Good food, bad water, and 4,000 refugees

Trip Start Jul 18, 2007
Trip End Jul 26, 2007

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Friday, July 20, 2007

Our first day begins at 5:00 am. Chris, an American missionary meets us in the lobby of the hotel with our driver, PC. (I'm sure he has a real name, but this is what we call him.) After loading our luggage into the van, Chris takes us to a line of street vendors for breakfast. I'm nervous about the food because I had so many problems (none of which are appropriate for polite conversation) with the food in Liberia. Each vendor has prepared something different and we hesitate to make a choice, so Chris chooses for us. We sit down on a picnic table under a tarp behind the cooks and eat rice and chicken with something akin to hot sauce - really hot sauce. It's great and my food anxieties disappear.
Chris, a 25-year-old who's been in Thailand for a year, is very excited that this is my first trip to Thailand and even Asia. I can see a thousand things race through his mind as he catalogs all of the experiences that I must have on my first trip here.
Today, we're meeting with Sayan, a Karen man who will be our escort into one of six or seven refugee camps in Thailand established for nearly 150,000 Karen people who have fled the persecution and abuse of the Burmese military.
We arrive at his house, take our shoes off outside the door, and sit down in his office. I'm not great at small talk. In fact, I hate small talk and I usually make no effort to better myself at it. But happily, my boss, Ridge, takes the lead and works through about thirty minutes of conversation in broken English and even more broken Thai (through Chris). Someone brings us a glass of water; we thank him, hold it in our hands during our time in the office, and leave it on the desk when we leave without drinking a drop. Nothing ruins a once-in-a-lifetime trip like uncontrollable diarrhea.
We all pile into Sayan's truck and head for the jungle. At a checkpoint manned by Thai military men dressed in camouflage and boots (noteable because I haven't seen shoes with shoelaces since San Francisco - everyone's wearing flipflops), Sayan presents our papers and they lift the gate. Chris is excited because entering this camp is a great privilege. No more than 500 foreigners have been allowed to enter the camp since its establishment in 1997, that's 50 per year. The Karen are quiet people, as will become increasingly apparent as I talk with them, and the Thai government, while helping them in many ways, does not advertise the existence of these broken people forced to live in the jungles along their border.
Thailand has an immigration problem that is bigger and badder than in the U.S. The illegal immigrants entering the U.S. come to escape poverty and to give their children a leg up in life. The people in the U.S. who speak the loudest against immigrants argue that escape from poverty isn't a good enough reason to allow them to make their way in our economy. But if Karen families were not allowed to cross the border into Thailand, many of them would be slaughtered or enslaved by the Burmese military. They're not trying to give their children a leg up. They're trying to give their children a chance to survive. The Thai government is faced with a much more critical decision.
If they didn't allow the Karen to enter, they would have the blood of the Karen people on their hands in the eyes of the international community. On the other hand, their economy would be hard pressed to absorb nearly 150,000 refugees looking for a job.
We drive through the camp. People on the road stair at us; they step out of their homes to see the strangers. Their houses are made of bamboo and have black plastic tarps for roofs. Children are playing barefoot in the dirt. Some of them are stark naked. It's a World Vision scene right in front of me.
Our first order of business is to meet with the camp committee to learn more about the needs of the camp and how God's Kids can be part of supporting the children - especially orphaned children. We also want to find out exactly who handles the support money that we send each month. There has been some changes at the nursery schools that we support, and accountability is an issue. The entire staff has turned over because most of them have chosen to leave for other countries to gain their freedom.
After speaking with the committee, Sayan and the school teachers took us to see the nursery schools. The schools were so simple, I had to smile. We spend so much money to improve our schools with supplies, and projectors, and tv's, and we still complain. While the kids in most schools in the world have next to nothing. They sit on a mat on the floor, they work by the light of day, and their only resource is the patient instruction of their teacher.
We followed Sayan around the camp meeting small groups of excited children along the way. The camera embarrasses them and they scatter to the back of the group when I point it at them. The adults smile and nod as we pass, happy to catch our eye. It's as if that smile, that small token of recognition, is verification that we know they're there. Remember me when you go back to wherever you came from, their faces say.
We see the elementary classes learning to read and write in several languages. The teachers point at words on a chalkboard while the students recite together. We pass by the library - primitively built with a tarp for a roof, but full of books organized alphabetically by genre. Then we pass by a room that knocks me off my feet.

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