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Pamela MacNaughtan

“I’m hungry.”

Hearing those two words come from the mouth of a 12-year-old girl from the Congo was heartbreaking.  She is a beautiful girl, with an easy-going personality, generous smile, and an infectious laugh.

When I arrived in Bangkok last week, I started looking for volunteer opportunities. After some friends recommended that I get in contact with Dwight of In Search of Sanuk, I did. I took a few days for us to connect, but we finally agreed to meet at the Siam BTS and head over to the Bangkok Refugee Center together.

The center is one place in Bangkok that refugees can go and feel relatively safe. There are two classes of refugees here, those who have refugee status and those who are living here illegally, waiting for refugee status. Some of these families have been here for 2 years or more and still don’t have it. They can’t work and they have to be careful when leaving their homes. They live in fear of being caught and sent to the International Detention Center where the food is poor and the possibility of leaving is almost non-existent.

On any given day, the center will see 200+ students, parents and babies. There is a clinic attached to the building that gives basic care, and the center offers cheap meals for the children who can afford it. Unfortunately, not all of the children can. Some of them go hungry -like our friend from the Congo.

Children with refugee status have school at the center four days a week, while the children who are here without a visa or refugee status have school one day a week. It is not nearly enough. These children are being robbed of an education due to lack of funding, support, and politics.

The girl we spoke to from the Congo hasn’t been in school for 2 years. In the Congo, she attended a school with computers. Every day she takes three buses (2 hrs of travel time) to go to the centre. Here she spends her days at the centre reading books and going to class once a week. She’s an incredibly smart girl. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up. I don’t know how that will happen if she is only going to school once a week. She deserves more, a lot more. She’s not alone. Many children are in the same predicament. In a way, it makes me angry and more than a little frustrated. The children are so energetic and ready to learn.

When I met Dwight at the BTS he asked if I was hungry. Considering the fact that I forgot to eat yesterday, I said yes. He suggested eating Sri Lankan food at the center hoping that his guy hadn’t been arrested in the raid last night that took 150 refugees. Now we were sitting at a table, talking to Dwight’s Sri Lankan friend and cooing at the baby boy he held in his arms.

On a normal day, he and his family spend hours cooking and selling food to the other families at the center. Unfortunately, due to last nights raid, many of the refugees are afraid to leave their homes. It’s the harsh reality. As he and Dwight talk, I start to get a small feel for what their lives are like here in Bangkok. The constant fear of being caught, trying to scrounge up enough money to pay rent and feed their families. They’re lucky to have a guy like Dwight looking out for them. There are not a lot of options out there for them.

Dwight’s friend tells us that during last nights raid, some people were able to get away with their babies, but 150 of them were still arrested and put in the International Detention Center. The families who didn’t get caught spent most of the night awake and afraid. I can scarcely imagine what that must feel like.

When the first of the food was ready, our little friend from the Congo returned. We gave her a roll (They made these super yummy rolls called Chinese rolls which were stuffed with potato, chicken and enough spice to burn out my tonsils!), she smiled and skipped away. When she returned again, I took out my iPhone and showed her the photostrip application. We spent the next 10 minutes giggling as we took our photo together. After that she sat and spoke with us, played with my phone, looked at the photos I had taken with it and kept claiming that the photos of me were not actually me. I wanted to take her and her family home with me right then and there.

I only spent a few hours at the center today, but I’m grateful for the time I was able to spend with some of the refugees. I hear so much about the Burmese refugees (Please do not think I am disregarding their situation. I’m not) in Thailand, that I had no idea about the ones from places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, China, Vietnam and so on. The center is doing what they can, but it’s not enough. According to Dwight, the curriculum is nowhere near where it should be, but it’s the only place that these families can go in Bangkok. At the center they can group together, talk and feel a little safer.

I fell in love with these people and my heart wept for them. I want to come back again ad again. Unfortunately, the refugee center is about to close for a 2-week break so I won’t be able to volunteer there. I’m sad that I won’t be able to see them before I leave for China, but I took down the director’s name and email in case I find myself back in Bangkok for awhile before I fly home next year.

Tomorrow I’ll be joining Dwight again. This time we’ll be going to the Immigration Detention Center. I expect tomorrow to feel even heavier than today.

Comments:

  • October 12, 2010

    it’s a harsh reality for many. You probably hear a lot more about the Burmese because there are in Thailand by the millions. Nevertheless, terrible circumstances for all, regardless of their national origin. So glad you connected with Dwight.

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    • October 13, 2010

      Me too. I’m looking forward to working with Burmese refugees when I come back to Chiang Mai. Thanks for suggesting I contact Dwight!

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  • October 12, 2010

    I’m glad you made this connection–hopefully you will make more like this as you travel, and keep posting about it. Before reading this, I had never thought of refugees being in Thailand.

    “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Broad, wholesome, charitable views cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth.” –Mark Twain

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    • October 13, 2010

      Thanks, Emily. That’s the plan. I’m currently looking for a way to work with street kids while I’m in Mongolia next month. This gives a whole new view to the country I’m in and the scope of my trip.

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  • October 13, 2010

    Wow. What a wonderful way to share your RTW with others. Love this.

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  • October 13, 2010

    Wow. I’m really impressed. There was so much happening yesterday and it can be hard to understand refugee issues without any extra drama that the last few nights have brought. I’m glad you were able to soak everything in and spit it out into a great narrative here. I read it and thought, “Everything I didn’t have time to write!” Thanks for coming along, letting these people touch you, and being compelled to share.

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  • October 13, 2010

    Pam, what a fantastic narrative about your afternoon with Dwight at the refugee center. I’m so glad to hear you’re taking the time to experience the scarier/less shiny sides of visiting another country, especially one like Thailand.

    I can tell you were as deeply moved and the experience resonated with you as much it did me when I was there.

    I’m enjoying all of your posts (and living vicariously through you since I’m home); looking forward to more!

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  • October 13, 2010

    I would have fallen in love too! That’s so wonderful that you helped out even if it was only for a couple of hours.

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  • Andrea

    October 22, 2010

    When I lived in Thailand, I was teaching human rights to Burmese refugees. Their stories broke my heart. Coming from the Western world, we take for granted all that is given to us. What an amazing experience it is to go and volunteer thinking you are helping people, but in reality, they are the ones who are teaching you. They make you better people and they help you see that it isn’t the material items your surrounded with, its the love of the people who surround you.

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  • October 17, 2011

    Sources…

    […]here are some links to sites that we link to because we think they are worth visiting[…]…

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