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Dispatch From A Burmese Refugee Camp

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"Waking up in Mae Sot. Mae Sot is not a tourist destination. There are virtually no traveler accommodations except for backpacker level guesthouses. Alternatively, I stayed at the Mae Sot hill resort. It is by no means a luxury site, but given the intensity of the living conditions of the people in Mae Sot, I was never so thankful for a bed and a shower. The hotel is a few minutes drive from the center of Mae Sot. The Mae Sot morning market is a must see stop. It is a cornucopia for the senses. It also seems to take up the space of the entire town. You can wake up early as the rooster and be surrounded by merchants, market hucksters, and shopping natives. It is fun. Every regional food imaginable seems to be prepared and available. I bought my fresh spring rolls and supplies for the day before setting out for the refugee camp trip.

The Mae La Burmese Refugee camp is about an hour drive away from Mae Sot. Approaching the camp, the natural beauty of the hills and mountains had a Shangri-La quality. It's green and seemingly untouched by modern anything. A paradise juxtaposition before entry into the camp. The camp is surrounded by barbed wire. Foreigners are almost wholly restricted from accessing the camp. A small number of nonprofit aid workers are given access to the camp under severe scrutiny. The camp houses about 50,000 Burmese refugees now. Those living in the camp are basically prohibited from leaving the camp except for very limited controlled trips. The thousands living in the camps are caught between the deadly oppression of the Burmese regime and the intolerance of the Thai government.

My guides led by Ka Hsaw Wa smuggled me into the camp. Ka Hsaw Wa is co-founder and co-director of Earthrights International. See yesterday's blog for Ka Hsaw Wa's amazing story. The camp is a sprawling labyrinth of huts and paths filled with animals, children, and family groups moving around. There are numerous makeshift posts serving as schools, monasteries, markets, medical service areas, and even a judicial court hut. The natural inclination for the human species to organize itself to care for one another regardless of the conditions is astonishingly evident here.

My first stop in the camp was the camp orphanage. There are 47 children living in this space. The youngest being age 2 with the oldest perhaps 19 years of age. Seventy percent of these children have no parents. The remainder may have parents caught between the Burmese and Thailand political and geographic border with no access to either-living undetected by moving continuously throughout the nearby jungle areas. The children in the orphanage seem profoundly aware of their situation. Nonetheless, they sang for me and broke into smiles and laughter when I asked them questions about their love for each other even though they might fight from time to time. They also presented me with a gift--a pink shirt woven in the camp. I am speechless when presented with their generosity. A young boy sang a song, alone, about what it feels like to be a refugee--Ka Hsaw Wa translated for me until becoming too emotional to continue. Again, I am stunned silent by the resilience and will of these people to survive....

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