(Kids playing. The white stuff on their faces is a paste made of tanaka tree and used both as sunblock and decorative)
(Beth teaching kids how to play bingo. The game was an unexpected hit)
After the ride of death with a crazy driver in a crammed minivan, Diesel and I finally arrived in Mae Sot. This little town northwest of Sukhothai, unlike other cities we’ve visited, is not a big tourist stop, but it is where an enclave of volunteers and NGO workers reside.
Right before we left Seattle, I met up with an old, good friend of mine, Adam. Adam mentioned in passing that his parents were going to Mae Sot to work with Burmese refugees. We thought it’d be cool to meet up with his parents, but Adam was adamantly discouraging of our coming here, describing Mae Sot as a shithole that nobody would want to visit.
So it came as quite a surprise when he actually connected us with his parents, Beth and Elie. We had been e-mailing back and forth with Elie, and arrived today at the hotel where they have been staying.
Adam’s family has traveled the world In fact, his parents did exactly what Tim and I were doing. A year a travel, but like 30 years ago. This is their second 3-month stint as volunteers here in Thailand. Elie is writing a paper about the environmental impact that a damn built in Burma will have, and Beth is part of a committee that is developing an English curriculum that will be used in all Burmese refugee camps (she mentioned today there are about 60,000 refugees here!) Many of the Burmese here are learning English in preparation for their emigration to the US and Canada, two countries that have opened thousands of slots for Burmese refugees (though the criteria of who gets picked is a mystery to everybody).
For people who knew practically nothing about the plight of the Burmese, Diesel and I were in for a rude awakening. This town, consisting of mostly Burmese refugees, has put us face to face with the injustices that these people have suffered.
On our way here, for ex, our van was stopped at one of the many immigration checkpoints. The Thais showed their ID cards and all Diesel and I had to do was flash our American passports. One guy, however, though he had a folder full of papers, was detained. He was obviously not Thai and was left behind for “questioning.” Elie told us that most of the Burmese here have no papers and that what we witnessed is common practice. Mae Sot, apparently is a playground for corrupt cops/immigration officers, who make money from bribes they get from Burmese refugees that have no papers.
Time and again we heard about similar things. At our guesthouse, we met other volunteers through Beth and Elie. Most of them who have been teaching here. We were told that almost all of the businesses here are Thai-owned, but the workers are always Burmese who work for very little money and have no benefits. Tan, the guesthouse manager, has worked here for several years and has absolutely no days off.
At around noon we all met up downstairs and took a tuk tuk to the nearby orphanage. All of the kids at the orphanage are Burmese, and as Beth explained, have been labeled as “unadoptable” by the Thai government. “Nobody knows why,” she added.
Although we’ve only been here for two weeks, our visit to the orphanage will probably be the nicest and most heartbreaking things we’ll experience during our trip. As soon as we arrived, kids ran out of the building, wanting to be held, begging for hugs. One of the little girls wanted me to spin her, and as took her hands, I realized she had no fingers. Not on her right hand, nor on her left. Many of the children had cuts and bruises on their heads, swollen eyes, scabs on their faces or were too small for their age.
The volunteers brought balloons, oranges, cookies and bingo (an unexpected hit with the kids). We spent a couple of hours playing with them, peeling dozens of oranges for them and giving them water (they had their own water, but seemed to really love drinking water out of our bottles).
You want to believe that what you did for one or two hours one day really made an impact on these kids. However, the realistic part of me knows that what I did was for my own self-fulfillment. For the kids, as Elie said, there is no future. Their fate is to live in the orphanage until they are old enough to join the hordes of exploited Burmese workers who live here.