Visiting a Karen Refugee Camp in Northwestern Thailand
This was unexpected. There was no way I would have guessed this to be a scene from my life. Standing in front of a classroom full of refugee students from Burma, somewhere deep in the middle of a dense Thai jungle, answering a question about Satanism in America.
It’s one of the funny things about life. 99% of the time I’m in a world of suburban comforts, but it’s in that one percent of moments that I find myself amused by its unpredictability.
“What is religion like in America?” the student asked. “Are there a lot of Christians?”
“Yes,” I answered confidently. “It’s a big country and you can find just about any religion, even some that I’ve never heard of. But the most popular religion is Christianity.”
The same hand shot back up.
“Um, I suppose they’re out there, but I’ve never encountered any.”
This began at the start of the year. Refugees had been pulling at my heartstrings with the strength of millions. I had worked with North Korean refugees, on their path to starting their new lives. I had also been in tune with all the horrible news stories coming out of Syria that summer, as that country contributed half of its population to be among the world’s displaced.
I would be going to graduate school for International Studies in the fall, but I knew that before that could happen, I really needed to see a refugee camp with my own eyes. Perhaps one day I’d have the chance to do something professionally that could help, but in the meantime, I knew I needed to do some learning through firsthand experience.
I had summer plans to visit Southeast Asia, and I knew there were large refugee camps around there. I had no connections of my own, and no idea of how to find a volunteer opportunity that would be ethically responsible and a good fit.
I talked to a missionary couple to Thailand one day after church, but that went nowhere.
I messaged a friend who worked half of his career in China, but he couldn’t think of anything.
My friend in Cambodia tried really, really hard to connect me with somebody, but nothing really worked.
Still, I was convinced for reasons I couldn’t explain that this summer, I needed to be at a refugee camp.
The last person I would have expected to put me in touch with one would be my mom, but that’s what led me to the straw hut classroom where I appeared in front of refugee students answering questions about the United States.
My mom’s best friend in school lives in the Philippines, and she was like a second mother to Resty. Resty works as a missionary in Laos, and through one of his contacts, he received an invitation to be a guest lecturer at a college inside a refugee camp in Northeastern Thailand. He invited me along for the experience.
We flew from Bangkok to Mae Sot on a small, discomforting plane ride which we somehow survived. At the airport, we were picked up by two young men who spoke very little English or Thai, and they drove us towards the camp. Resty, using his Thai, managed to ask a few questions. They lived in the camp. They had lived there for virtually their whole lives. Going outside of its borders like this was a rare experience for them.
From the back of their jeep, I noticed the sign indicating that five kilometers in the opposite direction was the Friendship Bridge, one that connected Thailand to the country they had escaped from. They weren’t entirely welcomed in Thailand either, not being recognized as citizens nor getting any opportunities to make it their new home. Instead, they lived in this camp- an international zone of ambiguity.
It took us about half an hour to get into the camp, and when we did, we were clearly in the middle of a jungle. The trees stood tall and thick, and when I could get a glimpse above some of the trees, I could see some of the green stretched on for as far as I could see. The air was thick, dense, and humid, and it felt like being in a blanket of fortitude.
Burma gets its name from the Burmese ethnic group, the one that holds most of the political power in that country. It is definitely not the only ethnic group, and as a result, most of the other groups face tremendous amounts of oppression from the government and military that practices a highly superstitious and strict take on Buddhism. One of the most oppressed ethnic groups throughout the modern history of Burma have been the Karen people.
The Karen are predominantly Christian, and were persecuted severely during different eras of the Burmese military regime. They were the most represented ethnic group at the Mae Sot Refugee Camp, and the faces that greeted Resty and I upon our arrival were Karen.
We met the director of the college and he told us about the history of the place, taking us through old photographs from decades past as he fed us a meal of rice and soup.
“So, I’ll ask if you two can teach our Sociology 101 class?”
“Certainly,” accepted Resty.
We were given no lesson plans, no instructions, and no requests regarding what we should teach about. We decided it would be best if we taught about our home cultures. I’d talk about the United States, and Resty would talk about the Philippines.
I struggled my way through improvising a lecture about the U.S., explaining that it was such a big country, and such a diverse one that you could find almost any sort of person there if you looked hard enough. The students helped me out. Fueled by curiosity, they asked me question after question.
“Have you met Barack Obama?”
“I have not, no.”
“Are there Karen people in the U.S.A.?”
“Actually, yes. In some parts.”
I spoke for a little while longer before turning it over to Resty. He clearly had done this before, or something like it.
“Filipino people love to sing,” he started. “If you put Filipinos in a room, there will be singing at some point. So, I’ll start by teaching you all a song.”
He wrote out lyrics on a chalkboard.
Love is something when you give it away
Give it away
Give it away
Love is something when you give it away
It comes right back to you
It is like a magic penny
Hold it tight and you won’t have any
Lend it, spend it, give it away
And it comes right back to you
He led us through a couple rounds of the song, a chorus that I’ll never forget.
“Have you ever met Manny Pacquiao?” I heard a familiar voice ask.
That night, we slept in an upstairs part of the dormitory, on hammocks in a room made out of raw, exposed wood. Out in the hallway we met the only white people we’d see in the camp the entire time. Two young women from Pennsylvania.
“We’re volunteering here this summer,” they explained themselves. “Maybe tomorrow you’ll have a chance to go deeper into the camp. We’re not allowed there for safety reasons, but since you two look like you could be Karen, you’ll probably get to go.”
What’s over there? I started to wonder. Why was it unsafe for the white people? Was it all just a matter of appearance?
Sure enough, the next day, we found ourselves greeted by Samuel, one of the more inquisitive students from our class the day before.
“I want to show you guys where we live,” and with that, we went beyond the school.
The view I had of the camp revealed a scattering of thatched straw roofs emerging from the dense, green, mountainside jungle which a creek ran through. Because of all the trees, it was difficult to see how far the camp stretched, but Samuel led us further and further down a long alleyway.
As we got to central part of the camp, it got much darker. The trees were thicker overhead, blocking out sunlight, and on both sides of our path, vendors booths appeared. I looked, and an entire marketplace was in full swing in the middle of the camp. One vendor sold toys and another sold children’s clothes. One had basic electronics, adapters, chargers, power strips. One man hung football jerseys from the top of a tent, and another sold socks.
“It’s like this every day,” Samuel told us.
This completely clashed with my notion that all the goods in a refugee camp would be crates of donated food and clothing with UN stickers. Yet right behind me somebody was presumably bartering for the Neymar jersey.
“What is it like to live here?” asked Resty.
“Very hard,” said Samuel. “But it’s our life, and we make it work. Come with me, there’s something you need to see.”
Samuel led us out of this thick, central area, back towards the school. He led us inside a one room building with no doors, where close to a dozen men were resting in cots, half asleep. Samuel began to speak to them in Karen. It was only when they rose up that I realized almost all of them were missing limbs. Some had severed hands, others had their arms missing from the elbow. There were some who were without a leg. I also realized that they may not have been asleep. Almost all of them were blind.
At once, they started to sing to us. It was a native Karen song we couldn’t understand, but it was gorgeous. Their voices harmonized like a barbershop quartet and they were notably talented. While their injuries might have prevented them from many opportunities, they had mastered their voices.
Resty and I thanked them tremendously for singing for us.
“These were our soldiers,” Samuel explained, while we were leaving. I noticed a blue sign above him. Karen Handicap Welfare Association.
During the conflicts with the Burmese, their military was particularly brutal to the Karen peoples. While these injured singers were protecting their villages, the Burmese junta cut off limbs and put out eyes with boiling water or acid.
Being in this camp was the strangest juxtaposition of the best and worst of humanity. The curiosity of the students, the beauty of the soldiers’ voices, the hospitality of Samuel, all emerging from a history of violence, hate, and tribe fighting against tribe.
I suspected that this visit would change some beliefs about refugee camps, shape new beliefs, and be a learning experience. It truly was.
I learned that refugee camps weren’t always temporary homes. The ones I see on the news usually are. They’re settlements that spring up after fighting gets so bad in one area that people have to escape. But the camps often outlast the media attention. Guys like Samuel, the others in that class room, they had been living in this camp for their whole lives. They couldn’t have been any more than a few years younger than me.
I also learned that refugees aren’t ones to sit around waiting for help. A whole marketplace sprung up, in the midst of this jungle. One with shops and restaurants and headphones and jerseys. It had an economy of its own. It had to. The people were too resilient to rely on handouts for forever.
But among the biggest things I learned was this– life can be very hard, but no hardship can permanently erase its beauty.
Samuel purchased lunch for Resty and I. Egg noodles in a very spicy beef broth. We were stunned. We came to the camp to help, and Samuel was feeding us. It was what he wanted to do, though, and we accepted it gratefully, knowing that the simple act of buying a meal for a new friend meant so much more coming from somebody who had very little.
I prayed to say thanks for the food, thanks for Samuel, and also because I wasn’t sure how my stomach would handle the spices and I didn’t want an upset stomach in the middle of the camp. I felt flooded with gratitude.
Meanwhile, an unclear TV in the restaurant broadcasted the World Cup match between Spain and the Netherlands.
This was a beautiful moment, embedded in a zone of hardship. An unexpected experience for me, in the middle of a summer I can never forget. Maybe it was random, but it didn’t feel random. Serendipitous is a better word, but it still doesn’t feel quite accurate.
All I know is this, it’s the sort of moment forever embedded in my memory. The type I’ll tell my kids about someday. Whenever I hear about refugees on the news or in debates, these are the things and the faces I’ll remember. The sounds of the harmonizing soldiers, the rich greens of the thick jungle, the smells of the restaurant, and the students singing– Love is something when you give it away, it comes right back to you.