Never Too Late

Bangkok, February 20, 2014

My mind has been in Venezuela the last days, as violence has exploded on the streets.  Things have been getting worse and it makes me sad to see fundamental freedoms deteriorate like that, and young people being deprived of any hope for a better future.

But it’s not only Venezuela: Kiev-Ukraine, Bangkok-Thailand, Bangui-Central African Republic, Malakal-South Sudan…there’s chaos all around and I wonder how realistic is to think that peacebuilding can help. Where are we going to find the strength to deal with so many atrocities and how do we change these behaviors? Will we have the right tools after completing this program to engage in meaningful dialogues that can promote the changes needed? When will the right time be for us to work on this? When will the parties on these conflicts be ready and allow the creation of the necessary space for dialogue to exist? It’s morally devastating and quite depressing.

Then, today in class Margaret shared this  – the timing was brilliant. It has been a hard week trying to deal with so many conflicts here and there, and I needed something to regain hope. It’s a combination of  maybe being on the verge of burnout and realizing that we have been away from home for 45 days already plus there’s still so much to learn and to do before we go back… So this came to me like a bouquet of fresh flowers.  THANKS, my friend!

Never Too Late

(From Perseverance by Margaret J. Wheatley)

Bravery is a choice.

It is a decision to enter into the fray no matter how illogical and crazy things are.

Even as our friends, family and common sense recommend that we stay away.


In our life, we are surrounded by people, events,

circumstances that offer continuous proof of how bad things are,

including bad people who don’t seem worth struggling for.



We did not plan to live in such a crazed world.

Very few of us have been prepared by life circumstances to deal with the levels of fear,

aggression and insanity we now encounter daily.



When we were being trained to think, to plan, to lead,

the world was portrayed as rational, predictable, logical.



But now?

Ever-present insanity, illogic, injustice, illusion.



This is just the way it is and will continue to be.



We can’t restore sanity to the world, but we can still remain sane and available.



We can still aspire to be of service wherever need summons us.

We can still focus our energy on working for good people and good causes.



It is never too late to be brave.

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Thanks to the Rotary Club Bangkok Pattankarn

Bangkok, February 19, 2014

 Today I was invited to speak at Khun O’s (my Rotary Counselor ‘Penny’) club, to share with their members more about my work at LAFLA and the Fellowship program. It’s the second time I attend a Rotary meeting in a language that I don’t speak (in Los Angeles I got to attend the meeting of the Iranian-American Rotary Club near Beverly Hills -very interesting), but again I was lucky to get one of the members translate to me some of the interesting presentations that community members were doing about the needs of one of the local schools and potential projects in which the Club could get involved.

 As I introduced myself, some things came to my mind: I’ve been working with survivors of violent conflict for the past decade and that even when with years, I get to see the transformation of my clients as they integrate to the US, I know how much they long going back home and how often their countries are no longer safe. My hope is that as Rotary builds this amazing network of peacebuilders, more of us can contribute make the world a better and safer place (as cliché as it can sound). It’s not enough to have services for them and make them feel comfortable in a new country, it’s important to address the roots of the problem, the reason why they had to escape, hoping that one day they can return safely and give back.

 I’m happy to report that the LA Club 5 Flag is now hanging in Bangkok. A true Angelena -even when born so far away from that city- I explained to them the two icons featured in it: the beautiful Disney Hall  (home to our dear LA Phil) and the LA City Hall (also the Daily Planet in the original Superman!). I’m very thankful for the opportunity to talk to them and for their hospitality and lovely gifts! Here’s a picture with the members present that day:

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Communication for Social Change

Bangkok, February 15, 2014

This week went by so quickly! We had a day off on Monday, after returning from Mae Sot and from Tuesday to Thursday we immersed ourselves in a communications workshop. One of my favorite topics -you guessed right! Alex, who graduated from the Fellowship’s Class XIV taught it and he was great. Coincidentally I’ve been meaning to meet him for a while as we’re both UNAOC Fellows, so this was a unique opportunity to connect.

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We went from discussing successful communication campaigns, to designing one -and ours was for a real scenario. After hearing from experiences around the room, these are some of the lessons learned:

  • It’s not just about the message
  • Create a space that didn’t exist
  • Include the target audience
  • Don’t be afraid of structures
  • Create relationships
  • Outcomes are not always measurable
  • Perseverance

So many good examples came to my mind, that I’d like to share in the blog, here are some of my favorite communication interventions from the around the world…with a reminder that these are used online to get people engaged offline too:

–       Coca Cola Small World Machine (India ❤ Pakistan)

–       Daily Talk in Liberia 

–       PBS’ “Women, War & Peace” documentary series

One interesting realization from this workshop was how -sadly- in most organizations there’s little cooperation between Operations, Communications and Fundraising.  We closed the workshop by presenting our communication interventions, where we explained target, topic and frame and then showed the class our interview and press releases and received feedback from the group. The best part was working on a real case for a campaign on behalf of tea workers in Assam, India. Read more about what’s going on in that side of the world through  this report from Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute.

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My team mates during the communications campaign exercise. 

Had we have more time allocated for this workshop I would have liked to discuss with other fellows the communication campaigns in which their countries have engaged in and discuss more issues of public diplomacy -a tool that in some parts of the world is not taken for granted.

On the social front… This week we had a big social event with the Rotary Counselors at the Goethe Institut. It was a good opportunity to exchange more with my counselor Penny and others -a group of very committed Rotarians- who made us laugh, sing karaoke with us and talk lots over good food.  A couple of new places some of us explored this week in Bangkok were: Condoms and Cabbages on Thursday (nice setting, food was alright and pricey) and DaMamma’s Pizza on Sunday night (finally, some decent pizza, definitely check it out).

Tourists

Bangkok, February 11, 2014

After a busy week in Mae Sot,  we arrived in Bangkok  on Friday night exhausted but still savoring the Burmese flavors and memories of all the good people we were able to meet up there.  Even when I was sad to leave behind the fresh air and the town’s lovely landscapes, I had a great reunion on the horizon: my friend and ex-LAFLA colleague Gloria was spending the weekend with me, after almost two years since she left Los Angeles for Hong Kong. It was great to catch up, do some tourism together and speak only Spanish for three full days! ¡Viva!

Saturday we walked around town: had some street food and explored Bangkok by foot as long as we could (though we had to take a taxi from National Stadium to the temples and ended up getting stuck in heavy traffic). We visited Wat Pho (the Reclining Buddha temple), the Grand Palace and we saw the sunset in Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn) from the RuaDang (the pier).

Street food

Sunday took the train to Ayutthaya, a couple of hours out of Bangkok. We got there early in the morning and -as recommended by Oy- we rented a couple of bicycles and crossed the river to explore the historical landmarks. This was the second capital of Siam and back in the day it was a center of commerce. It was lovely to ride around the different temples, get some sun, visit the market and mingle with elephants.

After a fun day out of the city, we headed back to Bangkok in the afternoon, and after many delays, hopped on the regular train (no express available) tired but ready to catch up with some reading. Riding this old, rusty train suddenly I felt like a visitor from the future as I pulled my iPad out of the bag to take a look at this week’s class materials. Here I am, learning about communication for development and remembering how many have been excluded of the participatory process…sad.  This day trip was spectacular, highly recommended. So what  better way to remember the weekend that with some photographic memories?

Thanks Glori for the lovely visit and hope to see you soon!

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ImageSunday at Ayutthaya with Gloria Image 

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Field Study days 4, 5 and 6

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

This was a very different day, as we were visiting the Thai Government offices for the first time since our arrival to Mae Sot. On our drive there, we saw hundreds of people carrying bags with their belongings; people selling food; people making lines; sad faces, confused faces. Many were going back ‘voluntarily’, others were crossing the Friendship Bridge for the day. In my lifetime, I’ve had many airport goodbyes, and they were never easy, but for these migrants the feeling must be so bitter. I have not been to Tijuana yet, but I can imagine that it must be something very similar to what deportees from Southern California experience when they are taken in a bus to the border.

We arrived to the meeting, which was more formal than all the others we had attended that week. There were personalized name tags in our seats; microphones and breakfast goodies were served to us by their staff. I felt a bit tense, uncomfortable and extremely conscious -especially about not using the terms refugee or refugee camp during this session.  We were welcomed by Superintendent Dr. Nakornsantipap who invited us to enjoy the Burmese tea that we were sipping (it was delicious). We listened carefully to a presentation about the different operations that the Immigration Department of the Tak Province is involved in. Most of these had to do with transnational criminal networks -which, unfortunately, they had named according to the country of origin of their leader, contributing to the creation of stigmas around certain nationalities. Then, I was shocked to hear him talk about Austrialia’s Christmas Island as well as the USA’s attempt to build a fence with Mexico as part of their “lessons learned” and was surprised to hear that he would be visiting Southern California in April, so I extended him an invitation to meet with some of my colleagues that collaborate closely with law enforcement in anti-human trafficking  work. He shared with us that he’s been part of a committee with UNHCR that is looking for ways to provide some status to the population fleeing conflict, but that the problem is that there are not enough countries that accept refugees. He feels that the only way to stop this problem is to have destination countries be open to receive them. If Thailand was part of the Refugee Convention it would mean more refugees coming and they can’t handle that burden.

After his presentation, we toured the facilities and saw the detention / processing center, where immigrants are held for less than a day while they await their transport back to Burma. We were told that NGOs like IOM and World Vision conduct the assessments / interviews in cases where there’s indication of possible human trafficking and that the Social Welfare department will handle the cases of minors and other victims.

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 Rights of Detainees in Thai, English and Burmese

Wednesday afternoon we traveled to the Labor Law Clinic of the Human Rights and Development Foundation, which was founded in collaboration with the Lawyers Council of Thailand and is partly supported by the American Center for International Labor Solidarity. This organization works in collaboration with Governments, NGOs, Social Security, Police, Labor Protection and Thailand’s Welfare Office to ensure that the workers rights are respected, regardless of their nationality. The clinic provides legal consultations to both Thai and migrant workers in Mae Sot; they facilitate capacity building of NGOs to promote human rights and train legal professionals and through all this they promote understanding between Thai and Burmese communities. I was yet again inspired by the courage and motivation of these young lawyers who had chosen public interest law as their career, in spite of the numerous difficulties in a country like Thailand.

The day ended up very differently, with a bike ride to Mae Sot Football Club with Langan and our interpreter Sia. That night, Erin and I joined a team of expats, Thai and Burmese girls of the NGO sector in a friendly soccer match (end result was 5:5). This was one of my favorite intercultural experiences of the field trip, as it allowed us to connect with locals through a fun activity. After the game, we biked to a delicious Burmese restaurant, together with fellows Dara and Stephen. Note that we only had 4 bikes, but there were 5 of us 🙂 so there was a couple riding tandem…

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Post game dinner

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Thursday was dedicated to the International Organization for Migration (IOM): in the morning we met with two staff of their Labor Migration Program and discovered that the Field Coordinator for the Labor Migration and Counter Trafficking Program is an alumna of the Rotary Peace Center in Queensland, Australia! This was an excellent meeting that provided us a deeper understanding on the dynamics of the migrant population and the programs that IOM is conducting to serve them. One of the projects they are working on is called “Reducing vulnerabilities of Burmese Muslims through Community Outreach and Increasing Access to Social and Health Services” (self-explanatory) and the other major one is called “Addressing the risks and needs of vulnerable migrants in the Greater Mekong Sub Region and Malaysia”.

The afternoon session with IOM took us to their Refugee Processing Center, where refugees being resettled to the United States and Australia get their interviews, final cultural orientations and medical examinations. After a very informative presentation we toured the facility and saw some of the refugee children that were waiting for their parents to undergo the required panel physician examinations. At this time particular time only a small group of refuges is being processed to the United States, as there’s a backlog still from the Government Shutdown of October 2013.

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Friday, February 7, 2014

 The last visit of our field study was to Mae Tao Clinic, the famous border clinic started by a Burmese doctor called Cynthia Maung. It was a privilege to meet with Dr. Cynthia and to hear from her directly. It was a good way to close the week as it allowed us to see the many needs that this migrant community have and to contextualize more the migrant reality in the border.

We closed the field trip with a group reflection, centering exercise and individual reflection, which was a way to motivate us reflect more about the field study.  For future field trips, I hope to see a component of service that can allow us to connect the theory learned in class with what we were seeing in the field (how agencies operate, etc). It was an amazing week and I’m in awe of the great work that so many humanitarians are doing in this border town. I hope to return soon!

Field Study Day 3: CBOs in Mae Sot

Mae Sot, Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

 Tuesday morning I saw the town wake up during my first run around Mae Sot. Dozens of monks -young and old- were already on the streets doing their morning alms, barefoot and wearing their orange tunics; on the sidewalks, people were waiting for them with warm food that they would put in their containers -carried by the younger monks in this case. It was such a beautiful scene, but I was too shy to take a picture of it. Instead, I was able to capture this moment…

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I was enjoying this special quiet moment by myself when suddenly my heartbeat spiked as some dogs started chasing me…but luckily, no accidents to report. I went back to the hotel and got ready for another busy day of field study. Several community-based organizations (CBOs) were on the agenda for the day and I was looking forward to hear more about their work.

We started at WEAVE (Women’s Education for Advancement and Empowerment), where we heard from Cynthia (one of the beneficiaries of this program, not turned trainer for others in Mae La) and María Mitos Urgel the Executive Director who shared how they are fostering peacebuilding by returning the dignity to displaced women through the provision of income generation. Through their work they celebrate victories, hope and love. After our conversation, we explored their fair trade shop full of beautiful patterns and colors -and I’m happy to say that we all got some souvenirs for family and friends.

From there we went to MAP Foundation (for the Health and Knowledge of Ethnic Labor), whose motto is “No Human Being is Illegal”. They are a grassroots legal aid that empowers the migrant community in Thailand through different programs, ranging from Community Health and Empowerment (‘CHE’ – which focuses on health education); Rights for All (‘RFA’ – care, shelter, education, identity & women issues); Labor Rights and the MAP Multimedia and MAP Community Radio.   It was inspiring to hear the motivation of these young Thai and Burmese law professionals fighting for the rights of migrant workers and to learn of what remedies the workers have to protect themselves in Thailand. One of the similar problems I saw compared to the United States’ context is the abusive brokers (in the US are called immigration consultants or ‘notarios’). In the Thai context, MAP educates the community about their rights through outreach and community radio and when abuses are uncovered, they intervene with the agency first and then if they don’t comply, they will go to the Thai justice system.

Tuesday afternoon was super sunny and very warm. As we walked to Youth Connect, we made a quick stop for ice cream. Once there, we met with one of their program managers and a Burmese alumni of the Transitions Program who now works on the operations side. This organization has been working in Mae Sot for six years and was funded by Child’s Dream Foundation, as a result of conversations with employers about the workplace needs. Youth Connect’s Transitions Program is divided in three stages: from In School, Intensive Program (Transition) and Apprenticeship. This impressive program is assisting 50 students a year and allows young migrants to secure documentation and 2-year work permits (which have a cost of 1,900 THB).

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RWP Fellows Visit Youth Connect

Students get apprenticeships in different fields, including hospitality and top students can get selected for a job at the lovely Picturebook Guesthouse (one of their social enterprises). According to Mickey, YCF director: “these programs are changing mindsets of the migrant students, and help them take initiative and be decisive about their future”.

We closed day 3 with a discussion between fellows and administrators, in an effort to reflect on what the field study has encompassed thus far. Several themes came up to me: Bangkok vs. Mae Sot (peace and freedom here; its fresh air; how manageable it is); NGOs vs. Governments (of both Thailand and Burma); International NGOs vs. small Community Based Organizations (and how the latter tend to be more inclusive of its stakeholders than the big organizations).

One burning concern I have is the narrative around the topic of displacement and how the government has tried to tone things down using terms like “temporary shelter”, as if it wanted to deny any responsibility over them. Furthermore, I feel it’s a way to hide the reality that could be so painful to process and that due to these subtleties, Thai society has a bad perception of these groups, due to a lack of understanding. I dared to ask what is the Thai government doing to educate its citizens around these issues, as I fear a harsh racism and immigrants (and refugees especially) being used as scapegoat of many other societal problems.

And to close, I leave you with this treasure. I came across this wonderful book called “Be Good to Each Other” (a color book in English, Burmese and Thai), and here’s a thought…

 Dear Reader:

Look close. Look deep.

Look far. Look    w i d e.

We are not as different as we seem.

We each carry our own story.

We each hold our own beliefs.

And we shall know what is like to

Straddle two, three, four…worlds.

Whatever brings you here,

To Mae Sot, to this border…

Be open. Be brave.

Be good to each other.

The rest comes easy.

Love & Peace,

 

Borderline

What is Home?

Bangkok, February 10, 2014

From February 2nd to February 8th, Class XVI of Rotary Peace Fellows, accompanied by the Chulalongkorn University Peace Center staff and two Rotary International staff traveled to Mae Sot (Tak Province) in the border with Burma (Myanmar), North West of Thailand.  The following  entry  is a product of an intense week of institutional visits and discussions with numerous actors working in Mae Sot: civil society organizations, International Organizations, Non-Governmental Organizations and Governmental agencies. Before our departure we were warned about the danger of one story and with that mindset we went into this field study and tried to interpret the different narratives. I hope to capture here the stories of some of the amazing people we met during this field study, and really wish that one day in the not so distant future we can all meet again…

I had a lot of expectations from this first field trip, but it moved me in a way that I wasn’t expecting. It made me reflect a lot on the term “HOME”. It has been hard for me to be away for three months while living and studying in a foreign culture, so I can’t start to imagine how it feels to be displaced and stranded for decades in a strange country that doesn’t give you any rights.

What is home? Where is it? It has been more than one month since I left Los Angeles (USA), which has been my home for the past 12 years. Before that, I lived in Caracas (Venezuela) for 11 years and I grew up in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands (Spain) for 15 years. I don’t hold American citizenship (yet), so I’m a migrant, a guest to the country. Under United States’ law I’m an immigrant “Alien” (yes, that’s the official term, don’t laugh!).  Nevertheless, in spite of the tens of thousands of dollars spent between immigration fees on different type of visas and attorneys in order to be able to remain there, I had options to select where I wanted to go.

I consider myself Spanish first and Venezuelan last, as I’ve lived longer in Spain than in any other country. The funny thing is that for my Spanish friends I’m American (since I’ve lived there for so long, though I’m only a permanent resident in the country). I chose to migrate from one country to another (twice). Refugees and others displaced by conflict, are forced to escape, as they fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. And after they have done so, they often don’t have freedom of movement from that new country until they get asylum or refugee status -only after getting humanitarian protection they will have the right to a Refugee Travel Document (if they are lucky enough to end up in a country that has signed the Convention on the Rights of Refugees). So often times, refugees feel lost, without direction.

We often hear “Home is where the heart is”, so today I can say, my heart is with my other half -back in Pasadena, California. Now, could I make a new place feel home if he was there? It will take time, but I could. By making new friends, connecting with the locals and their traditions and finding comfort in those new places and familiarizing myself with the environment.  But can refugees feel home again? Maybe years after being firmly resettled and integrated into their new country -which hopefully, has provided them protection. Unfortunately, in Thailand that is not a durable solution. Burmese refugees living in the border have been there for 30 years. There are different generations and many of the children of these refugees were born in Mae La or any of the other camps, in Thai soil, but they are not given Thai citizenship. They don’t know any other home but this one; the camp is their homeland.  But do refugees that have been away from home for so long feel homesick? Or is this a feeling reserved for those that have the option of returning?

 When reviewing issues of displacement I can point out some of the challenges: difficulty adapting to the new environment; feeling different than others around you; uncertainty of what’s next and what would happen if you had to leave again or if you had the option of returning.  As I’m writing this, I realize that it is difficult for me -and it might be the case of other immigrants working around this theme- to separate my individual experience from that of this group – though as I’ve said before: comparisons are unfair but I have to be aware of my biases as I work around the issue of migration. I’m thankful for what has been an amazing week of observing the dynamics of migration (forced and selective) in this country and look forward to continue this learning experience.

To illustrate some of the stories that we heard during this week, I have left you a couple of separate blog / journal posts on the first visits we conducted during this field study. 

Field Study Day 2: UNHCR + TBC + IRC

Mae Sot, Monday February 3, 2014

On Monday we had a busy start with three very different meetings: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where two of their Protection Officers discussed the Agency’s priorities for 2014 and how they operate and enhance protection to a vulnerable population in a country that is not signatory of the Refugee Convention. They talked about the current changing context in the border; the official UN position in regards to Myanmar; and the possibility of return for the hundreds of thousands that have been in protracted situation in Thailand for the last thirty years. The bottom line is that they do not think that the conditions are not appropriate for return. With all this, UNHCR Thailand continues to respond to protection needs of refugees from Myanmar (“people displaced by conflict”); they are advocating for a national asylum mechanism and have funded a project on peace and reconciliation in the camp that uses mediation and restorative justice (implemented by International Rescue Committee’s Legal Access Center). One crude reality with the voluntary repatriation program is that the younger Burmese want to go back, while the older generation refuses to do so, out of fear -and with reason.  It came to my mind that this is a parallel with my clients’ children in the United States, who don’t understand what their parents went through escaping persecution and torture to secure a better life for them. But I must remind myself that comparisons are unfair.

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Fellow Ian, from Malawi, thanks UNHCR Staff on behalf of our Class. 

From there, we had a very different meeting with Chris Clifford from The Border Consortium (TBC) from whom we got a more critical view of the change in context and a different picture of reality. Chris Clifford -using something similar to a mind map– walked us through the history of the 120,000 refugees that live in the country; TBC’s strategic plan and its various programs to address their needs. An organization that was formed by “volun-tourism” today counts with a more solid program that provides food, shelter, nutrition, Community Managed Targeting and Income Generation (IGD) while also looking into conducting operations into Myanmar by being very involved with Non State Actors.  One very important insight we heard from him was the importance of letting the refugees decide and of not isolating them (versus the approach of some NGOs of making the decisions for them). It was a sound reminder of the importance of ensuring participation of the affected parties in any development project, so that their voices are heard and that they own any accorded solution.

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Chris Clifford presenting to the RWP Group

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After lunch, we traveled to the Mae Sot office of International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of my agency’s Collaborative partners. I’d like to think that the Los Angeles office of IRC is responsible for me doing the work I do today as they received me as a volunteer for five months in 2003 and later sent me off to LAFLA with great recommendations, so I will always be grateful to their staff for sharing their time and mentoring me in my first refugee-related job. Once again, while so far away, I felt home. Why is this theme so recurrent?

We were kindly received by Atchara, the Project Coordinator of IRC’s Legal Assistance Center (LAC). This program funded by UNHCR promotes sustainable access to justice for refugees by strengthening engagement and the capacity of response within the camp and with Thai authorities. LAC increases legal awareness and helps refugees assert their rights and access remedies. Unfortunately, refugees don’t know what’s going on outside the camp, nor that they are under the jurisdiction of Thai law so this program empowers them immensely. Atchara highlighted that the Karen refugees come with their own practices and that they are very autocratic, so there was a huge need for training on human rights and human standards of treatment of detainees. They have been away from their country for a long time and have been confined to remote closed camps. The lack of resources and many barriers make the Royal Thai government reluctant of many issues.

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On a side note, shortly after arriving, we heard from her that there was a fire at the Umpiem Mai refugee camp -which we later found out was controlled. It was worrisome as there had been some fires in December at Mae La, having to do with the type of construction materials they use for these “temporary” shelters. I keep thinking of the intention behind the semantics of all these terms, and how the Thai government is trying to diminish the importance of these groups seeking humanitarian protection within their territory -and that it’s not just the fact that they are not parties of the 1951 Refugee Convention (nor its 1967 Protocol) but that admitting that there’s such a huge need debilitates their image.

After an intense first day of institutional visits, I met up with Langan, an alumna of the Rotary World Peace fellowship who now lives in Mae Sot and works for IRC. We had met years ago at the California Refugee Summit while she worked for the Oakland Unified School District and had reconnected last year thanks to Rotary. Now she’s working at the Resettlement Support Center of International Rescue Committee -which is in charge of processing the Burmese refugees that are being resettled in the United States. What an amazing network this is!

Field Study Day 1: Bangkok – Mae Sot (BKK – MAQ)

Sunday February 2, 2014 was here: Election Day. We left the housing complex super early to prevent encountering any street closures on the way to the airport. No incidents and we got there so early that we could not check in for another 30 minutes -but better safe than sorry! The flight was delayed due to dense fog, but we made it safely to our destination. Upon arrival to Mae Sot, we drove to the colorful Rim Mei Market that sits by the Moei river (in the border with Burma) to immerse ourselves in this very multicultural town. Here, Burmese and Thai weavings intertwined in -what seemed to be a somehow- quiet market full of mixed colors and flavors. Some hours later, after exploring and doing some shopping, we were looking to taste the Burmese flavors but failed to find a delicious plate of Mohinga soup -which Iona had described so amazingly on the plane. Instead, had another delicious soup dish very close to the Friendship Bridge (which crosses Thailand to Burma).

That afternoon, after much expectation, I was devastated by the news that we would not be able to access the Mae La Refugee Camp (or “Temporary Shelter Area” -as it’s called by the Thai government). For months, since I first applied to the Fellowship, I had dreamt of being there and helping out providing some service to a community that has been forgotten for decades. Instead, our first day in town included a mere drive-by to the area, to see the camp from the outside. It felt terrible to be there -almost as if we were visiting the zoo. I was embarrassed and upset that they had taken us there just for the show, but I recognize that there were others in our group who wanted to witness this -even in this manner. My hope is that future groups of Rotary Peace Fellows that come out for their field study have better hands-on experience in this regard.

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We closed our first day in town with a special reception by the Rotary Club of Maesot Maung Chod (Club RI 3360) -big shout out to the organizers! Everything was memorable: the location, the food and the karaoke! Here’s a picture of the group singing The Rotary Song. Suddenly, while being so far away from our loved ones and exhausted from a day that had started at 4 AM we felt welcome to the city and part of their big Rotary family.

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Saying goodbye from the distance – Rest in Peace, my dear Lily

Bangkok, Friday, January 31st, 2014

On Tuesday, January 28th, my co-worker Lilia González passed away after her courageous battle with leukemia. Even when I know she’s now resting in peace,  I’m selfish to see her go, I’m sad that we didn’t say goodbye properly and I can’t imagine what will be like going back to work in April and not having her by my side, with her smile, enthusiasm and dedication for social justice. Image

 

(This picture is from Lilia’s birthday in May, 2011)

 

It was a very hard week emotionally, but also one in which I grew enormously, surrounded by the kindness and love from my new brothers and sisters. I cried with them for the first time and they cried with me. I’ve strengthened bonds, made new friends and found guidance when I least expected it. Special thanks to Brenda Sunoo, our professor’s wife, who was an amazing support and guide during this time of grief.  

Being away at this time was very hard. I wrote this letter to my colleagues last night, as I wanted to be closer to them in what’s been a terrible loss, the death of our dearest Lily.

Dear LAFLA family:

With a broken heart and from the distance, I received the news of our Lily leaving us this week. She’s resting in peace now and I wish we had said goodbye.

I’d like to call to the office today and talk to you, hear your voices and see how you’re all doing. It’s Friday night here and I found out of Lilia’s passing on Wednesday midnight before I was going to bed. Thanks to Nancy and Desiree for reaching out. Yesterday, in class, we had a minute of silence in her honor and prayed together. I’ve found refuge on new friends and I’m blessed for that, as I’m so far away from all of you, with whom I wish I could be at this moment.  I never thought the time would come so soon, and yet, we almost lost Lily in many occasions in the last 6 years since her diagnosis when she was pregnant with Ashley.

When we face loss of a loved one, we’re often selfish and think of how we will miss that person. With Lily, even when we knew how much she had suffered, in a way we thought she would get better. She tricked us with her smile and energy, as she was so positive, optimistic and cheerful all the time. Even when she was facing many challenges physically, her spirit was unbreakable and that’s what kept her going.  She was a warrior. It will be hard to go back to the office and not have her there. I wish I had told her more often how strongly she influenced our daily lives at LAFLA and what an inspiration she was to me. I will always treasure her smile, her strength and the deep and the meaningful conversations we had together in and out of the office – and I wish I had found more time for those. 

This has been a hard week for all of you and I hope you’re able to grief her passing and acknowledge her strength and dedication. I’ve read some of your emails to feel closer to you, and cried a lot. I’m sure you have too. I hope you find the space to discuss all these feelings with each other.

In the last 4 years I’ve lost many dear people close to my heart: my father, one of my best friends…and more. I have to admit that not giving myself enough time to grief and to acknowledge the feelings have made each loss harder than the last one. I hope you can find peace to be with all the feelings that this loss brings us. I also hope time will heal the pain that we all feel now and that we can move on to remember Lily with the usual happiness that she spread all around her. 

Sending you a big hug, missing you lots!

 Caro