Thursday, August 26, 2010

hope and a future

Chico is a handsome young man from Burma, who has been spending some time in Mae Sot trying to earn money for his family. He is too old to beg (depending on the day, he says he is either 13 or 19), so he has had a tough time here. He visits our Drop-In Center on Wednesdays, and never wants to leave. You can see the ache for safety and affection on his face. He has really connected with my friend Katie, and she has a special heart for him.

Last week, he showed up at our office with his friend Ali. They wanted to return to Burma that day, and wanted us to give them money. We stood at our gate and delivered our standard, "I'm sorry, we can't give you money" response. Looking miserable and defeated, they started to turn away. We asked if they were thirsty, and invited them to sit at the table in front of our office. They gulped down some water, and Katie went to a restaurant next door to order some food for them. Enjoying our unexpected visitors, Katie began speaking with Chico in Burmese, and I talked to Ali in Thai. We engaged with them separately in different languages, periodically stopping to tell the other what we were hearing.

Ali explained that he lost his vision when he was eight years old. He comes from Burma, and has no mother or father. He cannot work because he's blind, and he is lucky to have a friend like Chico who will hold his hand around town. They are currently staying in one of the poorest neighborhoods, and they face challenges every day just to survive. They don't know when or how they're going to get food, if they'll be safe, and now, how they'll get back home to Burma. As I watched Ali speak with such desperation, words weighted with the suffering he feels every minute, I came quite close to bursting into tears.

What kind of future does Ali have? Will this incredible spark in Chico's eyes last much longer?

Where will these young men end up?

Just as it was all feeling too heavy for us to stand, Chico casually mentioned that he speaks English. When we asked him if he actually does, he just said, "yeah!"... like it was no big deal. We quickly calculated what we had already said to each other in English, and realized he understood us saying how cute he was. Oh well.

Ali told me all his troubles, with every bit of misery apparent, but then told me that he felt good sitting there with us. He asked if he could come back every day, and I had to say no. I explained it was our office and that they couldn't come every day, but that we really liked spending time with them and would meet them over the weekend. He said, "Really? You'll come see me?", and I replied, "Really, we will!" (it sounds so much cooler in Thai)

So we did. We took two of our male Interns to visit the community where they were staying, and found Chico in a small house with almost 30 other people. I had never been to this street before, and was overwhelmed by the poverty. I have seen poverty here, and let me tell you... I was overwhelmed. The dead-end road was lined with a long apartment-like structure on each side, and each little home was spilling over with people, laundry and garbage. We sat on the concrete floor in the living room with old men and women sitting against the walls, babies and little kids crawling all over (of course with no pants), young women lying down and watching TV, the men talking and watching it all, and another 15 people standing outside and crowding the windows to peer in. Ali was apparently staying at the mosque, but we got to see Chico and let him know that he was worth visiting. He smiled the whole time. So did we.

I pray for the futures of these kids, and for their hearts to be protected from all the trouble around them. Some of the kids have seemingly resigned to life on the streets, but I can see that Chico wants more. He has dreams, and I cling to hope that he can someday be all he wants to be.

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. -Jer 29.11

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Burma has stolen my heart.Add Image

I came here because I knew there were social justice issues on the Thai-Burma border, but I was not prepared for what I would see and feel.

Issues can get to you… I cried my eyes out as I learned about sex trafficking, and my blood has boiled over other types of injustice.

But people… people can forever change you. When it’s no longer an issue, but a face – and then, not just a face, but a heart and a soul – all bets are off. I doubt that I’ll live in or near Burma for the rest of my life, but I will never forget these amazing people or the suffering they endure.

Let me start with a little background. The military junta has been in power for the last 50 years, and it has been an era marked by cruelty and tragedy. The country is closed, no photos are allowed and no news is supposed to travel in or out, and the military is constantly watching the people. They are always on the move, terrorizing whatever villages they come across. The people of Burma are subject to the rapes and killings that so frequently take place, and families are often separated. Because the military has planted so many landmines all over the country and doesn’t want to cross paths with them, they will take men, women and children from their homes to be human minesweepers for them. Or, they might be forced to be porters, carrying heavy loads for impossible hours until they are either killed or escape. If the people are so bold as to resist, there are bloody battles and the military’s control will only tighten. The Karen State in Burma has stood their ground, and currently has armies fighting Burma’s military, which is ironically called the SPDC – State Peace and Development Council. There has recently been activity on the border, with an attempted assassination, gunfire and bombs near Myawaddy (just across the bridge).

There have been two major uprisings – one in 1988 and one in 2007. Citizens came together to march for freedom, and were shot in the streets. The monks joined the protest in 2007, and their temples were raided, ending in abductions, beatings and killings. It is striking and saddening to see how the people’s hope has been strangled. After living under oppression for so long, hope was born in beauty as they saw the possibility of a better future. And it ended when that door was closed and the tyranny worsened.

I witnessed this in their faces when I spent the day in Myawaddy last month. While it was just a short walk across the Friendship Bridge, something changed when I entered Burma. I could see the military presence as soldiers marched around with their rifles. I saw the poverty, the children and disabled men and women begging on the streets. I saw the fear in their eyes and the absence of hope.

Can you imagine a life like this?

For many, their best option is to escape to a neighboring country like Thailand. While they may be escaping some immediate danger, they are entering a life as being an “illegal” person. They will have no documentation, no chance to work at a fair wage, to own a home or a vehicle, or to have health insurance. They still must live in fear of being caught and sent back to Burma, and they are unable to leave the city because they would not make it through the many security checkpoints.

I met a man who had gotten a full scholarship to a university in Sweden, but he couldn’t go because he did not have a passport. His plan was to traffic himself to another country, where he would then try to get the paperwork he would need to travel. I have not talked to him since he left.

Through Compasio’s engagement at Mae Sot’s garbage dump, we met a man and woman from Burma who shared their story with us. They had eight children in Burma, and after every child died, they came to Thailand looking for a better life. They had been living at the garbage dump for the last twelve years, along with about 200 more people with similar stories.

My friend works at Mae Tao Clinic, a non-profit clinic that serves mainly Burmese people. Many will save their money for years just to make it across the border, and will often sell everything they have to get there. The clinic sees some extreme cases of illness and injury, and they created the Burma Children Medical Fund to expand the care they’re able to provide. My friend has interviewed wounded soldiers, and she has shown me the prosthetic lab where 20-40 people who lost a limb from a landmine will receive a new arm or leg each month.

I have a friend who cannot return to Burma because of his suspected political involvement, and he has not had any contact with his family in over ten years. He spent four years in a refugee camp before coming to Mae Sot, and now his future is so uncertain.

I have sometimes felt guilty that I happened to be born in America, and I have never understood the value of having a US Passport until now. I can go anywhere I want to. I could go to school in Europe, get a job in Asia, go on vacation in South America, and return home at any time. Apologizing for that doesn’t get one anywhere, but it has both humbled me and angered me.

The Bible says that the enemy comes to kill and destroy. I’m pretty sure he’s living in Burma.

But I also know that the Lord loves justice, and that he calls us to love and care for the poor and oppressed. I’m not about to march into Burma and start demanding freedom, but I am praying. And I’m asking you to pray. If you feel something for these people, if you want them to have hope and a future, and if you are wondering what you can do, this is the answer: Pray. God hears, and he is always working. Let’s have faith that we will see great things here.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.

… For I, the Lord, love justice. Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8