Myanmar Alumna Leading Peace in Journalism

This is the final entry of a four-part series of Sarus stories written by Madeleine Chaisson, MA Candidate from the Clinton School of Public Service. She spent the last three months interviewing 45 Sarus alumni, staff, and board members and recording their stories. This second story is with Su Myat Mon, also known as Su Chay (Bangladesh-Myanmar Exchange Program 2016).


Su Chay found time from her busy schedule to both sit for an interview and play hostess. We first explored City Mall (and all that City Mart has to offer), and then tried the newly opened water taxi. We took the bus to the National Museum, where she showed her pride in her country, her home state of Rakhine, and impressive knowledge of the vast diversity of ethnic groups present in Myanmar. Her eagerness to share her experiences with Sarus was palpable, as was her passion for peace.

She explained that coming from Rakhine State, she feels a deep desire to build peaceful relationships. She found Sarus through a community leadership program in Yangon. When I asked why she was interested in Sarus, her response was simple. She wanted to join the program to build “good relationships in the long run” and she wanted to have a “good impact between the Bangladesh and Myanmar girls as someone from Rakhine State”. Su Chay joined the program without knowing any other participants, and says now that she is still in touch with her fellow alumnae.

Su Chay’s expectation of the program was a formal training, most likely in the form of a lecture or a speech. She was pleasantly surprised to find such an open environment filled with women equally passionate about fostering peaceful relationships. Luckily, she noted that even though the Sarus exchange was not a lecture “we still got a good experience based of the work between two groups [Bangladesh and Myanmar]”.

Su Chay spoke passionately about the peace circles that ended every day of the exchange program. The language she used was so “Sarusized”, including the phrase “listen from our hearts”, proving her deep understanding and acceptance of the Sarus curriculum. Her experience of the Sarus peace circle seems to have been so complete that she carries on reflecting on topics discussed there. She said that, “whenever I have time and don’t want to think about my job, I try to remember the times when I felt good [at Sarus]”.

Sarus helped her in more ways than just peace building; Su Chay talked about how her English improved and she gained confidence in speaking to foreigners. She says that she no longer feels shy or judged when she speaks, and is now able to recover from minor mistakes more quickly. Her communication skills in both languages improved, tested especially when she explains Sarus programming to her community using different levels of Burmese translations from English.

When speaking to her friends and family about Sarus, Su Chay explains it as an exchange program between two countries, with an occasional focus on Phaung Daw Oo because it is more well known in her local community. The organization in Bangladesh is not well known in Myanmar, she explained, and so it is difficult to talk about. She instead talks about the exchange and Asian University for Women (AUW), and her experiences with 6 women from local NGO schools and 6 from an international school who came together.

Su Chay began working for the magazine, Frontier Myanmar, in September 2016 after her experience with Sarus, driven by her increased confidence. Sarus helped her to understand people since who may differ from herself, and learned how to be patient and not judge: “learn first and judge later”. Su Chay employs these lessons every day when she works as a journalist, traveling and speaking to peers, local officials, and tourists.

Since completing the Sarus Bangladesh-Myanmar Exchange Program, Su Chay has attended conferences in Finland and Cambodia. In keeping with her fellow Myanmar participants, food was her only problem in both countries! She suggests packing food from Myanmar when traveling outside of the country.

Check out Su Chay's new stories for Frontier Myanmar here.

2011 Alumna Leading Peace in Education

This is the third entry of a four-part series of Sarus stories written by Madeleine Chaisson, MA Candidate from the Clinton School of Public Service. She spent the last three months interviewing 45 Sarus alumni, staff, and board members and recording their stories. This second story is with Phan Uyen Nghi (Sarus Exchange Program 2011 & Former Board Member of Sarus USA).


Nghi and I were able to meet on my last day in Ho Chi Minh City. She gave me directions to a cafe near her office and I was excited about the opportunity to continue exploring the city, and to maybe even be in a part of town where people were surprised to see me. We sat and had a nice conversation about her time as a Sarus participant, her tenure on staff, and her current work teaching English to students and informally teaching Vietnamese to friends. Her nuanced understanding of both languages provided fascinating insight into cultural differences and patterns of self-expression. At the beginning of her Sarus journey, she was still honing her English skills. She cited Sarus as one opportunity to learn vocabulary relevant to her interest in peace building and conflict resolution.

One day, the English teacher at Nghi’s university gave a small presentation about Sarus and encouraged the class to apply for the flagship year of the program. The teacher was a part of Princeton-in-Asia and had served at the same university as Wesley Hedden, a Sarus founder. Funnily enough, Nghi missed class that day. Her friends told her about the program and the rest is history.

Nghi was eager to travel to another country and explore life outside of Vietnam. She made a conscious effort to compare her experience as a foreigner in another country to the way she saw foreigners interacting with her own culture in Vietnam. After working through the (at the time) 12 pages of application, she met for an interview, and was accepted into the program’s first generation.

Her experiences in 2011 during the Sarus Exchange Program taught her to listen without judgement, and to be at peace with not responding to everything that was said. She says, “it was more about empathizing and feeling heard and listened to” in circle meetings and through the exchange. Having enjoyed her first year so much, she spent 6 months as a program assistant and then worked as the Program Coordinator for the 2012 iteration. Nghi talked about the differences in responsibility, having fun versus planning the fun. She said that through both participating and working with the program she was able to fully appreciate the values of Sarus. Her time as a staff member taught her to problem solve, learn how to navigate systems of power, and create a collaborative learning environment.

Nghi says that her current work with PASS as the Peer Assisted Learning Coordinator at MIT Australian University is influenced by Sarus. During her time at university, she was involved in volunteer work which lead to hands-on working experience through programs such as Sarus, which have awakened her desire to continue to contribute to her local community. Working with Sarus showed that she has the ability to give to her community and strengthened her skillset to continue in the same field. Her work in education places her in the social sector, just where she likes to be.


Sarus Alumnus Leads Peace With Mindfulness

This is the second entry of a series of Sarus stories written by Madeleine Chaisson, MA Candidate from the Clinton School. She spent the last three months interviewing 45 Sarus alumni, staff, and board members and recording their stories. This second story is with Seng Porchhay (Sarus Exchange Program 2014).


Porchhay and I met in Siem Reap at an exciting coffee shop called Bio Lab. The extravagant decor of scientific looking equipment set an academic stage for our conversation, particularly once we learned that we both studied international relations as undergraduates.

Ever an eye for marketing, Porchhay said he knew that he wanted to participate in Sarus when he found a beautiful, idyllic description of someone in the mountains drinking tea on the Sarus website. He was looking to improve and expand his understanding of Cambodian/Vietnamese relations, and Sarus provided.

His Sarus journey started at an orientation with other Cambodian participants in Kampot, Cambodia. This is where they were guided through the process of collaboratively imagining and creating their group service project. They visited with people in Prey Chrey (along the border of Cambodia and Vietnam) to discuss the local community’s needs in terms of access to education.

When speaking about Sarus, Porchhay spoke mostly of the opportunity to engage in imaginative and creative experiences with the students. He and his fellow participants taught the students new skills including origami, drawing, and dancing (although the students taught them a few dances, too). The most memorable event was the football match, structured as a formal tournament. The nationalities were divided evenly. Talent was fairly separated. It came down to the last game: Wes’ (Sarus founder) team played against Porchhay’s best friend. Porchhay desperately wanted to beat Wes, asking to be substituted onto his friend’s team. It was raining. The field was muddy and slippery. Wes’ team won. More than three years later, it has not been forgotten.


Once the group moved to Vietnam, they completed construction projects at a school in Tra Vinh. His brief tenure as an architecture student proved useful in the basic handy-work. At the end of the program, the participants gathered together for the final night’s feast. They reminisced on the fashion show that portrayed traditional, cultural dress from both countries and talked about what they had learned. Porchhay says he gained a new perspective of life in Vietnam. He had understood the Vietnamese government to be oppressive, but was surprised by the happiness of the locals. We discussed the southern provinces of Vietnam where Khmer culture is still prevalent - including half of TV programs shown.

His time with Sarus is also when he first discovered videography and photography. He first learned basic videography skills during his time with Sarus as he and his peers worked to create a short documentary (available here on their Facebook page and also here on YouTube). After the program he continued to teach himself and learn the trade, and now works for the World Peace Initiative Foundation (based in Thailand). He has also recently begun hosting monthly mindfulness courses called “Peace In Peace Out (PIPO)”. At each of the four sessions, nearly 300 youth have attended.

Porchhay cited Sarus as the reason that his English improved, his perspective of Vietnam and Vietnamese people changed, and his awareness of social work piqued. He says, “I feel like I was so alive during the program” about having had the opportunity to lead and see how it felt. He’s also been driven to network more with people in Siem Reap - meeting fellow artists and peace leaders in various fields.

Porchhay ended our interview with thoughts from his international relations background - solutions for a better relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam. Amongst the technical solutions, he said Sarus is a step in the right direction. He said that his relationships with his Vietnamese peers are proof that peace can be found if people are willing to work for it.

Sarus Alumna Working With RefugeeS in Bangladesh

This entry is part of a forthcoming series of Sarus stories written by Madeleine Chaisson, MA Candidate from the Clinton School. She spent the last three months interviewing 45 Sarus alumni, staff, and board members and recording their stories. This first story is with Tanzil Ferdous (Bangladesh-Myanmar Internship Exchange 2016).

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Tanzil and I were able to connect over Skype one evening after she finished a busy day at the UNHCR office in Chittagong. Even after a long day of intense spreadsheets and on the ground organizing, her eloquence, poise, and ease was overwhelming.

Her background in economics and development studies from the Asian University for Women (AUW) laid an ideal foundation for her participation in the inaugural Sarus exchange program between Bangladesh and Myanmar. With 16 countries represented, AUW presents a unique preparation for students interested in peacebuilding and participating in Sarus. During her tenure at AUW, Tanzil worked with a local community center and the university’s community service team to deliver direct service in Chittagong’s slums and feeding centers. She joined the country’s largest volunteer network and quickly rose to the position of District President, and currently serves as an advisory board member. Her curiosity into the realm of social services was never satiated and she continued to explore various projects saying, “you don’t know until you try." 

Tanzil’s interest in the political conflict concerning the Rohingya was a driving factor in her application to Sarus. Her understanding of technical issues concerning development, coupled with the exposure she knew Sarus could provide, would make her unstoppable. Following Sarus, she conducted independent research to learn more about the Rohingya. She networked with a UNHCR partner photographer who introduced her to willing interview participants, providing first-hand knowledge of the situation.


Non-violent communication is the most important technique that Tanzil learned during her time with Sarus. She says that knowing such a concept exists has opened her eyes to a number of other communication techniques. Tanzil also described a shift in her personal language, especially a decreased use of regional slang. Her view of the famous Sarus circle meetings is interesting in that she saw them a platform, an opportunity to apply their learned skills and to express feelings in real time. This is something she continues to do, as applicable, in her current work.

She talks about Sarus quite a bit with her colleagues and offers her perspective on Myanmar. At the conclusion of our interview, Tanzil said that she did not expect Myanmar to be so beautiful nor for the people to be so welcoming. She sees it as a place where she could settle down for a few years and be involved in various peacebuilding endeavors. Tanzil says that the communication techniques she learned at Sarus have now become a part of her life, a habit that she no longer things about. She draws on Sarus and what she learned to bring her peace in her stressful, high-stakes work at UNHCR.

"I Like to Watch Alien Documentaries"

Since graduating the Sarus Exchange Program of 2014, Seng Porchhay has trained as a monk, moved to Bangkok to spread inner peace with Peace Revolution and returned to Phnom Penh to work on a project combining theatre and meditation. I got to know Porchhay over steamed snails, witnessing his motorbike (almost) disappear and hearing ghost stories from his childhood. Having just arrived in Phnom Penh as a social media intern for Sarus, I was very grateful to befriend an incredibly kind, calmly disposed and humorous member of the Sarus family. Porchhay, Vithiea, Thuy (old friends) and myself got together for multiple food tours and recce trips to Prek Chrey before SFSC2016. Here are some snapshots from our conversations, written as one interview.

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No Feeling is Wrong

It has been more than one year since my internship with Sarus in Cambodia. It is almost impossible to express in words what Sarus has taught me and how it impacted my life afterwards. To be honest, I started my internship expecting almost nothing, as it was not structured like regular internship programs. However, after the end of that one month when I came back to my regular life, I realized a huge change in me.

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Crowdfunding: A Sustainable Source of Long-Term Funding for Non-Profits?

When most people think of crowdfunding, they think of one-off campaigns used to raise seed funding to launch an individual product. The product goes to market, donors receive an update and a perk, and that’s the end. At Sarus, we have a different vision of what crowdfunding can be for organizations with a social mission.

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