Jun 20, 2007 marked the sixth United Nations-designated World Refugee Day. This year, we remembered refugees all over the world for their courage and determination to live with dignity, often in the face of great hardship. Jeremy Lim, who recently visited a refugee camp, shares his experiences and lessons learnt about community life.
Right, Community Spirit - Shan refugees working together to build a bamboo house in Krung Jor Camp. Despite facing poverty and unemployment, they have shown courage and resilience in trying to rebuild their shattered lives. [Click on image to see in full.]
IT IS NOT often that Singaporean neighbours gather together to help paint somebody'shome. I have never done so, but watching the Shan refugees building a bamboo house in Krung Jor Camp, in northwest Thailand, showed me the wonders of working as a community. Using simple tools like parangs, they had a roof up by lunch-time.
The ethnic Shan families at Krung Jor are one of the groups which have fled violence and exploitation in Burma. In 2002, about 500 of them left their homes after being caught in the crossfire between the Burmese military and the Shan State Army. For over a year, they lived in tents, surviving on assistance from the United Nations and non-governmental organizations like the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).
In May this year, 10 volunteers from JRS Singapore and the Church of Christ the King visited the camp as part of a joint project to help the refugees. The visit was the third since Christ the King parish began supporting the camp as an Advent Project in 2005. Since then, parishioners have raised funds to buy items such as looms with which the Shan can make handicrafts for sale. We have also purchased a generator and a second-hand truck, and built a clinic for the camp. Despite such aid, the refugees still suffer many hardships. One lady in the camp was diagnosed with breast cancer, but the illness is too advanced to cure. The lack of resources in refugee camps makes it hard to detect health problems.
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The future is uncertain for most of the Shan refugees, who already face poverty and unemployment. JRS volunteer Leong Seey Seey spoke to the camp leader, who said older residents wish to return to Burma, while the younger generation - who were born or grew up in Krung Jor - want to start a new life elsewhere. But where? For refugees, being "stateless persons" means the concept of home is problematic.
During our visit to Krung Jor, we found that, one momentwe could be discussing a plan to power a light bulb in every home; the next, we could be engaged in a furious ball game. Volunteer Lee Chang Xi greatly enjoyed playing and laughing with the children. "I was touched by the way the refugees lived their lives to the fullest, joyfully sharing what little they had with each other and with us. Though they do not have much materially, they are people filled with love, faith and hope," she said.
Personally, I was most impressed by the meals the Shan prepared for us. After spending the morning visiting some of the refugees, we were surprised to be offered delicious bowls of spicy noodles. Camp fare is hardly classy, being made from simple ingredients like yellow beans. It was in fact the generous spirit in which the meals were given which touched our hearts. Want a taste of the "refugee spirit"? Today might be a good day to ask the auntie and uncle next door over for some fish head curry.