art teaching workshops inside Myanmar. This began back in John’s hometown of Tonzang, Chin State, which is statistically Myanmar’s poorest province. In 2018, 85 children took part in a 3-week art training workshop delivered by John, on what was his first visit home to see his family and community in 8 years. The program was a glowing success in the community, and in its second- and third-years attendance increased, a second teacher from the local area was hired, an art classroom in the school was created and local authorities met to plan for art to be included in curriculum in the future.
To support its growth, Kick Start Art plans to create a scholarship programme for promising young art students, that would enable them to continue their art education, and later return to teach art for the organisation. Kick Start Art is also in the planning stages of its ‘New Generation Project’, an ambitious project that will develop female teachers in Mae Sot to give back to the community, all the while empowering local women and promoting art education in the process. Kick Start Art’s mission is to create a better future for communities from Myanmar through art. In the long-term, they believe that art can help heal the wounds that have kept the rich and diverse peoples of Myanmar people divided for too long.