Jane and I recently visited a couple of refugee support projects in Thailand to collect refugees’ stories of how they came to Thailand from neighboring Burma. Burma has a long history of ethnic conflict and persecution. Many ethnic groups in Burma are targeted by the military and forced to flee their homes – becoming stateless in the process.
After touching down in Chiang Mai and resting the night, our first stop was Mae Sariang, where we meet with the DARE team. DARE supports refugees who have developed drug or alcohol addictions to become clean and take control of their lives. It was encouraging to hear how DARE has begun expanding its reach into Burma itself to help IDPs (internally displaced persons). It was terrible to hear though of new addiction tactics used by the drug cartels in the region. Local populations of asylum seekers and refugees along the border are now being tricked into becoming addicted to drugs by eating candies laced with methanphetamines. This makes them highly vulnerable to manipulation by drug organisations in the region.
Many of the DARE team are themselves refugees who have overcome their addictions, and now use their experiences to help others in need. I had the honor of hearing the stories of how they escaped neighboring Burma. I was particularly touched by one man’s tale of how he ran with only a pair of sandals to protect his feet in the wild. Given how cumbersome sandals can be, this young man often had to run barefoot from Burmese soldiers hunting him because of his ethnicity. He made it to the Thai border with cut, bruised and snake bitten feet – and only tree leaf sap to ease the pain.
Our next stop was Mae Hong Son. There Jane and I met with the teachers and students of the Karenni Social Development Centre (KnSDC). Situated in the middle of a Karenni-made compound off the main roads, The KnSDC’s teachers and students are largely Karenni refugees fled from Burma. Of the many stories told here, one in particular stands out to me.
A 17-year-old Karenni boy told me how he loves to play guitar. He even showed me a video of him singing a romantic song with a beautiful voice; all while strumming his guitar like a pro.
After telling him how impressive he is, he handed me a guitar strikingly similar to the one in the video I just saw. The strings were broken. The body was dirty and battered. A very personal donation to RIJ’s upcoming fundraising campaign. He told me he doesn’t need this guitar. There is another in good condition he can play at the KnSDC. Nontheless, I was incredibly impressed and humbled by this boy’s generosity and talent. I was also greatly saddened at the thought that many young teenagers like him are forced to be stateless here due to their ethnicity. The guitar is now in Tokyo residing – for now – at the RIJ office. It also serves as a reminder for me of the incredible people I met near the Thai-Burma border. People who despite having lost everything are working hard to rebuild their lives, one step – or song – at a time.