Our visit to Mae La Refugee Camp

This day was a very special day. It impacted me in a way that I will never forget. We visited Mae La, a refugee camp near the border of Burma. There was a highway that we followed then took a very narrow bumpy road down into the camp entrance. Upon arrival it was brought to our attention that there was a new leader in charge of the camp and we were not allowed to enter the planned route into the camp, which was to take motorcycles in and go straight to the restaurant. Unfortunately we canceled the bikes but decided to go visit the veterans home while our Global Neighbors leaders tried to find an alternate point of entrance for us.

When we got there we were greeted by a very kind man named Wynner. (I’m not sure that I’ve spelt his name correctly, my apologies) Wynner runs this home for victims of land mines. All of these men are now blind due to their injuries from the hidden explosives, many are also missing a limb or limbs. As I scanned the room my heart sunk for these men. Then Erin whispered my way “you see, this is what war does”. It hit me. All of the scenarios started to run through my mind. These men all had families, they worked, maybe played sports, provided for their families and now they can no longer provide, some have to rely on a care taker to feed them and even to take a shower. We had brought some supplies, blankets, and food for the veterans and they were very grateful. Wynner translated for us and it melted my heart when you could see they acknowledged the translation through nodding of the head or a great big smile.

The veteran’s have been studying music and had prepared some songs for us. When they began to sing I felt a tingle rush down my arms and my eyes filled up with tears. For them to sing for a whole group of us, knowing that we are watching them and they cannot watch back must have taken a lot of courage. They were fantastic! The volume and harmony they had was unbelievable! We introduced ourselves after their songs and we sang for them as well. (We were definitely not as good as them! Haha but we did our best) Our group sang Amazing Grace and I know every time I hear that song it will remind me of this beautiful moment. Josh sang a solo and played his guitar and you could see the smiles on their faces. It made me so happy. The best part after was being able to go and shake their hands or touch their arms to thank them. Each and everyone of them responded with the most sincere gratitude and said “Thank you, God bless you” in English. I was amazed and couldn’t help but think to myself “no, thank you, you are the biggest inspiration to me. You have hope and motivation in such a horrible situation. We are the ones that have so much to learn about what’s going on and how we can help.” Some of the men have taken up sewing and making things. We purchased some precious keepsakes and were so impressed with their work! At the end Pat had presented them with a few prosthetic hands. It was a wonderful donation that I’m sure will greatly help some of them with mobility.

When I walked out of the veterans clinic I was overwhelmed with emotion. Part of me wanted to just cry my eyes out. Cry for the situation, cry for their beautiful music that they sang, cry because now my perspective on “I’m having a bad day” will never even be relevant compared to what people have gone through there. They inspired me to be a better person. I took a few deep breaths and knew that there was more on our agenda and we were on our way to visit Arthur’s Orphanage.

Kristin sharing her fingernail polish with a studentWe hopped into the vans and started back down that narrow very bumpy one way road that we took into the camp. We ended up stopping at a guard entrance to drop off supplies and then found out that we would be able to enter the camp through there. One by one we passed the boxes of food, gifts and supplies to the eager waiting children and we all followed carrying a parcel. It was almost surreal. There were shops that we passed, climbing over little bridges and hopped from stepping stone to stepping stone, up steep paths between huts. We finally reached the top where the orphanage was. All of the children rushed to see us and we settled in the church. There are over one hundred orphans in Arthur’s orphanage. The boys and girls range in age from very young to 27 years of age. They have a very strong faith, they study English and other languages as well as other subjects. I was really impressed at how well some of them spoke English! The children prepared a few songs for us and all assembled at the front of the church. They have the voices of angels! Beautifully gifted with so much love in their voices and in their smiles. After singing we chatted with them. A girl by the name of Julia stands out in my mind. I think she was around 18years old. We handed out candy and I painted her nails bright red. She was a beautiful young girl! All of the children were so well mannered. They were so polite and thankful.

Unfortunately our visit was only permitted to be an hour and we had to leave. As I was walking out of the church a young girl slipped her arm around mine. She wanted to know my name, how old I was, and how many sisters and brothers I had. We took a picture together and she just held me. Held onto me like she wanted me to walk through the camp gates with me. The most heart breaking thing for all of the people in the camp is they have no where to go. Unless they are sponsored to go to another country their future is right there in the camp. Even if Canada sponsors them they still need to get permission from the Thai government to be transported to Bangkok. If the Thai government says no, they have to stay.

I don’t think that we as Canadians, or North Americans realize how lucky we are that everything in our lives is an option. What do you feel like for dinner? Which gym should I get a membership at? Where should we go on vacation this year? What classes should we take in school, or which out of the 10 different that I applied for is the best fit? It’s really easy to say that the simple life is the way to go, but it’s a whole other storey if you don’t have the luxury to even have a choice. All of the children at Arthur’s orphanage and all of the people in the Mae La refugee camp have dreams of a better life, aspirations of education, working, traveling and having a family one day. They are no different from us. If I can bring relief to anyone who doesn’t have to luxury of choices that I do because of where they were born in the world, then it is my honour to bring help and awareness to these situations. I am the one who is truly blessed.

Kristin Winter