By Franziska Ewald, ESADE MBA Programme Manager
I have often been asked why I volunteer in another country when there are many problems closer to home – in fact, I have long asked myself the same question.
Is there a selfish element in volunteering, that is, feeling good about helping happy children in a friendly tropical country? As this article explains, we should not go to other countries to help because we have been seduced by problems that seem easy to solve, but because we have fallen in love with the complexity.
I found my answer when volunteering on the border between Thailand and Burma, where I spent time and effort teaching English to a group of young Burmese in Mae Sot – and fell in love with the complexity of the border. Although the context may seem idyllic at first, it requires a process of adaptation to new cultures, languages, and customs (because there are many ethnic groups living together in the area). An open mind is needed to face a context as complex as a borderland. There are no easy solutions, and very different people can be found, with different intentions, and representing infinite shades of good and evil.
After a visit to Burma in 2012, I felt the need to get involved and contribute something. I was deeply affected to see that the people were so open and hospitable to foreigners, despite having lived under oppressive dictatorships for half a century and escaping the armed ethnic conflicts that rage across several states. As you can see in the news every day, people flee their homes when they suffer continuous violations of their basic rights, and they look for new job opportunities and educational opportunities for their children. Many people risk their lives escaping from unsafe and unstable environments.
I could see that every day hundreds of people crossed the border between Burma and Thailand at the confluence between Mae Sot and Myawaddy. They crossed for many reasons, some routinely, and others as a last resort to escape persistent regional conflicts. While some migrants move temporarily, or have fled and returned on earlier occasions, others flee permanently. These migrants eventually arrive in one of nine camps for refugees in Thailand and Burma, joining the more than 100,000 people already living there.
However, not all migrants and refugees end up in ‘temporary shelters’, the name given to refugee camps in Thailand, as the country has not signed the UN Refugee Convention. Many of the refugees live in communities along the border, often in poor conditions and without electricity, drainage, nor access to healthcare and education. Because they often lack identity papers, people in these communities are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. A simple visit to a hospital some 40 km away can become an odyssey of uncertainty, while Europeans can calmly ride the bus.
When poverty is so extreme, children become the weakest link and face the consequences of hunger, abuse, and neglect. Parents sometimes make the difficult decision to leave their children in an orphanage when they cannot provide food or shelter.
Fortunately, abandoned children are welcomed in orphanages. These becomes their new homes – shared with new brothers and sisters and a few adults. Safe houses and orphanages in this area are much more than mere shelters, because they also protect children from exploitation and abuse.
Thanks to the charities working in Mae Sot, such as Colabora Birmania, these vulnerable children can find a new and safer life with a large family, eat a stable and balanced diet, go regularly to school, and enjoy childhood.
Something that did make me think is that for a sum of money equivalent to the price of a coffee in Barcelona, you can give a whole week of school lunches to a child on the Burmese border. In many cases, this daily food is the only food available for these children. And if this were not enough, the food provided by charities is more than just nutrition: it is often the main reason why displaced children go to school – because their families are too poor to provide enough food.
The incredible craving for education shown by children and young people living in the border area is one of the aspects that most impressed me. They are totally committed and make every effort to attend school, even if they have to walk several hours each day, work hard in a vocational training centre, or live far from their families at a young age. The efforts and sacrifices they make are amazing.
These children are an inspiration. They believe in the goodness of people, and with the support of others, and above all, with much self-help, they are able to achieve a better life. Their sense of community and solidarity is amazing, and we can learn much from them by simply having an open mind and being willing to sit down and talk, play, and study with them.
Since 2012 Burma has been rebuilding its political landscape, and the nation held democratic elections in November 2015. However, many questions remain unanswered and many conflicts remain as vivid as ever. Charities are withdrawing from Mae Sot and border areas, so there are now fewer resources for refugees living in camps and communities – and their situation is increasingly vulnerable. Children who have grown up on the Thai side of the border will face even more difficulties if they are repatriated to a country where they have never lived, and where they have even fewer chances of receiving an education.
Therefore, it is important to be aware of what is happening on the border between Thailand and Burma, follow the democratic transition that is taking place in Burma and, above all, support the people who, despite the most difficult circumstances, never give up and continue to work for a better future for themselves and their children.
Learn to love complexity
Franziska Ewald is the ESADE MBA Programme Manager. The images illustrating this post are taken from a series of photos he took during a volunteer trip to the border between Thailand and Burma, and were recently shown in the exhibition space at ESADE Sant Cugat. The photos and accompanying texts can be seen in his blog ‘A Pursuit for Happiness: Portraits of Lives at the Border’.