The Branch Foundation and the Shan refugee camp

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009 here:

A few initial reflections: Burmese tea with the village head man, ecstatic to find out the boarding house manager had learnt in one of her development courses how to say NO to foreigners, smiling faces, bucket showers, red from the dust, collective community spirit like no other, breakfasts at 6.30am with the children, waving them all good bye for the day, the never wavering determination and hope of the Burmese people, there is only forward……..

As team Dutch Kiwi/German bounced our way up steep mountain passes, through little villages and jungle terrain in our red jeep I knew why I was back in Thailand. We (a Dutch psychologist, her daughter a training doctor and Astra and I) were headed to the Shan refugee camp. Actually I should say it really made sense why I was back here only when we said good bye to the last Thai police road block and headed up a road that is sooo bumpy, and parked up in the camp itself. What does a refugee camp of 600 people look like? Well a bunch of thatch huts, a orphanage boarding house, a library, a weavery, a bunch of communal wash places, toilet blocks and of course a temple. Here we are just a few kilometres from the border to Burma, and many can see the ruins' of their old villages that they were forced to flee. We were welcomed so warmly; I think I must have wai-ed, the Shan greeting (hands in prayer like position in front of your mouth) about one hundred times as I was guided through the camp and introduced to people.

This is a place where the camp leader was in the one little shop the second time I saw him as his wife who usually is the shop keeper was in the hospital with another relative. The residential nurse is also the boarding house cook, and also our very gracious and most loving host. She lives in a house next to the camp, and has her brother and nephew staying from Burma as he is sick and therefore got a medical pass to cross the border, also are two others and then the four of us foreigners all in two bedrooms.

Astra works as an advisor for the boarding house, and with the boarding house manager we were explained the various child development issues. A 12-year-old girl, who still is wetting her bed, was our first meeting. Her issues are very obviously post stress disorder symptoms. She feels embarrassed and is reserved due to her bed and sometimes day wetting. The local solution or medical treatment is to feed her pig’s bladder, although some days they can not get it for her, either its not available or they do not have the money for it. We told the boarding house manager to feed her any other pig organ when the bladder was not available to test if its just a habit to a routine that makes her symptoms ease or if it really is the actual local treatment. Collectively tho the obvious was pointed out, that she just needs a lot of love and physical contact to improve her situation. This twelve-year-old girl draws the most amazing pictures, of her hopes and dreams. One was of a beautiful house with flowers in the garden, tress, sun shining. The other is of her in a beautiful dress, with a nice handbag, and next to her a handsome boyfriend. She told me she wants to be a doctor when she grows up.

Many children told me their hopes and dreams for the future. Many boys want to be a kick boxer (they practice in the pathways between the huts in the camp); others told me they want to be soldiers to fight the Burmese army. The girl’s dream of being teachers and doctors to help their people. The common theme for all is their ambition and dedication for a brighter future. The day starts at 5.30 am, it’s still dark, the children have breakfast and get ready for school. Today is Monday so the children all wear yellow T-shirts in support of the Thai king. The school day ends between 4-5pm, then they wash, eat dinner, do home work, have English classes and then often crowed around the one TV, apparently to improve their Thai. There is power only in the meetinghouse, and the library, the huts are not allowed power according to the Thai authorities. The children diligently do their homework by candlelight.

We visited the school where many of the children go. There was one girl which they said couldn’t speak. After a lengthy chat and translation session between the psychologist and her teacher it was established that the girl had autism, and that she in fact can speak and hear, she just sees the world and understands people differently. Again the best remedy is love and patience.

We also visited a monastery; there my heart was in my mouth. On the Thai side you have a peaceful monastery, monks studying, reciting English words and chanting fill the air. Then you have a ditch, which is the border to Burma and one of the most heavily mined areas on earth, on the other side about 50 meters away from where I was standing is a Burmese military base. The soldiers come and steal from the monastery; monks tried to cross in the past and stepped on land mines. You can see the village that the people fled from, gunshots in the roof; derelict and slowly getting swallowed by jingle foliage.

Emotionally I can’t quite explain the feeling of being here in the camp, I am sitting here at a table in the dark with a small light as I write. Astra is working with one of the girls that cannot handle her temper next to me at the table. It feels calm, and quite, yet in effect it is a war zone, a stalemate, filled with hardship, and the basics of survival. So many donors promise the world of difference, as they are affected from their visit, and then forget their promises, as the memories of this place grow distant.

As many of you might know the Shan camp is a partner organisation of The Branch Foundation, previously my support was through Astra who actively works with them here. Now I finally got to meet them myself.

I met Steven, the husband of the receptionist of the development studies department at Auckland University a few months ago in Auckland at a café, I told him about both partner organisations, he is a builder and said he wanted to come to Thailand. True to his word, he is in Thailand! And will come to the Shan camp next week to work on a bio-fuel system (turning human waste into gas to cook). He might also work on a new toilet block, as the children are late for school as the line is so big to use the facilities in the morning. And the third thing for Steve to get involved in securing the girls sleeping hut in the boarding house as they feel unsafe when drunk men in the camp fall on the walls of the hut while they are sleeping etc, the door dose not stay shut properly.

I talked to the camp manager and asked him what he thought of me selling the products that the woman weave in the weavery back home in NZ, with the profits going back here to the camp to be used for the whole community for electricity, water, sanitation, hygiene etc. My only requirement is that it benefits the whole camp. I watched the woman weave; they make the most beautiful scarfs and bags, and sell them for what we consider not even loose change. I talked to the woman for a long time, watched them work, asked them a lot of questions, asked them how they would like me to do it….they just kept saying please let the world know abut our situation, we need it to change! If anyone knows of some one or would be keen to sell their products in NZ or anywhere else in the world, please let me know. After a lot of looking around, I do believe this as a very sustainable option for supporting this camp. I brought samples that I can send if anyone is interested in selling them. ;)

Not as long term sustainable but highly necessarily was our market shopping this morning, where my dear friends a portion of the donations raised at my good-bye drinks went.

Purchased for the boarding house was:

6 mosquito nets (these sleep 3-5 children each)

1 large cooking pot

2 pad locks to secure the girls hut door, so they feel safe, until Steve uses his kiwi building skills for a more long term solution

1 gas bottle

18 bowls that the children use to wash themselves with

Total: 4,500 THB

Grand totally = $196.56 NZD

Interestingly what people say they want here is very simple. Flowers! To make things look beautiful, to make them happy and to care for. Yes they need so much more than that, but flowers is a simple wish. If you want to help me make the camp bright please send flower seeds to the address below. Any type is good, except ones that need frost. J

Astra or Iona c/o EMFS

81 Moo 5

Tha Phong Dan

T. Phabong

A. Muang

Mae Hong Son 58000


So that’s my first report from the camp. I’ve been here two days and have had the most amazing time. I have made friends, and have been treated with the best of Shan hospitality.

The boarding house manager is asking us how to pronounce the words of Michael Jackson’s song 'heal the world’…she wants to teach it to the children in her English class……ironic in this situation, but very fitting at the same time.

If you would like to support the work of The Branch Foundation please follow this link:
Also if you are keen to utilise your skills and work with The Branch Foundation please email me: or

Your support is greatly appreciated.

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