Mae Ra Ma Luang Karen refugee camp

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Trip: difficult, but not impossible!

For a long time, I was very interested in refugees, and it was my dream to visit a refugee camp. I guess there are not many people, who have such an ambition, but those, who do, have probably already noticed that visiting a camp is not an easy thing to do. It is not easy not because of hard conditions inside of the camp or difficulty to reach it, which should also be taken into consideration, but because of the lack of relevant information and existing opportunities.

I found a few programs, such as teaching English to refugees in Thailand or reading books to refugee kids in Zambia, but they were very expensive, and although I managed to raise some money, it was only a fraction of what was needed. The only free program that I had seen was Burma Volunteer Program (BVP), which helps to recruit volunteers and match them with the needs of its local partners. It provided only limited information and was being very secretive, so at first I was not sure if it could be fully trusted, but eventually I decided to give it a try.

Four connecting flights, a shortened version of four-day training, a seven-hour trip by an orange truck (sawngthaew), another three hours by an ARC (American Refugee Committee) car and here I was finally in a real refugee camp! It is difficult to describe how I felt or what I was thinking. Overall, it was a strange and a rather surreal experience, partly because I had never been in a place like this before and partly because I remembered seeing it in one of my dreams. That morning, I woke up with an image of some exotic place, but I had no idea that it was a refugee camp, which I was going to visit in the near future!

Camp: poor, but decent

The camp is located amidst the jungle and mountains and is home to some 16,000 refugees. They all seem to be crowded in poor shackles on the both sides of a narrow and very muddy road and by the very side of an equally muddy river. The camp is divided into seven sections (with the sections 5 and 7 further divided into A and B) and has its own schools, churches, Buddhist temples, shops, market, hospital, guesthouse, restaurant, etc. There are also many NGOs, such as TBBC (Thailand Burma Border Consortium), which manages the camp, UNHCR, ARC, International Rescue Committee, ZOA, etc. The signs hanging on the buildings indicate that many of the projects have been funded by the European Union.

All people working in the camp are local. Maybe I was not the only foreigner, but definitely one of a very few. From what I heard, there was an American man working in Mae Sot, who sometimes visited, but during my stay, I never met him. I think he was a missionary. The other two girls from North-East India, whom I met at the office of KRC (Karen Refugee Committee) in Mae Sariang, were also missionaries teaching in the Bible school located in section 7. One day they came to visit me.

A foreign teacher, who had worked at another refugee camp for a year, told me that refugees receive money from the family members living abroad and therefore are quite well off, with almost every household having its own laptop. According to her, poor shackles that you see in some photos are not necessarily a realistic illustration of what life in a refugee camp may be. Despite that, it is exactly what I found when I arrived to Mae Ra Ma – poor shackles, food mainly collected from the forest, no electricity and definitely no laptops! The only people that I know to have laptops are the staff working in the principal’s office and the teachers of IT and Thai.

Despite that, the camp seems to be managed quite well. Like I said, it has all the basic structures, looks reasonably clean and hygienic and has a few education and training opportunities to offer. Maybe it is not a dream destination, but I think that if some people come fleeing a conflict or seeking education, they have a safe and decent place to stay. Of course, refugee camp, by its own nature, is only a temporary place, and it is always better when after some time, people are provided with an opportunity to integrate locally, resettle to a third country or return home.

Karen people: friendly, but bad teeth!

As you can guess from the title, most of the people living in this camp are Karen. Karen is one of the main minority groups residing in the East of Burma and also on the Thai side of the border. Some of them are Christians and some Buddhist. They wear simple clothes made from a woven material, although Western clothes are also becoming popular, especially among the younger generation. Some men and women smoke traditional pipes and chew tobacco and betel nut stuffed in one side of the mouth. They believe that it helps to keep their teeth healthy, but the truth is that it can cause mouth cancer. Although Karen are friendly people, the smiles showing black and/or red teeth and gums, loud spitting and the road full of red stains is definitely not the best way to leave a good first impression!

Food: simple and very spicy

As regards the food, I even made a joke that it is very easy to cook Karen food. All you need to do is to boil some vegetables, fry them on oil with some salt, chilies and turmeric and serve with rice. That is how most of the food, or curry, is cooked. They buy some of the ingredients in a shop, grow in a modest vegetable garden and also collect in the forest. You would be surprised how much edible stuff is out there! The most frequently used vegetables include bamboo, papaya, pumpkin, water lily, beans, cabbage, banana flower and some other green plants the names of which I do not know. Instead of salad, they eat the leaves of turmeric and lemon and even some flowers!

Students cook in turns and eat twice a day – at 7am and 4:30pm. The timing for dinner can vary depending when the students start cooking and how long it takes. Sometimes it can start as early as 3:30pm! The lunch is usually at 12pm. If students are hungry, they can go and eat some food that is left in the kitchen. Teachers have their lunch together and eat the food prepared by a school worker. Even though the conditions are very basic, and the kitchen looks more like a wooden barn, the food is always clean. During my stay, I did not have a single stomachache if not to count a burning sensation due to the excess amount of chilies!

Water: easily available, but strange taste

The pipes run all through the camp and deliver water from streams to the kitchens, bathrooms, and toilets. The water used for drinking had a very specific taste, and I am not a big fan of pure water anyway, so I was drinking only very little – mainly sparkly drinks bought from a shop and coffee, both of which I never drink at home. As I said, most of the Karen food is fried, so unfortunately, it does not provide with much liquids either. They have something, which they call soup, but it is nothing but simple and almost tasteless water left after cooking vegetables.

Bathroom was located a few steps away down the hill, and a squat toilet was just around the corner. It was very basic, but clean. Overall, Karen people seem to be quite tidy if you do not count the spitting, of course! They take a bath a couple of times a day and wash their hands before eating. Girls usually bath together and wear sarongs, so I bought one as well, although having to wash while wrapped in cloth can be quite challenging, not to mention other beauty/hygiene procedures that one may like to perform. Luckily, in a few days, I figured out how to wear a sarong, so that it does not start falling down, and was provided with some curtains, so had more privacy when changing my clothes.

Free time:

When I asked the students, what they do in their free time, they answered that when they have free time, they collect vegetables or sleep. I guess there is not much else to do! They had a guitar, so very often they would play some music and sing Karen songs. I took some books from the library about Karen rights and resistance, the hill tribes of Thailand, farming, general studies, and history. The generator is turned on only for a couple of hours on Saturday and Sunday evening, so it is the only time when the electricity is available. For the rest of the time should use candles. I had brought a small solar lamp with me, but, unfortunately, there was not enough sunlight for it to work well. The mobile phone does not work, and the Internet connection is either far away (30 min walking) or so weak that can hardly open your emails. Climbing up very steep and slippery hills needs also to be taken into account! In the evenings, there was not much to do, so I used to go to bed quite early. For sleeping, I had a separate area, which was some kind of lifted bamboo structure, an interim version between a bed and a room. I was provided with a bamboo mat, a mosquito net, a pillow and some blankets. I used to fold the blankets,  put them on each other and use instead of a mattress.

Mae Ra Moe Junior College

My placement was located at the junior college, which was outside of the section 6. It is part of the Institute of Higher Education under Karen Refugee Committee and offers two-year education to the high school graduates. The subjects taught at the college include English, Social Studies, Math, Science, Orientation, Language, Computer, Philosophy of Education, and Physical Education. For up to three hours a day, I was teaching General English, Conversational Period and Social Studies, helped to write and edit the newsletter and also helped some students to prepare for the exams.

The textbooks have been developed by The Curriculum Project and adapted to the local culture and context. I think the organization has done a great job. The texts of the Social Studies seem both interesting and relevant, and when I had free time, I was reading them for my own pleasure. The only problem is that the textbook is written in English, and the students seem to be not fluent enough to be able to understand everything that is being taught. In addition to that, the students told me that they do not answer the questions in classroom and that it is very difficult for them to find the answers by themselves. Teaching Social Sciences was quite a good experience, because we had to talk about Cambodia and communism – something that I knew very well. I did my best to explain everything clearly and to promote their analytical skills, which was not always easy, but definitely worth trying!

Sometimes students would come to my place to chat, but their English was very poor, so it was not easy to communicate. I always tried to speak very slow and use only simple words; otherwise, they would not understand me. The fluency of the teachers including those, who were teaching English and Social Studies, which was also in English, was, unfortunately, also rather limited. Perhaps the best English was that of the school principle, although when I got his first email, it took me some time to understand what he meant! As I soon realized, foreign volunteer teachers were much needed there.

Overall, the students that lived with me were very nice and caring. On the first day, they put for me some cold and hot water, so I do not need to go to the kitchen, and also some coffee and biscuits. They always share what they have and ask if I like something. When one day I decided to skip breakfast and eat only lunch, they thought that I got sick and brought the food into my room. Also when they asked me what food people eat in my country, I told them that we use many potatoes, so sometimes they used to buy some potatoes and fry for me. As BVP had told me, “They will rush to wash your dishes and even offer to do your laundry”, which was really the case!

Weather

I arrived during the rainy season, so for the most of the time it was raining. On one hand, it was good, because the weather was very mild, but on the other hand, clothes were drying extremely slowly and the paths had become very muddy and slippery. Because of high humidity, even completely dry clothes would get damp and the washed ones sometimes seemed to get close to rotting. The only thing that was drying quickly was the sarong. Because it was very slippery, local people used to tell me to be careful when walking, although themselves they used to slip many times and also break through the floors inside of the houses, as they are extremely fragile!

Last year, there was so much rain that the river got flooded and many houses had to be evacuated. When I arrived, I was afraid that the same could happen this year. It just kept raining all the time, and the river in some places was already reaching the road. What if I get stuck inside of the camp and cannot go out? Before coming to Thailand, I read that during rainy season, 4WD and chains may be needed to reach the camp. It sounded a bit scary! One day I saw a truck with the chains on the wheels from which I understood that the road must be really bad. When I was preparing to leave, the principle told me that maybe it is better to leave earlier, because one of the NGO cars got stuck on the way and could not come.

Refugees

While you would think that all people living in the camp are refugees, it is not entirely so. Just like in other refugee cases, the population of the camp seems to be mixed. There are people, who have come, because the SPDC soldiers had come to their village, demanded various things, forced people to work and burned their houses, and they had to leave and hide in the jungle, but there are also those, who have come to the camp simply seeking to get education. When I asked an elderly man why he had come to the camp, he told me that he had come because he was old and could not work anymore.

One teacher told me that she once went back to her village to visit her family, but then she heard that the soldiers had started asking people some questions about her, so she quickly left and after that was afraid to go to Burma again. Some students told me that sometimes their parents come to visit them. They need to travel by a car and a boat to reach the camp, which may take two days. It is not only a difficult trip, but also a risky one. Apart from a possibility of being caught by the SPDC soldiers, sometimes people crossing the border from Burma bring malaria with them. One of my students told me that when he came to the camp, in the beginning, he was sleeping without a mosquito net and got infected with malaria. He stayed in hospital, but luckily managed to recover.

During my stay in the camp, the principle introduced me to a young man, who had previously lived in the camp and now came to visit. He stayed in different camps for a few years and two years ago, was resettled to the USA. Now he lives in New York and has two part-time jobs – a teacher’s assistant and an interpreter at a refugee day center. According to him, only in New York, there are about 4,000 Karen refugees. When asked why he left Burma, he said that he left, because his family was poor and his uncle lived in Thailand, so he advised him to go to the camp, so that he can get education and maybe go to another country.

Adaptation

Some students asked me how I would feel if I had to live in a refugee camp for a long time. It is not an easy question to answer. I personally believe that Karen people can cope better, because they live in the conditions and surroundings similar to where they have come from, eat their own traditional food and stay among people sharing the same culture and roots. Some people see a refugee camp as an opportunity and have come by their own choice, while others have been pushed out of their country and have no better place to go.

My circumstances are very different. My immune system is not very strong, so after eating the same simple food every day, I soon started feeling weak, my blood pressure dropped, and I got ill. My stomach was constantly burning from chilies. I wanted to take a hot shower and properly wash myself. I wanted to have a comfortable bed with a matrass, so I can get a good rest. I wanted to use the Internet and talk to some people, who can speak the same language. I wanted to have a faster pace of life and do something more mentally challenging than a couple hours of teaching per day. I wanted to go out, experience the rest of the world and breathe in some fresh air filled with freedom. No matter how idealistic the life in the middle of the jungle may sound, I soon realized that it was not for me!

This is how I felt after having stayed one month, but I decided to keep it to myself. I had made my own choice to go here and I knew that it would not be easy. I will go home and eat what I like. Chilies will not burn any more. All negative feelings will be gone, but the memory of the people I met, their lives, experiences and the good things they have done for me will remain forever.

One day, the junior college had a ceremony to commemorate one of their leaders, and the principle asked me to say some words in front of the audience. I was not prepared, but I had been thinking about many things before, so I just told them what was on my mind – many words of hope and encouragement as well as an appreciation for sharing their lives with me and doing many good things to make me welcome. When I went down of the stage, the principle stood up, took my hand and pressed it with his two hands. I had a cold and spent the whole five hours watching the program in Karen language that I could hardly understand, but the appreciation expressed by the principle and an opportunity to finish an important ceremony with my own speech made the day.

Making my way back

I was planning to stay for three months, but I had to leave earlier, because I was offered a prestigious and a well-paid job at the government of Lithuania. I was helping Cambodians to get education and to pull their country out of poverty. I was helping Burmese refugees to get education, so that one day they can go back and do something good for their country. Now the time arrived to do something good for my own country and for myself. I always tried to follow my heart and do things I strongly believed in, and perhaps God has rewarded me. He gave me a difficult test and I passed it rather well.

I definitely made my contribution, but as I said I had to leave. In a way, I was happy, because staying in such conditions for a longer time would have been really difficult. On my last day, one of the teachers told me that they had a ceremony and invited me to come. This time the ceremony was not for their leader and hero, but for me! They put a chair on the stage, sang songs, said many words of appreciation for the work I did and even gave me presents! I got so many bags and shirts that I could open a market! I was so surprised and touched. I really did not expect so much attention. In the evening, some boys came to visit me. They brought some lemonade and biscuits and said they wanted to use their last opportunity to talk to me. They also asked for my telephone number and said that sometimes they wanted to call me. I said that it would be difficult and expensive for them, but they replied that I was the only person they knew from Europe and that it was important for them to stay in touch.

On the next day, I was told that there was no car to take me to the city, but I packed anyway. I was worried that I do not catch my flight. Luckily, in the afternoon, the principle came and told me that there was a car and that I could go. The trip took four hours and the road was very bad. In some places, the mud was reaching the windows of the car! Another five hours to Chiang Mai, one flight to Bangkok, two more flights, and three days later, I was finally at home – very tired, full of impressions, hungry for some decent food and straight away starting a one-week tour through the ministries and my first placement in the Parliament. I do not know how to explain this, but my life is moving at the full speed. I am glad I do not have to eat bamboos any more, but when I think of the good things Karen people did for me, my eyes get wet. I will not forget them. I will send small parcels and letters to the camp. I hope someday I will see some of them again. There are not many good people in this world, and if you have to go through all difficulties and hardships to meet them, believe me, it is worth it!

I guess, another box on my bucket list has been checked. Thank you to those few good people, who have helped to make this trip happen, as well as those, who had enough patience to read this long article till the end!

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