In 2008, I had a life-changing experience in Thailand while visiting an NGO that serves Burmese refugee children who are at-risk of becoming victims of human trafficking. I was in town called Mae Sot, where many Karen Burmese had emigrated to escape civil war and ethnic cleansing in Burma. It was just after cyclone Nargis had decimated Burma’s delta region, and the Burmese army was using intimidation tactics to remove the Karen from the most fertile region in the country. Many had emigrated across the border to Mae Sot to avoid violence from the conflict that is the ‘longest civil war in the world.’
One day, we visited a Burmese refugee camp near the border, a few hours from town. Nearly 50,000 Karen Burmese lived in this camp in houses made of leaves with bamboo stilts that elevated them above the ground. The structures dotted the side of a hill next to a mountain range that acted as the geographic boundary between Thailand and Burma. If I didn’t know we were in a refugee camp, I would have thought we were in a scene from a movie. I quickly returned to reality when someone mentioned that there was still fighting occasionally, just on the other side of the mountain.
We climbed down a hill and thorugh a winding path to get to an orphanage in the camp, where an ex-military general and his wife cared for children whose parents had died in the war. We were treated as honored guests and given delicious food. Although we knew they did not have much to spare (the purpose of the trip had been to bring them food – illegally), it would have been rude for us to refuse their hospitality.
The children sang for us, as we sat Indian-style on the bamboo floor, and I learned that their parents had died in the civil war while fighting to give them a place to live. Now they were stuck in limbo in this refugee camp, unable to be adopted because they did not have documentation from Burma or from Thailand. I learned that the Karen Burmese were being ethnically cleansed because of territorial disputes between their tribe and the Burmans, who controlled the national government and the army at the end of World War II. The Karen leaders had been promised self-determination while they fought alongside the British against the Japanese; but, much like the failure of the McMahon Hussein Correspondence in the Middle East, wartime promises meant nothing after the troops went home.
When I went back to school after that summer, I changed my major from Health Science to undecided because I wanted to do something that would help refugees or alleviate the hardships that they faced. Eventually, I chose Political Science so that I could focus on International Relations. The following three years, I studied genocide and ethnic cleansing in Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, and the United States. I also focused on War & Peace in World Politics, Security Studies, and International Political Economy. I still think about these children, their stories, and my experiences in Thailand all the time.
What if you could never go home? Or even see your family again except in Facebook pictures? I’m contemplating this on my flight home because this weekend I met a refugee from Syria in New York. He moved to the U.S. a few months ago, and he will never be able to return. Not just because of the civil war or violence that is ongoing, but also because he is gay. He is not homeless in the traditional sense; but if you consider the place where your family, relatives and loved ones reside as your home, then he is without a home.
His culture’s inability to accept homosexuality did not change the fact that he seems to love his home very much. He talked about the food from Syria with passion, as he discussed the different taste of U.S. hummus with our Israeli host. He described the different varieties of pomegranates in his homeland with a hunger in his eyes that expressed his longing.
Although his parents may never know or understand his sexual preference, he still loves and misses them very much. He told me that he would check his phone constantly because he never knew when his relatives would have Internet access to call, and he needed to be able to answer in case they got a chance. Communication was exceptionally urgent recently, as my friend’s mother had told him that Russian troops were just stationed in their village. He explained that this is a very bad sign and he feared for the lives of his family if the village were bombed. He was so worried that he hadn’t been able to sleep for 12 days since.
I could not even begin to imagine what it would be like to be unable to return to Belize, to never see Mamita again, or to only see my little cousins grow up in pictures. It’s hard enough to see my grandparents aging, but to fear that an off-target bomb could reduce my entire family to “collateral damage” in a moment’s notice? I would not be able to sleep either.
Meanwhile, across town, the leaders of almost every country in the world were in Manhattan for the United Nations General Assembly. I cannot understand how Americans, Israelis and Syrians can eat dinner together in peace, but our governments cannot take the time to ensure the safety of entire nations by resolving these issues themselves. Or at least get together over dinner and agree to stop supplying weapons to the governments and rebel groups that insist on causing problems. Real lives hang in the balance, and refugee crises can be prevented by keeping residents safe at home.
We discussed many things that night, including the geopolitical climate in the Middle East. We agreed that the conflicts were about power and resources, not religion like so many believe. We thought that the world would be a better place without governments or borders to separate the individuals that live within these artificial lines that some empires arbitrarily sketched on a map way back when. Just IMAGINE… If we were all citizens of the world instead of countries. Then a man could love a man, a Palestinian could love an Israeli, and everyone could worship the Creator in his or her own way; without arguing over who gets to sit at the UN’s table.