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.