My first time in a refugee camp – Ethnic minority refugees on the Thai-(Burma)Myanmar Border

The refugee camp

A Karen group refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border
 My first time in a refugee camp, was on the visit to DARE Network, a partner of GlobalGiving. DARE provides therapy, support, and prevention for drug and alcohol users within refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. Many Burmese and ethnic minorities such as the Karen and Shan flee Burma/Myanmar due to military and internal violence.  I was shocked at the political and situational state of these people …

On the way to the Karen Refugee Camp – We were so close to the border I could see Burma/Myanmar 

Imagine being stuck in 1 place for your entire life – one community with the only way in or out controlled by authorities of another land. Imagine having no access to income generating activities outside of this compound. Imagine not having a country or state to claim and call home – from yours, you fled for your life and from violence. This is the situation of the refugees I met near Mae Sariang, Thailand.

We arrived and stopped for lunch at the vocational training restaurant within the camp – provided by an International Organization

I met with staff of the DARE Network in Mae Sariang and after a wonderful tour of the office by Lawlaysay, Kiri and Det Sot took me to one of the refugee camps they work in – a Karen group camp to be specific. The Karen group is an ethnic group found throughout Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and other areas. This trek to the camp was a rough 2 hours through windy mountain roads .. with the Burma border just within reach – a dangerous tarek during the rainy season, Det Sot told me.

Along with the direct therapy and prevention work that DARE does, its staff also coordinates with other active NGO’s in the camps to ensure they were all meeting the needs of these communities that have little to no access outside of the camps unless emigrated to the “Third Countries” as they call them – the U.S., Canada, or Australia. I asked why is supporting the youth important, and the staff said because the youth are stuck in the camp and can get trapped using drugs and alcohol. DARE protects the youth and provides alternative activities like their “ultimate Frisbee tournaments”, holding educational groups before activities like ultimate Frisbee can begin. I asked what other types of activities the villagers and youth have access to, and the staff said none.

Meeting with staff at the DARE center

Meeting with staff at the DARE center

studying the DARE methodology

studying the DARE methodology and treatment for current drug users

Immediately upon entering the camp, you could see remnants of the flood’s impact on the community (this area was devastated by flooding last year), but also the strength of the inhabitants. Their homes were washed away and bridges were destroyed. After, the refugees returned from higher ground, rebuilt homes, fixed bridges and carried on.  The center had just finished its round of therapy and was on break until the next round of therapy began – along with the youth program since they were on holiday.

with DARE Network Camp Staff

After, I met with the head of “Social Welfare” in the camp that explained there were about 18,000 refugees in the one camp alone. His role was to deal with fighting within the camp along with social conflict. He said although alcohol was not allowed, people still found ways to get it into the camp. He also explained he is volunteering at DARE. Why was it important to him? He said because at first there was pushback from users in the community, but now the users after receiving therapy receive jobs and are hired providing outlets to alcohol and drug use, not to mention income for their families. He went on to explain that now there were only 11 workers serving this large camp. He hoped there would be more DARE workers to make the camp “more strong”.  There is a saying there that “when using the bottle, you go straight to heaven” – demonstrating the importance of DARE’s presence within the camp along with its educational, awareness, and prevention work along with treatement.

rest of the community supported by DARE

Other section of the camp  supported by DARE accessible only by this bridge that was washed away in the flooding (finally rebuilt)
Bridge destroyed by floods and rebuilt by community – it is rickety and terrifying to walk across but is the connector between the camp’s 2 sections

In addition to its facilities,  Lawlaysay explained to me the goal is to translate its process in a “training” manual that is the accumulation of over 12 years of work. DARE hopes to help people not only in the camps but also inside Burma and even in Karen/Burmese communities in the countries where the refugees have resettled, particularly the USA.

The rest of the refugee camp – kids playing in the river and above a picture of the electricity source of the camp… hydropower

Below are pictures from my guest house in Mai Sariang (a border town between Thailand and Burma). The area is beautiful. 

A giant gold Buddha statue among the mist in the mountains just after a storm… view from my hotel…
 After the visit, I returned to Chiang Mai… but I wanted to share some images of a typical bus stop in these towns… notice the “spirit house” in the second picture which is prevalent in a majority of establishments and the chickens roaming free below it.  Buddhism is the major religion here, but it is more of a mixture of Hinduism, Animism and Buddhism.
 Many more stories to come…

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