much like the homes, sell small necessities like soap, bread, and fish.
Other items include cheap plastic bottles of orange kool-aid, Burmese cigars,
small candies, and clothes the refugees make on their own looms. The economy
of a refugee camp. Karen Refugees of all ages man these stands, their faces
splashed in a gold-colored make-up they use both as a sun block and a fashion
camp here at Mae Rae is host to many Western Volunteer organizations, but
I don’t see any volunteers today. I think it’s because of the full-moon
Buddhist holiday the Karen celebrate three times a year. Hordes of teenagers
are squashed together and dancing under a central pavilion near the monastery.
With giant handmade bamboo shafts clappers and tightly wound drums, they
“jam” together in a makeshift mosh pit, singing loudly and jumping around.
Little kids imitate their older brothers and sisters in this free flow,
and the group picks up steam. It’s central members, most around 16-17 years
old, are covered in sweat and smiling. Some of them wear traditional Karen
shirts, made of bright red fabric with colored horizontal lines. Others
wear T-shirts. Many are smoking and almost everyone is smiling.
lively Buddhist celebration seems to be the center of everyone’s attention
today, Buddhism is not the only religion in the camp. Other Karens claim
Christianity, while a smaller number are Muslim. Originally Animists, the
Karen have converted in large numbers through colonial influence or missionaries.
Each group here at the refugee camp has their own temples, mosques, and
churches. Yet all buildings are constructed from the same materials; bamboo,
dried leaves, and logs. An outsider couldn’t tell the mosque from
the temple from the church.
different religions,” Monchu says of his people, “but that is the only
difference. We do not fight [amongst ourselves].”
I was in Mae Sot, the border town two hours south of here by songthaew
(a Thai taxi-truck). This bustling Thai city with an outlaw reputation
creeps just a few kilometers from the bridge that climbs over the river
into Myanmar. People from Myanmar float across the shallow, muddy waters
on large black inner tubes to sell cigarettes, whisky, and other cheap
Burmese goods; a carton of Burmese cigarettes costs about $2.30. A market
along the Thai bank sells teakwood and trinkets. Like all border towns,
Mae Sot is home to every ethnicity in the area; Thai, Burmese, Karen, other
hilltribe groups like the Hmong or Lahu, and even refugees who’ve hitched
a ride from the camp to the city for something to do.
Mae Sot is
also home to many Volunteer organizations working at the refugee camps.
Last night I met some Western volunteers named Andy and Erin, a couple
from Boulder, Colorado, who have been working at the camps for two months
and plan to stay one month more. Like a lot of volunteers here, they want
very much to make a difference.
“We want to
help the Karen [refugees] learn to do things for themselves,” says Andy,
who is working as an English instructor while heading up a toy-making program
for disabled Karen children. “We want to make sure that when we leave,
these programs will continue. It has to be something they want, or it will
never stick,” Andy says.
One of the
bigger problems the refugees at Mae Ra seem to face is a lack of purpose.
Helpless to change their country’s plight, they have nothing to do but
sit around the camp and wait. And when over 40,000 people sit around a
wait, problems arise. Drug use has become a problem for some Karen who
have nothing better to do, and are looking for an escape. And with the
number of refugees increasing, the challenge to provide education and medical
care in the camp is becoming more and more difficult.
as a therapist in a program designed to mainstream handicapped and mentally
handicapped Karens. She struggles with cultural issues as well as the challenge
to build lasting aid.
believe that if someone is handicapped, they were bad in a former life,
or their parents were bad in a former life. So convincing them that it’s
worth it to help handicapped children learn and grow can be difficult.
Many people, including parents of handicapped kids, tell me we should be
spending our time and resources on the smart ones.”
Both Andy and
Erin say it’s tricky to draw the line between their own cultural bias and
want to come in here and impose our American values and change their culture,”
Erin, grimacing slightly. “But we want to help.”
With this attitude,
they have seen some success. While measuring improvement at the grassroots
level can be difficult to do, both Andy and Erin cite small instances on
the individual level where they felt they have helped people.
and Erin work primarily with children, there are other volunteers involved
in a variety of programs. Lots of medical volunteers work as doctors and
nurses with medical NGOs, or at a clinic in Mae Sot run by a woman named
Dr. Cynthia. Dr. Cynthia’s clinic started in 1988 to serve pro-democracy
students fleeing Myanmar, and now also serves a large community of refugees.
Last year, the clinic saw over twenty thousand patients. The clinic also
serves to help find work and education opportunities. They are constantly
in need of blood donations; many volunteers, as well as passing travelers,
donate blood on a regular basis.
problems the Karen refugees at Mae Ra face, they seem to have found some
happiness amongst the difficulties. Monchu says he is thankful to the Thai
military for helping the Karen, and also says the work of the volunteer
organizations is good. There is a warmth among these people, a warmth that
many people in Thailand have, but that is all the more important here in
Mae Ra, where sticking together is the only way these refugees can find
community so far from home.
At the top
of a small hill, just above a thin stream that curls through the camp,
I find a couple of kids playing with a plastic ball. The ball rolls near
me and I kick it back; soon a game of keep-away develops, and our group
grows. A dozen of us shriek in delight as the ball flies all over, kicked
and thrown and caught and dropped on the dusty hilltop. A new little boy
walks sheepishly towards the action, and I toss him the ball softly. It
hits him squarely in the forehead and bounces off, sending the group into
fits of laughter. He laughs too, happy to be the center of attention. Soon
he is in the middle of the game, racing after the ball with bare feet and
big, brown wide eyes.
When it is
time to leave, I say good-bye to the kids and pull my finger gently from
my little friend’s palm. She’s followed me faithfully for a while, and
I wonder if she’ll cry when I walk away. But she just waves goodbye and
grins wide with that smile, the one that makes smiling back the only thing
I want to do in the whole world.
is that of the Karen at Mae La – that someday she’ll be smiling on the
other side of the border, safe in a homeland she has yet to see.