Border Camp Translator, Ah Eh
This newsletter comes to you as I’m sitting in a guesthouse on the Thai-Burma border. I’ve just stopped by a refugee camp that I had visited two years ago and was able to reunite with two people I had met on that trip. They still live in the camp and continue to work in leadership roles.
The translator that had previously worked with me, Ah Eh, was one of the two people I was able to see. We talked about life during the last two years and his thoughts on repatriation of refugees to Burma/Myanmar and it was fascinating to get the story from someone living out what we see and hear on the news. Life in the camp is not easy and is getting much more difficult every day. Rations are down, support is reduced and refugees are no longer able to submit applications for visas to foreign countries. Only refugees who submitted applications years ago are currently being processed. The foreign agencies that work in the camps are now training camp populations on new skills so they can get jobs when they move “home.” I say “home” because the camp celebrated 20 years of existence last year so many people were born and raised in this camp and never lived in Myanmar but will, at some point, be required to go back there to live. On the surface, this seems appropriate…training people to take factory jobs or work in kitchens or in construction so that they have an income for their family means that they might not return to Myanmar without skills. But, does it feed into the system of a labor that preys on poorly educated minorities and may, in fact, create more problems? I’m not against job training but I can see some problems that may not be addressed.
As the issue of refugees around the world seem to be one of the hot topics that are discussed and debated on the news and around the water cooler, I thought I would give you Ah Eh’s perspective on why he has stayed in the camp for 20 years and why he chose NOT to go to the US or another country accepting refugees. I think it is very important to hear, especially as International Ministries looks for opportunities around the world to truly partner and work within communities, understand the communities we serve and build sustainable networks of care.
I asked Ah Eh why he chose to stay in the camp with his wife and six children all of these years when he was obviously a skilled English teacher, committed Christian, strong leader and interested in leadership. He smiled at me and said, “I have many reasons but have several very important ones that I’ve decided are too important to ignore…for me. Others may decide differently, and that’s ok. But for me, these I must honor.” His first reason was that the US was too cold! (oh how I empathize!) He said he enjoyed the warmth of Thailand and Myanmar and didn’t want to lose that. The second reason was health care. He has some issues with his lungs and when he gets sick in Thailand/Myanmar he doesn’t have to go through all of the prescriptions, appointments and insurance problems that we have to go through in the US to get the medicine he needs for his lungs. He simply goes to the pharmacy and asks for what he needs and gets it. He said health care was more simple here. I’m sure many of us can understand the complicated issues related to the US medical system! Another reason was walking. He said in the US everyone drives everywhere and no one walks to see things. He would miss that. But his final answer touched me the most.
His final answer was, if he moved he would lose community. He said now, if he hurts his knee or back he has friends who will massage it or rub it until it feels better. He has people here who visit with him, talk to him and share in community with him. He knows that the culture of the US and other western countries is not the same and the community is very different so that community support is gone. He doesn’t want to lose that and so he chooses to stay in a thatched bamboo hut and live in a refugee camp but live in deep community.
How important for us to hear! If we want to minister to the other cultures around us we must begin to understand what they have left behind to come to the US and meet them where they are. There is a richness of values and life that can only grow us as congregations, communities of believers and individuals if we allow it and I would encourage everyone to begin learning about the cultures and communities that exist where you live. It is easy to see “foreigners” as invaders or nuisances because the media or politicians tell us that is what they are, but this just isn’t true when you take time to really get to know a person. Their lives may parallel ours in so many ways if we only open ourselves to learn. How often does the Bible show us times when Jesus ignored the common belief about a “foreigner” or individual because he saw a PERSON instead? He saw common hurts and needs that led him to love them as he loves each of us
I pray that as we look for ways to minister in our communities and around the world, we remember the words of Ah Eh and the wisdom behind them. Many people who are refugees or were refugees have sacrificed deep community and may be longing for that where they are now. We have the opportunity and the command, as Christians, to come alongside to share their burdens, offer love and more importantly, hope that looks beyond the destruction and hatred this world so often offers.