By Jack Huang
Most people probably aren’t aware that Asia’s largest refugee camp is located on the Thai-Burmese border. Starting from the northern part of Mae Hong Son, it stretches south for hundreds of kilometers. Dozens of refugee camps, large and small, are operating with the tacit approval of the Thai government. These camps temporarily house about 120,000 Karen, Kachin and other ethnic minorities from Myanmar. Due to political, economic and other reasons, they have had to leave their home countries. They come from Bangladesh, India and even from far away Central Asia. They’ve struggled for their entire journey and wish only to enter Thailand and seek rescue from the UNHCR.
The majority have no nationality, no identity, nor do they have any work, medical or educational rights. The wait for the review process is very long, and only a very few cases ever successfully end with a new life in a new country. Many refugees have been waiting for more than 20 years, with a second generation having grown up there, barely surviving with reliance on the assistance of international organizations from civil organization to volunteer groups.
Getting through the day was both difficult and unsettling however. A feeling of helplessness comes with even the smallest understanding of their living conditions. One can’t even begin to bring up the story of hardship in the background of every refugee. It burns like a hot flame, searing an imprint of each person in time, waiting, looking forward to an ordinary life. But they usually fail, their hope gradually cooling like ashes.
Incidentally, I happened to be visiting the camps of Mae La and Nu Po with some UN colleagues. The hot sun was ruthlessly roasting the tightly packed refugees. It was there that I met K.
In the morning, K usually heads to the UNHCR workplace. He earns between 1500-2000 baht per month doing odd jobs for the various international organizations in the area. He is a 35 year old Karen from Myanmar, formerly a primary school teacher. He didn’t say much about his reasons for leaving, likely due to the pain it causes when brought up. He will only say that his family is gone and that he can’t go back. All he has now is to teach the Myanmar children at the refugee school and to rely on Tzu Chi, the Asian Foundation and other organizations for his three basic meals per day. With this, he is content.
For a man without many options, stability and security can be unreasonable requests.
S is a Texan. After graduating from medical school she joined Doctors Without Borders. She’s been to Africa and in 2010 went to Haiti to help in the disaster recovery. In 2012 she arrived in northern Thailand where she provides medical and fertility services in the refugee camps. S is your standard southern girl, with wavy blonde hair and a slow southern drawl her dimples light up when she laughs. She is in her 30’s and has been constantly travelling between refugee camps in northern Thailand and on the Thai-Mynamar border for four years. Many of her friends of the same age are working in large hospitals, tech companies and are married and raising happy families.
When asked why she chose to stay, she says when people experience the cruelty of the world, but also have contributed to its betterment, they take on an aura of humanitarianist and head back to a comfortable environment where they can live out their days. Going back to their hometown, a place with a familiar tone, it’s a beautiful prospect.
“Have you heard of the poet Robert Frost? Two roads diverged in a wood, I took the less travelled one…” S says blankly, without much emotion.
Asked what the most difficult aspect of it is, she relates “I like my work. To me, this is a part of life, whether you’re in what’s called a difficult situation or not. Actually, when a person is alone in the dead of night, sometimes what’s really hard is…you know, the network signal isn’t very good…”
Outside of her regular medical work, S also takes time to teach English to the children in the refugee camps, with the smiles of the children the most valuable payment she receives. The outside world is unfair and to the children born into these camps, words like ‘future’ and ‘hope’ are unfathomable. What they need isn’t just a full belly, education and medical care. More importantly is having a life free of burden, an ‘ordinary’ life where one can be free and have the most basic of human rights.
At the largest refugee camp in Asia, there are always people from different organizations, humanitarian workers, journalists and educators…Volunteers come and go, bringing with them both professionalism and goodwill, providing services for more than 100,000 refugees. Have they changed at all? “I think yes, bit by bit those who come here to help are an extremely important resource”. But do they really change? “It’s unfortunate, but the environment is still very difficult. Living conditions are very hard and it’s so difficult do send anyone off (transfer to a third country) and more keep coming in.
There are plenty of international workers here but people like S, who have been here for many years, are very rare.
“In addition, whenever possible, I’d urge people to be careful when working with foreign volunteer groups. Utilizing high school and university summer vacation, they come for two week stints. Outside of their enthusiasm, they don’t have any usable skills. Simple labor and administrative tasks can easily be provided by local refugees. It’s the high level medical care, resource management and policy planning that these 20 year old kids just aren’t up to the task.
After getting back to Bangkok and life’s daily affairs, there isn’t any new information about them. The days pass like a handful of sand, slowing trickling down one’s fingers, dazzling, from summer into autumn.
I happened to hear from some UNHCR colleagues at lunch that S had gotten married, and her partner was K. I chuckle thinking of him like a big child playing, the role of a Myanmar teacher. They said they met at church and only three months later they had promised their lives to each other. Their love story isn’t one like the movies, with beauty and romance. Their wedding was in a small local church with just a priest and a simple service. Even so, love that can grow in a foreign land inside a refugee camp filled with sadness, that is even more precious.
“You see, this is their wedding. Even though it was very simple, everyone was able to join in on the fun.” My colleague shows me some pictures of S and K on their phone. They looked just like any two lovers in would, their eyes for each other only.
Stepping over race, class, identity, so much so that some of the more sensitive and fragile parts…In the midst of shattered bits and pieces, there are things can yet happen, things that we can yet look forward to, things that let us know there’s still some heat left in the ashes, hope can still burst forth.
No one knows what their future will bring, for better or worse, to fly into the sky or to be bent backwards.
I only hope that the next time I visit northern Thailand, I have a chance to meet with them again.
The story was first published in Novemeber 2016 @Crossing
Translated by Michael Bruner
About the Author
Jack Huang is a consultant working for United Nations Peacekeeping Mission. Studied in London and current live in Bangkok. Freelancer to many online media. He speaks English, Chinese and Thai.
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