Last week my section of Cathay Pacific flight 882 from Hong Kong to Los Angeles was full of refugees from Myanmar, a nervous group of 39 men, women and children bundled up in winter coats, each clutching a plastic bag emblazoned with the logo of the International Organization for Migration.
During the long flight, the man next to me – an ethnic Chin – struggled with his in-flight entertainment system. Finally, he got a movie to play – a Beverly Hills 90210 sort of film, featuring wide-eyed blonds flirting with country club pool-boys and shopping on Rodeo Drive.
Watching the man watch an idealized vision of America as we cruised over the Aleutians, I thought about the the transition he would face adapting to life in the real America. How would he reconcile the gaps between expectations and reality?
He didn’t speak any English. He was going to the state of Washington.
No matter how well this particular Chin refugee dealt with the transition to life in America, he would have to adjust to being a foreigner in an unrelentingly foreign culture and environment.
The concept of ‘being foreign’ is central to the experience of travel, but mainstream travel media rarely seems to address it head on. The British magazine The Economist recently published a thoughtful meditation on being foreign. One line was especially resonant for me, as I thought about the refugees, exiles in a foreign land:
For the real exile, foreignness is not an adventure but a test of endurance.
We voluntary travelers are so fortunate, in so many ways.
For a look at the challenges the refugees overcame before getting on the plane to America, check out the article Waiting For Life to Begin in a Burmese Refugee Camp.
Clearly, refugees need a lot of support here in the States. Does anyone know how to help out? What nationalities are being resettled in your area? Please leave a comment below!
I wake up realizing the familiar acquaintance of feeling lost accompanies me and I see a long day of passing time ahead.
I think of home, my purpose, where I should be right now, what I should be doing. I begin to think how difficult life can be, its finality and even feel a little sorry for myself. I go downstairs and sit down for breakfast with my friend, an illegal migrant from Burma who runs the guesthouse I am staying in.
His face appears more burdened than usual so I ask him how he is doing? He tells me things could be getting unsafe for him and that he will be heading to live in the jungle at one of the nearby refugee camps for six months to a year at the end of February.
I am speechless.
I realize instantly how trivial my questions are and that asking myself such questions of life is a freedom many are not so lucky to have. I learn a valuable lesson I will not forget.
I am in Mae Sot, Thailand, a town on the Thai/Myanmar (Burma) border. Like many towns on the same border line, its surroundings serve as a “temporary” home for some 100,000 refugees and migrant workers of the total 1-2 million internally and externally displaced people the oppressive military regime in Burma has created.
Governing by fear, the military has been in control for the past 50 years, forcefully suppressing the several pro-democracy movements by the Burmese people and arresting or killing those that oppose.
It is a grim situation here with a definite lack of global awareness and attention. Yet it is this global awareness that could create international pressure on the dictatorship that would serve as a crucial stimulant for change. The Thai government tolerates the resulting flood of refugees, yet they are restricted to a certain area by military checkpoints preventing them from venuturing further into Thailand.
Neither citizens of Thailand, nor can they return to Burma, the majority here are quite simply waiting for life to begin; to get back a life and a home that might only exist in their memories.
As a volunteer, I have been teaching English in a nearby village called Boarding High School for Orphans and Helpless Youths (BHSOH). It is one of the many illegal migrant schools in the area for Burmese refugee children and serves as a home for just under half of the students; school by day, kitchen, play area, and sleeping quarters by night.
Although these children have suffered so much and have so little, it was not evident in the smiles and positive attitudes of those I encountered. These children had no control of their past and what happened to place them in their current situation, but it is evident that only they control how they respond to it.
I believe it is a matter of acceptance.
Don’t get me wrong, I am talking about acceptance, not resignation. The moment we accept our present reality is the moment we can take measures to change it.