Bringing cultures together

Leila and some of her students in Thailand.

Leila and some of her students in Thailand.

Leila Goddard (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Irakehu) has travelled a long way from her Canterbury roots. These days, you’ll find her in the forests of Thailand, teaching art at Children of the Forest, a centre for stateless Burmese refugee children living on the Thai/Burmese border.

Leila, 36, has been living in Sangkhlaburi, Thailand, since December 2011. She went for a six-week visit to see her father, Keith Goddard, who was doing volunteer service for Children of the Forest with Leila’s step-mother, Barbara. During her visit, Leila saw the need for an art school that would support the well-being and healing process of the Burmese refugee children, so she stayed on. Since then, she has been instrumental in setting up the Borderlands Youth and Art Programme, which opened in June 2012.

Leila, who grew up in Auckland, is a professional art teacher and a practicing painter and printmaker in her own right. In fact, she recently won a UNESCO award for artwork she exhibited in “Learning to Live Together,” a UNESCO Bangkok initiated exhibition that featured works by 200 youth from 20 Asia-Pacific countries.

She has a Bachelor of Design, Visual Communications from AUT University, Auckland (1996-2000), a Masters in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins College of Fine Art & Design, London (2005-6), and a graduate diploma in secondary teaching from AUT (2008-9). Before she left for Thailand, she had spent two years teaching art at Edgewater College in Pakuranga, Auckland. In between her London studies, she also worked as a nanny; as a studio assistant for London-based artist, Norman Ackroyd; and as facilitator for printmaking workshops for local schools.

Leila receiving her UNESCO award.

Leila receiving her UNESCO award.

Leila is passionate about working with people of all ages and she has a strong belief in empowering others. At the Children of the Forest Borderlands art project, she encouraged displaced orphans through creative self-expression. Children in the programme learn a wide variety of skills from drawing and painting to printmaking, mural painting and creating wearable art.

“I act as a mentor, confidant and role model to my students,” she says.
“This is particularly true for the young women involved in the programme. It’s important for them to have a positive, independent female role model in their lives. In their culture it’s normal to marry and have children at a young age but some of these girls aspire to go to university. I encourage them to believe in themselves and to work toward fulfilling their own potential.”

Children of the Forest Foundation was founded in 2005 by UK-born Daniel Hopson, to help migrant people from the migrant Karen and Mon tribes living in Sangkhlaburi, a region far off the tourist trail, wedged between Thailand and Burma. It has grown into a multi-faceted organisation that supports several programmes, including a residential home for over 100 children, a school, a single-mother and child programme, an outreach jungle initiative, a medical programme and a farming project, reaching over 1,000 individuals every day.

Many of these Burmese migrants live on the fringes of society. They are poor and vulnerable and many are stuck in debt traps to black market dealers. Children often end up the victims. They are often abandoned, or sold to traffickers, in many cases, to fuel Thailand’s burgeoning sex trade, or to work in terrible factory conditions.

“We want to nurture our students so they care about their projects and see results they can be proud of. Ultimately, we hope they will be motivated and inspired to engage in some kind of further education,” says Leila.

In May, Leila returned to Auckland to run an art auction to raise funds for the Borderlands project. Around fifty people attended, included Ngāi Tahu whānau Bones Rissetto, Linda Williams and Kukupa Titirkatene from the Ngāi Tahu ki Tāmaki Makaurau taurahere group. A number of artworks by her Borderlands students sold, raising enough money to supply art materials for over 100 children a week, for 8-10 months.

“For many of our children, the thrill of knowing their art is now hanging on walls around the world is encouraging and exciting,” says Leila.
“Because their circumstances place huge physical limitations on them, it’s exciting for them to hear that people in other countries and from different cultures, genuinely value something they have created.”

Leila has whakapapa ties to Ōnuku and Wairewa through her mother, Patricia Wylie. Patricia’s father’s mother was a Clough, who grew up in Wairewa. Their 1848 tipuna is Puai Tehaewa from Ōnuku. She married a Bristol whaler called James Robinson Clough.

If you would like to know more about the Children of the Forest Foundation, check their website www.childrenoftheforest.org.