By Comino Tamura – December 2016
So much to write about after an exhilarating and thought-provoking week meeting people from the projects RIJ supports on the Thai-Myanmar border. An inspiring experience that left a great deal to consider, a great deal to be proud of and highlights what still needs to be done.

The key thought I was left with – and it was not an especially noticescomforting one – is the sheer size of the disjoint between how outsiders see the choices and ambitions available to those living in the camps and forming functioning communities there, and those people’s own take on the situation. I felt a particularly big gulf between the international view that many of Myanmar’s problems are now “solved” versus the fears and doubts of the people who would be affected.

One quite jarring experience was the mismatch between the way Myanmar is presented in the international media and how it is seen by refugees. The narrative that reaches the outside world is that this is a changed country, with freedoms and opportunities that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago. I know a number of journalists who have reported seriously on the situation behind this image, and clearly the picture is more nuanced. There are still dangers and there are still deep problems. From some perspectives, the situation is far from positive.

Significantly, though, the refugees seem to know a lot of this. They clearly know that it is not yet time to go back and have a real sense of the threats that would be faced by themselves and their families if they did venture back. They know from the people on the ground that there are still landmines and that the fighting continues.

sdcMeeting everyone at KnSDC was a great start to our trip. What strikes you first and foremost is how positive were the attitudes I encountered among the students and staff. I felt a real sense of people wanting to make their own situation better, and improve that of the people around them. There is a powerful streak of personal, ethical ambition that stands above the clear constraints of the location and facilities. It goes without saying that they yearn for better conditions, but their enthusiasm and motivation is infectious. One clear example of this was the way that they have overcome the lack of formal communication structures to work out where the opportunities such as the SDC training course lie and how to follow the procedures of applying for such a course.They all have the intelligence to see the destruction (environment) and inequality (human rights) around them and want to do better. Many of the people in the camp have applied for resettlement to other countries but despite the promise of a better life, I met people in SDC who are determined to remain in the region and work to build stronger communities.

Maw Thya Mar has been a trainer in SDC for several years and is currently expecting her second child in January. As mothers, we found we had so much in common and I was both humbled and inspired by hearing how she wants her daughter to understand the struggles and advantages of their life both inside the camp and in the “outside world”. She has made a conscious decision not to take resettlement to another country. She feels – or rather knows – that she can do more to help herself and her family where she is now. I admired her patience and resilience – perhaps the greatest qualities of motherhood anywhere, but even more powerful under these circumstances.

We were served food for lunch similar to the menu at the lunchnew café that SDC is setting up in Karenni camp 1. This is an exciting new initiative funded by RIJ and something I hope will be a milestone on the path towards SDC increasing their self-sufficiency. I am sure it will become a meeting point for others – a place to hang out, talk and exchange views just like young people and students do anywhere in the world.

We were also impressed at the enthusiasm of the volunteers we met who were from the US, UK and Canada who want to support SDC and who gain so much from the experience. We hope that SDC continues to be able to attract a wide and enthusiastic variety of staff from overseas.

Perhaps one of the most personally satisfying parts of the trip for me was seeing the baby kits programme operated by the Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO). This was a programme that I feel a great attachment to as it was one of the first projects I learned about when I first became involved with RIJ 10 years ago. In all the RIJ events I have been involved with over the years, this has been a project I have promoted at every opportunity.

baby-kitVisiting the KWO office I was particularly impressed to learn about the provision of nutritional supplements to the mothers. Something as simple as providing beans to the new mothers makes a huge difference to their health, especially at a time when rations are being reduced due to cutbacks in funding for the camps on the Thai border. We were unable to meet beneficiaries of this programme as it is now conducted mainly inside Karen state, Myanmar. The most positive takeaway from this is confirmation that the grassroots NGOs can actively pursue their activities inside Myanmar despite the difficulties and challenges faced.

Our final stop was with DARE who provide treatment and community daresupport to people with addiction. We met clients of DARE in Mae La camp and I was struck by how frankly they felt able to talk to us about their experiences. It became clear that this openness had come about as a result of strong encouragement by the DARE staff, and DARE’s record of success in efforts to helping those with addiction problems. The DARE network is really an inspiring achievement, reaching so many people through hard work and dedication. We learnt about one ex-client originally from a refugee camp, who became a community worker in a camp but who qualified for resettlement and moved to the US. He dare-notesis now in Minnesota and through a network of contacts he is now working in addiction treatment. Through his work – and the knowledge and skills he is able to bring to bear, he has risen to become a highly respected member of the community. Interestingly, he has spread the use of the training manual developed by DARE, something that RIJ helped fund back in 2014.

But the positive signals came with a warning. The irony of the drug problem experienced in this region – both in the camps and inside Myanmar – is that it risks deteriorating because of the changes going on in Myanmar. The country has opened up, the movement of people across borders has accelerated, but with all that has come a significant increase in the availability of narcotics. DARE continues to be extremely busy with staff spreading their work further into Myanmar itself.mae-la-shop

We had the opportunity to wander through Mae La camp (a huge sprawling camp that is home to 60,000 people) with its prolific market and the occasional satellite dish. These facilities indicated to me that people have been there for a long time (some over 30 years) and that people will build a degree of normality, no matter what the hurdles.

It was sad to see that some blocks of funding go unused while others provide huge benefit directly to the communities when they are monitored carefully. We passed one crossing point into Myanmar over the river and could see a reception centre with lots of huts ready to receive returnees but they are all empty and, indeed, unlikely to be used because the location is not ideal for those wanting to rebuild their lives.  When and if people do return they will mostly head straight back to their villages.

I could not end without massive thanks to Jane for inviting me along, for all her long hours of driving and her patience with me as a newcomer to the situation spent time taking everything in.

It was an inspiring week!