Guest post by Hiram Ruiz, DCF’s Director of Refugee Services. He will be contributing a series of blog posts over the next week detailing his trip to Asia, where he is spending time with refugees.
The drive from Mae Sot town to Mae La refugee camp is about 45 minutes. The scenery along the way is breathtaking: shimmering green rice paddies framed by rugged mountains that disappear into the mist.
As we approach Mae La, a dramatic contrast between man and nature emerges. The rice paddies suddenly give way to row after row of thatched-roofed shacks packed closely together behind barbed wire fences. Mae La may be a refugee camp, but it is in fact also a large town that is home to some 47,000 Burmese refugees.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees arranged my visit to the camp, and two of their staff – one Bosnian and one Thai-Burmese – are accompanying me on the visit. They show the guards at the gate (all the entrances to the camp are guarded by uniformed Thai military) our permits and we proceed to meet the Camp Commander.
After introductions and coffee, I explain to the Commander that more than 1,000 Burmese refugees have been resettled in Florida – including many from this very camp. I tell him that we are generally able to help the refugees become self-sufficient and many do well, though some do struggle to adapt. I explain our integration assistance program that provides case management to select families that may face more challenges than others.
I am interested to know what they have heard about the experiences of refugees who have resettled in Florida and also what their hopes and expectations are for when they go to Florida themselves. He gives the green light for our visit to proceed.
It has been raining every day for a month and the roads in the camp are muddy and slippery. Our first stop is the building where an American non-profit contracted by the U.S. State Department provides an orientation program for refugees scheduled to resettle in the U.S. I am pleasantly surprised to see a hut at the center that is fully equipped with a U.S.-style kitchen. It’s quite strange to see a modern stove, refrigerator and dishwasher in a thatched roof hut on a muddy road in the middle of a refugee camp. But I’m glad to know refugees from this camp will arrive knowing that the oven is for cooking and not for storing clothes.
The Bosnian UNHCR officer relates a story of a refugee who resettled in the U.S. who complained to their relatives in the camp that they were provided a television but it had no picture – it was a microwave! I am not making light of the refugees’ experience, but rather trying to convey just how far removed their world in the camp (or even in their former homes in remote villages in Burma) is from the world they will encounter when they arrive in the U.S.
Our next stop is a day care center run by members of the Karen Women’s Organization. A large majority of the refugees in Mae La are ethnic Karen and the KWO runs day care centers, provides assistance to elderly and disabled refugees and single mothers, and assists victims of domestic violence (sadly, a too prevalent problem in a place where families live in overcrowded conditions with no work, few distractions and often little hope for the future).
There are dozens of children at the day care center, shy but quick to smile. The conditions in the center are basic, but the children are well cared for and seem cheerful. I am glad that I have brought several bags full of crayons, colored pencils, pencil sharpeners, pens and balloons that I will give to the KWO leaders when I meet them. Yes, I know, balloons are not very practical, but they are fun! They will certainly add a dash of color to their otherwise rather harsh surroundings.
Mae La refugee leaders’ thoughts on recent political developments in Burma and their implications for the refugees.