By Katherine Aragon
At five a.m., the Muslim prayers begin, calling those faithful to Islam to the mosque. The prayers resound from multiple locations in the refugee camp and echo through the valleys twisting through the Thai countryside. In the stillness of the dark, boys and men in round embroidered cotton caps and girls and women in short headscarves walk down muddy roads to worship. Two hours later, the camp loudspeakers bluster to life for the first of many daily announcements from camp leaders spoken in Karen, the language of one of the many Burmese ethnic minorities who collectively make up about 20 percent of all Burmese citizens.
I am at the camp for a week this time, teaching a workshop on Burmese history as part of my internship with World Education, a nonprofit organization in Thailand. During my two months in Thailand, I travelled between two refugee camps and the World Education headquarters in the town of Mae Sot, taking notes on students’ learning styles and familiarizing myself with the basics of life in a refugee camp.
On the cramped song tao (line truck) up the mountain to Nupo Camp, a woman offered me betel nut, the ubiquitous chewing tobacco medley that stains the teeth of its users black and red, throwing grins into jack-o-lantern relief. The aged woman was no exception: she sported a patchy (though friendly) smile of missing teeth and rotting gums. I took a nibble and fought to maintain a smile as a wave of soap-like flavor tainted my saliva. It must be an acquired taste. Along the way, Thai soldiers and police stopped us at checkpoints at least eight times to inspect our paperwork and identification. It is not unheard of for families without proper identification to be pulled off the song tao and sent back into Burma, unless they have enough money to bribe the offcials.
It has been this way for longer than my travel companions remember, I was told. The Burmese military seized power in 1962, and in the years since, the corrupt and violent regime has crippled the nation, though Burma is rich in natural resources. Like the regions inhabited by the Karen people, many areas of Burma remain besieged by both government troops and ethnic militias. Today, the country shows signs of starting the long trek back to a stable economy and a democratic society. However, ethnic minorities remain at a great disadvantage, with highly limited access to healthcare, economic opportunities, and affordable and unbiased schooling. Thus, the refugee camps along the Thai border (some of which have existed since the nineties despite their “temporary” status) unfortunately continue to be necessary.
The song taos never entered the camps completely but instead stopped briefly at the edge of each settlement, just long enough for passengers to toss off their belongings and scramble to the ground. At the front gates, I showed the guards my official camp pass, issued by the Thai Ministry of Interior in blocky Thai script. Once inside, with the mosquito net hung snugly around my sleeping mat, I eased into the new environment of the camp.
After two days there, when rains transformed the red-dirt roads that climb the residential mountains into perilous mud sluices, I resigned myself to my new grimy coat. From then on, whenever I happened to glance down and see the filth painting my feet, I’d smile contentedly. Every day, my feet looked a little different, displaying an energetic changeability. On Monday, they were pale, mosquito-bitten, and thoroughly foreign to the soil. But on Tuesday my feet took on a local dress— bright scrubs of red mud along the sides and inside the tender webbing of my toes.
By Friday, they were laced with brown and black in addition to the earthy tones of their baptism, still lingering beneath my toenails. But for me having red feet was a temporary state, and unlike that of many of the refugees’ stay in camp, mine ended with my internship. I longed for the spring mattress in my room. I longed for a meal other than fried cabbage and black-speckled camp rice. Living in a rainy camp with no electricity, no running water, limited rations, and bamboo beams as a mattress attested to the humbling resilience of these refugees. Aside from physical amenities, what is perhaps most frustrating is that progress and opportunity elude the Burmese refugees long after they have left the camps. Even if a refugee goes to school in camp, no one—not the Thai government, not the Burmese government, not anyone—will count her degree. Once outside of camp, Burmese migrants often become cheap laborers for Thai businessmen to exploit. And despite all this, frustrations only increase as foreign governments begin withdrawing aid money from the border and redirecting it to investments in Burma, abandoning the already persecuted to pursue their interests.
On my final night in camp, as dusk descended and the light outside changed from magenta to ink blue, my students gathered in the tin-roofed bamboo classroom to wish me well. Small candles flickered on metal tables, secured to the surface in puddles of their own wax. They provided a dim yet warm light as students passed around a guitar and bowls of fresh tea-leaf salad, pungent and flavorful. Time was passing, and at dawn I would embark on my journey back to town, climbing into yet another battered song tao to ride for seven hours through the jungle and down the mountain. But at that moment, the only thoughts on my mind concerned my students. Where would they go after the two-year program ended? How many would return to Burma to pass on their new skills to those with less access to education? Who would remain in Thailand to become a much-needed community leader? And the most troubling question: Would any succumb to the hardships of displacement and poverty?
If these individuals are halted in their progress, it will likely be due to forces outside of their control rather than their own failings. Based on discussions with students both in and outside of class, I believe that if state governments refuse to work for them, these bright and motivated young people will lead the way in changing their country on their own, and for the better. The Burmese government would be lucky to have them.
Katherine Aragon ’14 is an Ethnicity, Race & Migration major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.