People forgotten. Tossed aside. Waiting. These describe the Karen people residing in the Mae La Refugee camp bordering Thailand and Burma. In July of 2009, my family and other church members made our journey to Thailand where we learned their story.
Twenty-five years ago the Karen people fled Thailand to avoid persecution and violent attacks; they had nowhere to go. Therefore, this camp was set up to contain them. Behind the fences, the refugees fended for themselves.
We were briefed on this history as we rode in the back of a pickup truck up the mountainous roads to the camp. The camp, visible in the distance, is just a plethora of thatched roof huts, nestled in the side of the mountain. Built one on top of the other, these houses stretched as far as I could see. Their beauty haunted me. It was unbelievable that these beautiful mountains, with the sun shining from around their peaks, could be home to such devastating poverty-hopeless poverty.
Our truck rolls to a stop; we go in. The people inside stare. We climb through a small door in the barbed wire fencing, carrying bags of food purchased at the local market earlier that morning. I want to reach out to them, take them back to America where I know they will have vast opportunities. Sadly, this is not possible. At the Baptist church inside Mae La, children pour inside, pushing to get a view of the Americans up on stage. We conduct a short program, teaching English, singing songs, and making balloon animals. I see their eyes light up as I place a simple piece of plastic in their hands. What joy can come from such a small object! I would have stood and made those balloon animals for every child in the camp of 43,000 if time would had permitted.
People who were watching through the church’s bamboo slats greet us as we exit. They reach out to touch us, in hopes that some of our ‘luck’ would rub off on them. They only wish for some of our fortune. A chill goes up my spine and goosebumps are raised on my skin.
I see, to my right, a woman pushing through the crowd. Her eyes, filled with sadness, lock on mine in an intense connection. Slowly she holds something out toward me. The rest of the crowd fades into the background. I see, in her outstretched arms, a baby. It coos and smiles, totally oblivious to the devastating circumstances surrounding it. She moves the baby’s hand up and down my arm. I can’t speak, and I definitely can’t move. Then she backs up, smiles and shoos me along the way. For herself, my touch was not needed; she had already lived her life in the slums of this camp. But there was still hope for her baby- hope for a good life – hope to escape these walls. I can’t believe that she thinks I can give this to her child. And maybe in some way, I have. Throughout the day I can’t stop thinking of the woman and her baby and of what we mean to these people. We symbolize freedom and hope. All they want is to touch us in hope of gaining a glimmer of what we have.
The trip to Thailand gave me such humility and thankfulness. My heart still aches for the Karen people that are left waiting. But now they are no longer forgotten, at least not by me. I will never be able to forget the refugees of Mae La.
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