A Maryknoll volunteer in Thailand goes to border camp

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A month at Nu Po – A Maryknoll volunteer in Thailand

A Maryknoll Volunteer in Thailand

by Serge Auguste

A Maryknoll volunteer in Thailand goes to border camp to teach English to refugees from neighboring Myanmar

A couple of years ago, two of my students at one of the Buddhist monasteries where I teach English as a short-term Maryknoll volunteer in Bangkok, Thailand, told me they had decided to enter a refugee camp near the border with Myanmar. Having fled repression in their native Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, they were unable to return home for fear of being imprisoned or worse. Yet, they were afraid if they remained in Thailand’s capital, they might be picked up by Thai police for being in the country illegally and forcibly returned to their homeland.

In the six years that I have been teaching Buddhist monks and other students who fled persecution by the military dictatorship in Burma, I have become familiar with the hardship these people face in Thailand, where their legal status is often unclear. Apart from teaching, I also visit detainees at Bangkok’s immigration Detention Center. The center holds people who have violated the immigration laws, are awaiting repatriation or who have applied to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to be accepted by another country.

By going to the refugee camp, my students hope to eventually be accepted as refugees by a third country. I occasionally heard from them and last year they asked me to come to the camp and give an English class to those who had been accepted by English- speaking countries. So l found myself taking an 11-hour bus trip from Bangkok to the Burmese border to work in an isolated camp called Nu Po.

As an outsider, I was not allowed to live in the camp. The nearest town is two hours away on rough roads and the mode of transport is open-back truck. The living conditions are simple: huts made of bamboo and built on sticks in case of flooding during the rainy season. Each hut consists of a cooking area or kitchen, a toilet and sleeping areas to accommodate up to eight people. Furniture is non-existent and the people sit and sleep on mats. Electricity is provided daily for just three hours, starting at 6 p.m.

On my first day in camp I was met by 68 smiling faces of Mon and Karen people, ethnic minorities in Myanmar who have suffered some of the harshest repression by the government, which is controlled by the dominant Burmese ethnic group. Even in the camp they live in fear of a across-border attack by Burmese government-backed fighters, despite the Thai military guarding Nu Po. For the refugees, it was a joy to see an outsider coming to teach for a month. The time spent .in class and in their huts doing homework was a precious opportunity because of the very few activities available in the camp.

Each morning when I arrived, r was welcomed with the familiar phrases: “Good morning, teacher. How are you this morning?” I felt overjoyed and the two-hour, bumpy ride I had to take to get there was forgotten. After class, we spent time talking about their lives. To me, my idea of going there was not only to teach but also to be with them. I wanted them to feel they were not alone, not forgotten.

On the last day of class, I told them that they were in my prayers and that “there is light at the end of the tunnel.” Needless to say, that phrase required an explanation. Since then, the prayer of St. Francis has been coming to mind, especially this part: “0 Master, grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand and to be loved as to love with all my soul.”

Serge Auguste was born in Haiti and moved to the United States in 1959. A resident of Flushing, N.Y., he is a retired airline employee who since 2003 has spent much of his time in Thailand, repeatedly serving as a Mary/moll volunteer.

In the picture: On the border Serge Auguste, center in photo, a Maryknoll volunteer in Thailand, stops at the border with Myanmar with two of his students, Phra Sila, a Buddhist monk on the right and a young man named Pan. The two young men are refugees from Myanmar’s Mon state.