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. 

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