They Call Me Auntie
“No. You cannot visit.”
“Really? Why not?”
“We didn’t see letter until this morning. Too late!”
“We’ve been faxing you for days. Can you please let us in today?”
“Boss won’t let us.”
I was starting to grovel. After begging mercilessly on Twitter for volunteers to come to IDC with me, I wasn’t going to give up easily. The guard hid behind his boss. When I asked if I could see his boss so I could suck up to him directly, I was denied. I offered the to buy the guard lunch, that didn’t work. Although his excuses were ridiculous, he was a lot nicer than many of the guards would have been. Reluctantly, I walked away from the window. I felt terrible for bringing volunteers with me and then being able to talk our way inside the detention center.
We waited for a few minutes while the other visitors registered. When the line was gone, I went back to the window with a sack of food in my hand. M had cooked a bunch of fish for another Sri Lankan family who is in IDC. She knew that I wouldn’t be able to visit them, as IDC has restricted access to all refugees from Sri Lanka. As I approached the window again, the guard looked a little exasperated. I told him I had a sack of food for a family inside and asked him if he could get it to them. He appeared to agree, so I handed him my phone where I had recorded their name, IDC number, and room number. As soon as he saw it, he said no. He then went into a mini lecture and gave bizarre excuses as to why we were not permitted to see or help Sri Lankan families inside IDC. Our frustrations mounted and I once again asked to suck up to his boss directly. Again I was denied.
As we left, we decided to grab a coffee (or an iced chocolate in my case -yum!) and talk about some of our frustrations. I felt bad. I knew the volunteers were disappointed about not getting in. I was disappointed as well.
This afternoon, I met another volunteer at the BTS station and took her to the Bangkok Refugee Center with me. A completely different experience. The refugee center is the only place in Bangkok where refugees can gather and feel relatively safe. There’s a clinic, a school, and lots of room for children to run around, laughing and praying. As we walked through the gate, the joy within was tangible. This morning was their Christmas party. I have never seen that many refugees at the BRC -it was always quiet on the days I was there.
As we walked through the center, we were greeted by smiling refugees. Each time I visit the center, refugees will approach me, wanting to say hello. After months of being stared or glared at by locals in various countries, going to the refugee center is a surreal experience.
We walked through the clinic and into a small courtyard where a tropical version of the nativity was set-up. It was so different than what I’m used to, it was beautiful. As we entered the school yard, I was shocked by how many refugees were there. All but 2 of the families being helped by In Search of Sanuk were there. I walked over to say hello and within minutes I was surrounded. Each family member wanted to say hello and talk with me. They were calling me Auntie and I didn’t mind at all.
I leaned against a tree and laughed as one of the daughters starting placing a sticker -my safety net for being around shy kids while traveling- on each child’s hand. She was color-coding them so the sticker matched the kids clothing. It was cute. Then I saw older women and grandmothers coming over and stick out their fist. They wanted a sticker as well. It was bizarre and completely precious. I spent a few minutes catching up with each family. It was such a surreal experience to stand there, surrounded by smiling refugees. Their humility and kindness continue to blow my mind.
While enjoying a Sri Lankan lunch, I was thrilled to have V sit with us. V is the first refugee I met in Bangkok back in October. She’s a 12-year-old girl from the Congo. She is here with her parents and four brothers and sisters. Her smile is infectious and as we ate, she played with my iPhone (if you were on twitter this afternoon, you may have seen the tweet she sent out. Sneaky little thing!). V loves using computers. She also loves to read.
When lunch was over, I grabbed my camera and V and I went for a walk. I was going to take some photos around the refugee center, but that never happened. I was approached by a new refugee. She needs help. She wanted to speak with me. I gave V my camera, took out my iPhone and opened the notes app. I then sat down and spoke with N.
N is from Pakistan. She came to Thailand with her husband and 13 yr old twin boys. On December 9, 2010, her husband was arrested and thrown into the Immigration Detention Center. She and her sons have been homeless ever since. The police have been looking for her. She’s afraid. I was heartbroken to learn that they’ve been living on the streets for the last 8 days. They have no money and no food. Asking for help is humiliating for her and I can see that in her face and hear it in her voice. She’s an educated woman. He sons are smart, they want to be a scientist and an engineer. N tells me that her tears have dried up. She thinks that if they cannot find help, she and her sons will commit suicide.
I spent the next 20 minutes asking her about why she came to Thailand and trying to figure out where they have been sleeping. I hated that I didn’t have enough money on me to give her. Instead, I put her phone number into my cell phone and told her I would call her tomorrow. I need some time to see if I can find her some help. I need to get some money so we can buy them some food. N then starts asking me what she can do for me. I was mildly shocked, and at the same time, I understood why. At first, I told her she didn’t need to do anything. Then, I changed my mind. I told her she could do something in return. Stay alive. All three of them.
As I write this post, I still don’t know what I can do to help her. I’ve set some money aside to give her for food, but I worry about their safety. I called her this evening to check on her, and she said someone gave her a place to sleep for tonight. That is good news. Now, if we can just find a place for them to sleep tomorrow night and the night after that, and the night after that…
Finding food and a place to sleep for a night is not the hardest part of helping refugees. The hardest and most frustrating part of helping them is finding a long-term solution. We can only do so much. Some days we have money to give them for rent or food. Some days we don’t. I worry about their survival.