Thursday, January 21, 2010

What good is being knowledgable if you're Stateless?

I have just returned from a trip to Mae Sot, a Thai-Burma border town where many illegal migrants from Burma live and work. Mae Sot is also full of foreigners working for various NGOs supporting these illegal migrant communities as well as the refugee camps in the surrounding areas.

I spent a couple of days in one of the camps and what I saw there, simply blew my mind away. Coming from Singapore, I had a certain perception of what refugee camps are like - dirty, unsafe, and full of idle people sitting around waiting to be resettled in the U.S. or waiting for handouts.

Nothing could be further from that. The camp was bustling with life. There were schools for the children and everywhere you go, you hear the sound of children reciting something in the classroom, or laughing and playing when the teacher's not in class.

There streets with little shops selling food, meat, veggies, nick nacks, CDs, DVDs (!!!) etc. There were tea shops that served the most amazing Yu Tiao (YES! They had yu tiao in a muslim tea shop!!) and teh tarik (though it was on the sweet side).

The camps were divided into zones and then districts and each district had a leader, and all the leaders would gather every month or more frequently to discuss problems and issues, sort out logistics and even disciplinary cases, and vote on the decisions to be made.

The whole camp was a fully functioning eco-system of trade, economy, eduction, recreation and social ordering. It was simply amazing.

The youth I met and spoke to were very well read. They had read about Lee Kuan Yew and they could tell me how great he was making Singapore a great nation out of nothing, especially when it comes to water. They knew very well what was happening in the world outside the camp, in the U.S., in Europe etc.

The basket ball courts and takraw courts you see around the camp were projects created, managed and funded by the refugees themselves. They even organise talent competitions, sporting events etc. These were highly motivated individuals, with a drive to make life as normal as possible in a situation that is far from normal.

My translator told me one evening over dinner that what I saw while in camp - the smiles, the positive energy, the optimism - all of that was a mask for a deeper internal frustration that many of them suffered because they are Stateless.

"Mentally, they are destroyed. Our morale is destroyed. Because we know we are nothing. We have no country. We cannot get proper jobs with no papers and no identity. Everything is no to us. We are just pawns in a big political game," he told me.

I couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt somehow. Here I was, a girl from a developed country, 10 years younger than him, earning 10 times more than him, buying him a dinner at a seafood restaurant that would have cost him an entire month's salary, and talking to him about how amazing I found life was in camp.

The few days in camp, was for me a novelty, a cultural capital that I accumulate through the stories I bring home and the photos I show off to my friends. It was part of my personal desire for adventure and out-of-the-norm type of traveling experience.

But for people like my translator, and all the kids I met in camp, that is their reality. That is their jail.

What did I have to offer them? Nothing.

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