Last chapter “From Thailand”

On my last entry (“Enough?”),  I shared with you some reflections on our Cambodia field study. Since then, lots have happened leading to the closing of the Rotary World Peace Fellowship.

Graduation WPF Class 16

Class 16 of Rotary World Peace Fellows – Chulalongkorn University – Graduation ceremony

Indeed, the last month of the Fellowship was pretty packed, which -in retrospective- was not good for my blog, as I have left it unattended. Among many activities, it involved eleven different planes, dozens of hours in mini-vans and covered the following routes:

  • Bangkok – Phnom Pehn
  • Phnom Pehn – Pursat
  • Pursat – Siem Reap
  • Siem Reap – Bangkok
  • Bangkok – Mae Sot – Bangkok
  • Bangkok – Krabi – Bangkok
  • Bangkok – Taipei – Los Angeles

And just like that, three months went by. Sawadee ka to the Rotary Fellows, to the Peace Center, to Chula, to our host counselors, to CU House, Sky Train, Siam and so many more of my Bangkok companions. Thank you all for a wonderful, life changing experience!

And for the last Thailand Diaries post, I could not leave out the mandatory snorkeling picture, so during the last week in Thailand I got to explore part of the Southern beaches in very good company, as Freddy came to the rescue and helped me on the pilgrimage back to the US.

 

PitxisExploring Ko Phi PhiSnorkel in Ko Phi Phi

Today I am writing from the city of angels, almost two months since landing. I had anticipated the reintegration process to be challenging, especially the traffic situation here and having to drive to and from work every day. It has been something else. Above all, I feel blessed to have had this opportunity of seeing a new continent, meeting new people and living in a foreign country while learning something new every day. I have returned to my old routines, flavors and dynamics. I have met with friends, celebrated life and exchanged stories. I am ready for the next challenge!

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Enough?

I have to admit that arriving to Phnom Penh felt a bit like traveling back in time. While this international field study of the Rotary Peace fellowship was designed with the idea of studying the post-war reconstruction and peacebuilding of a country, Cambodia is still in the process of recovering from tremendous damage of decades of wars and foreign interventions. Almost twenty-one years ago they had their first free and transparent elections -under the supervision of the United Nations- and since then, some progress has been achieved but there’s still a lot to be done. Our field study included more than 10 organizational meetings with different Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in three different cities (Phnom Penh, Pursat and Siem Reap); additionally we had several field visits to some of their projects, which was very inspiring.

One thing that impacted me deeply, early on our field trip was the visit to the Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial (“Killing Fields”) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (“S-21”) -a school-turned-prison during the time of Democratic Kampuchea. Not just because of the thick air that we breathed while there; and the thousands of unidentified skulls that we saw on display in a seventeen-story ivory tower; but because it’s hard to see the inhumane conditions in which those men, women and children were held in and the types of torture that they were subject to before leaving this world.

Stairway at S-21 Prison

Before coming to Cambodia, I had listened to hundreds of stories of torture from my survivor clients (from Cambodia and many other countries where torture is or was practiced like Cameroon, Eritrea or Sudan -to name a few) but being there, walking the same grounds where tens of thousands were held inhumanely, was a very painful experience.  I will not forget. The big question that I’m taking with me after visiting Cambodia is how can we foster forgiveness and peace without forgetting that these violations of human rights and violent behaviors are still being repeated in our times.  We’ve seen it happen in Rwanda; in Bosnia; in Democratic Republic of Congo; Syria and most recently in Central African Republic. In all these, one group has tried to erase diversity of thought, expression and opinion of another group. Sadly, many countries today are still experiencing some of these same attitudes -both in peace and in conflict- but why do other countries stay silent knowing what could happen?

 For most of us visiting Cambodia for the first time, deciphering the events and motifs of the Khmer Rouge era was at the center of the discussions in almost every single one of the visits and conversations with local NGO staff and even with our guides who were so kind to share more of their personal stories with us. However, those three years, eight months and twenty days were such a horrific time that I can understand why Cambodians would prefer to forget and not talk about what happened. The fact that only foreigners were visiting these memorials could be an indicator of how Cambodians would rather delete this from their memory, even when they were meant to acknowledge this dark time of their history and help them rebuild their country. Today, Cambodians are tired of this “victim” label. Has their government tried to move away from it? It’s enough. But does the Government agree with its people or are they just interested in getting more charity-tourism and reconstruction funds from foreign governments and hundreds of NGOs?

Cambodians are trying to tell a different story. This is a young country -77% of the population is under the age of 40- which means that most of them were young children during the Khmer Rouge era. Their lives have been marked by the deaths of family members, friends and neighbors. Many continue to search for answers. At the same time, they also want to move away from those painful memories and look forward to a better and brighter future. We were told that this could be connected to Buddhism, as for them focusing on the present and the future is more important than getting stuck in the past.

How is civil society contributing to change the image of Cambodia? Are they trying to rebrand their country to attract investment, more tourism and/or to improve relations with other states? And who composes civil society in Cambodia? Is it limited to Cambodian citizens and private companies or are the over five hundred NGOs with a combination of foreign and local staff also included here? From what I saw, NGOs have come to fill in the gaps on areas that the government is not paying attention. Agencies like Friends International, are fostering youth integration and showing a new face -and a different flavor- of Cambodia through their cooking academy, various restaurants and distinctive menus.

Lunch at Friends

Cambodian diaspora that has returned to the country has also put a lot of effort into changing those negative perceptions, especially through the arts. Examples are fashion designer Romyda Keth; movies like The Missing Picture’, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Oscars, and documentaries like ‘A River Changes Course’, winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Sundance Film Festival, are products of the explosion of creativity and culture that has emerged in the post-war era of Cambodia. Nevertheless, there’s not enough being done by domestic or international actors to use arts in their favor.

A River Changes Course

Thirty-five years after the fall of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK or Khmer Rouge), I could feel the leftover effects of all the lies and confusion infused on the population by the CPK and the atrocities of the Cambodian Genocide. But I tried looking further and listened carefully and I found the strength that comes from the pain that this country has suffered: their resilience.

Angkor Wat

The Quest for Meaningful Peace

For the last two weeks, Venezuela has been on my mind as its citizens have taken to the streets calling on the government to cease repression and violence. You may have heard members of their diaspora giving echo to relevant news that are not being reported inside the country. But, in case you haven’t…

On February 12, university students in the Western city of San Cristóbal, tired of violence, high inflation and lack of basic necessities, marched demanding change from the Government. Seven of them were arrested. Days later, opposition leader Leopoldo López called for a big rally in Caracas, and thousands occupied the streets, dressed in white and raised their tricolor flags, full of optimism that their voices would be heard and that those students would be freed.  Some used the opportunity to express their frustrations with the current government, complained about corruption, scarcity and inflation, and many marched because their friends asked them to. The messages from the opposition’s side read: “Free the students”; “Stop the violence”; “The only way is out” (“#lasalida”) and “he who gives up loses” (“#elquesecansaPierde”). The Government too, called State employees for a rally to show their support to the President. They wore red shirts with the emblem of the Venezuelan Oil Company (PDVSA) and a tagline from Ché Guevara’s speech in Havana in 1969: “(…)Being apolitical is to give your back to all the movements of the world(…)”.

As people were wrapping up for the day, three armed thugs from paramilitary groups (“Colectivos”) started shooting at the opposition supporters, injuring dozens and killing two people. This created unrest and since, more people have taken the streets around the country demanding change. More restrictive measures were put in place: security forces diffuse protesters using excessive force with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, and armed thugs are shooting at unarmed civilians. Scared of all this, they have improvised barricades with debris (“guarimbas”). To add more to the picture, the government is in control of all communications and has revoked the credentials of various foreign journalists, as well as taken off the air one TV station for being too supportive of the opposition. Freedom of speech is not being respected and to date more than a dozen deaths have resulted from this chaos. Meanwhile, the opposition continues to support peaceful and sustained protests and the messages have shifted to #sosVenezuela, #PrayforVenezuela, #IamYourVoice and “Say No to Repression and Violence”. In spite of other violent events happening in Syria, Central African Republic, Ukraine and Thailand, foreign media has started to pay attention.

Never again?

Twenty-five years ago, on February 27, Caracas was immersed in riots, looting, shootings and nonsense violence between security forces and protesters in what was called the “Caracazo”, a bloody stain in that country’s history. I still have a vivid image of what I saw on Spanish television at the time: a warzone with looters carrying refrigerators and police shooting at civilians. Today, I’m scared to see violence escalate again for very similar reasons: citizens protesting against the government, tired of its corruption and security forces using force against them. Not until 1999, the country was taken to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights and was found guilty of all the charges surrounding the arbitrary suspension of various freedoms; the deaths of 276 people and the disappearance of many. To date, no national court has heard these cases.

Has there been reconciliation from these events of a quarter century ago? Did the investigations reveal the perpetrators of these crimes and are they still part of the security forces? How do the Venezuelan people feel about this dark past? There are too many questions that remain unanswered, and too many perpetrators that remain unpunished, so I wonder if the country really healed those wounds, and if this is the underlying reason for so much discontent between factions in Venezuelan society.

Today, president Nicolás Maduro calls the opposition fascists and accuses them of being the cause of the country’s problems. At the same time, he likes to talk about peace and has convened a National Peace Conference, creating two national commissions: one on economic truth and another one on reconciliation, which will include representatives of different sectors of Venezuela’s society. Is President Maduro and his government open to reconciliation with the other, and is he willing to take a step back from his aggressive tactics? Will all the voices be heard? I fear that this effort will fail and that it’s too early for this type of transitional justice mechanisms to be put in place. Unfortunatelt, this calling for peace is no more than a rhetoric campaign in an attempt to rebrand his international image and that of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV.

In spite of what many of my socialist friends think, I don’t think that taking a stand on the situation is about being with the left or the right, the context is very different: it’s about respecting human rights while living in democracy. In a real democracy, people, the citizens should be listened to (regardless of the color of their skin, their political opinion or their social status) and the Government has the mandate to protect these rights and create spaces for dialogue when there’s so much structural violence. I don’t think these last governments (Maduro’s and Chávez’) have provided enough opportunities for reconciliation. Instead, there’s yet more division between “us” and “them”.

Today there’s a call for unity, but I wonder how will that happen after so many years of this blaming game. Venezuela needs to heal its past and a dialogue process can’t be imposed. For there to be reconciliation, relationships have to be rebuilt and political consensus is needed. But this cannot happen in an authoritarian state that attacks its citizens and does not guarantee their human rights. Only by combining truth, justice and accountability will the country transition into a peaceful future.

Peace Fellows take a stand for Venezuela

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.

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!

ImageSunset at Wat Arun

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.