Myanmar Part 6: Mae La Refugee Camp
We said our goodbyes to Greg Laing (MB Mission), Greg Wiens (Waldheim MB Church), Dave and Louise Sinclair-Peters, Jeremy and Adrienne Penner, Pastor Isaiah, and the rest of the Myanmar ministry team and then headed on to the last leg of our journey in Mae Sot, Thailand. There I got to meet many of my old friends from back when I spent 6 months there in 2012. We met with Partners Relief and Development, spending significant time hearing about their medical programs that they deliver in Myanmar as well as the latest on the devastating Rohingya crisis happening in Bangladesh and Northern Rakhine State. Whatever you have heard or read about the Rohingya crisis, it is much worse than that.
Whatever you have heard or read about the Rohingya crisis, it is much worse than that.
We also met up with a few journalists who showed us footage that they captured in Northern Rakhine State. We were shocked and angry when we saw the drone images of Rohingya villages burned to the ground by the Myanmar army. We learned more and more about the criminal and inhumane war tactics that the Myanmar army has used to completely devastate and dehumanize the Rohingya people. Again, whatever you have heard or read, the reality is so much worse than that…
In addition to learning more about the issues of the country and hearing about Partners’ medical programs, we also showed them the eyeglasses project that we have been using throughout our trip to help villagers with optical care and also build relationships with various communities.
On Saturday, we left for Mae La Refugee Camp. This refugee camp is the largest one of its kind on the Thai-Myanmar border, consisting of approximately 50,000 – 55,000 refugees. These refugees are stuck. They can’t go to Thailand because they would be exploited as illegal migrant workers or potentially even trafficked. They can’t go back to Myanmar because there is often violence, military clashes, landmines, as well as almost no educational, health, or economic infrastructure in their state. The camps are very poor, there is not much to do, very little work to be had, and rates of mental health issues and suicide are rapidly increasing. NGO’s and governments are cutting back their funding more and more these days, making life even more difficult for the refugees, affected by the world’s longest-running civil war, who call Mae La camp their home. For many, Mae La camp is a dark, troubling, and sad place. Fair point. But we saw hope and light there too. We were blown away by how naturally beautiful the area around Mae La Camp, how much dignity the people there had by keeping their communities clean and organized. The hospitality in the camp was incredible. These people have almost no money, but they basically rolled out the red carpet for us. You should have seen the meals they gave us! Wow. We felt so honoured, so welcomed, and so taken care of.
We also got to see the goat project that my friend Henry has been working diligently at over the last few years. This is a project that Henry and I were able to start back in 2012 as a way of bringing in a little bit of extra income for the school (and teaching the kids a valuable life skill). Henry started off with about 10 goats and has now grown the flock to over 200 animals in a very short amount of time! When he sells some of the animals, the income goes to help pay the salaries of the teachers as well as to subsidize the cost of education for the children. I am so excited to report that the project is working even better than expected and that the sustainable animal husbandry project should continue to bring in more money for the school and children’s home in years to come!
We were also able to deliver 3 computers to Henry’s school so that young people can learn important skills so they can have many more career opportunities when they graduate high school. Len Goosen, from Cedar Park Church, generously donated 7 laptops for our trip. 4 of those laptops stayed with the Sinclair-Peters to give out to rural schools in Myanmar where they have working relationships and 3 of those laptops went to Henry’s school. Thank you so much, Len, for your generosity, the people here so, so appreciate it!
We met Dahdah Poe! In case you don’t know who that is, he is Naw Paw’s brother. Saw Myo and Naw Paw were resettled to Ladner from Mae La refugee camp. We actually were able to go to their old house, meet Naw Paw’s auntie, grandfather, and brother. It was so powerful to be able to walk the same paths, play caneball on the same fields, go into the same houses where Naw Paw and Saw Myo used to be. This experience will help us to understand our friends a little bit more as we learn more about their life story.
We did a small eyeglass clinic in the camp for a few hours and although we weren’t able to see a huge number of people, we had some remarkable results. There were a number of people who had terrible eyesight, but we were able to fit with glasses that dramatically improved their vision. We’re talking almost blind to being able to see normally again. You should have seen some of their faces when we corrected their vision, it was such an emotional experience for everyone.
On Sunday we were invited to share at the church near the school. Hans, Kevin, and I all shared the sermon together. Kevin shared a blessing and a word of thanksgiving for the Karen people as a way to encourage them. Hans shared about the example and witness of his father who despite incredibly difficult circumstances was a shining light of God’s love to his church, family, and community. I shared about the adoption we have into God’s family and that nothing can separate us from God’s love.
One of the beautiful things about the Karen church service I’ve been to (and this one was no exception) was the vast amount of people involved. Over half of the congregation must have been involved, either giving a prayer or a small group leading a song. The community is very strong in that way. All in all, it was a great time. That place and the people there will always be in our hearts. We are so grateful to see beacons of hope, light, and life in Mae La refugee camp. There are incredible servants of God who are investing in the next generation of leaders so that one day Myanmar can be a brighter, fuller, and freer country. And so we work and pray to that end.
Andrew, Kevin, & Hans in Myanmar