In the course of our trip to a refugee camp in Northern Thailand, I had hoped to be able to document some of the life in camp. My goal was to help inspire future students from Aiglon College to get involved with the school’s service project as well as bring the plight of the Burmese refugees to more people’s attention. It turned out to be a difficult task as our presence in camp rested delicately on the whim of the camp guards. Confined within the bounds of the school, I had only the walk to and from the school to capture other areas of the camp which I would like to share with you here. The Karen people, along with the Karenni, Shan, Chin, Mon, Kachin, Arakan and smaller ethnic groups, were driven from Burma through ethnic cleansing and many have lived in the camp we visited for over 20 years. It is possible to return to Burma but it is not safe for the majority. Over 50,000 people currently live in the camp and, at first glance to the uninitiated, it can seem as if the people are doing ok. One of the things our group leader asked us to think about at the beginning of the trip was how we felt when we first arrived and how we felt at the end. Compared to television images of refugee camps and places I have visited in Africa, the people seemed to have reasonable housing, food. Many had mobile phones, schools, access to the internet, reasonable clothing etc. It wasn’t until the middle of the week, as people started to open up to us and talk about life and their experiences that my eyes started to open to the reality.
Many people ‘work’ in the camp but, as generally there is no pay, they can come and go as they wish. In the schools, teachers teach to help others; there is no living to be earned. The people can’t grow more food because there is no space and few means to do so. In the colder months, there is not enough wood to keep a fire burning and people risk their lives higher up in the mountain or under the barrier, just to keep their families warm.
As well as funding the school, Aiglon sponsors the two boarding houses attached to it. The children housed here have nothing and no one. The school cooks their food from the rations provided by the Thai government. Aside from that they don’t even have a few pennies to buy sweets from one of the little camp shops. Some were sent to camp by their parents, to keep them safe, to give them a chance at schooling. Some arrived having lived through things I can’t even imagine. One girl told me she had been brought to camp by soldiers. Her family were still somewhere in Burma and when she graduated she would go back and fight with the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). She wanted to be a soldier, she felt it was her only option for freedom.
All the children were interested in where we were from. They were especially fascinated by snow, but it wasn’t until we landed in Geneva after a long flight and headed out into the freezing fog, snow crunching under foot that I felt the enormous distance between their hopes for the future and the reality of life in limbo. We might have positively hoped with them for a future where they could return home, work for a living and maybe one day make it to the Alps but so little of that future lies in their hands.
The Karen try to keep their plight in the world’s eye. They have a very active Karen State News network as well as blogs within the different camps. For more information, check out these links: http://karennews.org/http://www.rainbowends.org/karen/history.htmhttp://unseenmaela.blogspot.ch/
Little shops sold pack lunches of noodles, sweets and basic foods.
Umbrellas are extremely useful both for screening against the incredible heat and torrential rain!
We attracted a lot of attention from the younger children who were keen to do anything to watch the lessons being taught by Aiglon students.