Saturday, April 4, 2015

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire: Pakistani Asylum Seekers in Bangkok's Neighborhoods

Hi friends,

This is a long post, but I encourage you to read to the end. This topic has been weighing on my heart for some time, and I've finally put together some information about it. Please read, comment and contact me with any questions or concerns. 

I knew essentially nothing about Pakistan before I came to Thailand. Nor did I think that living in Thailand would teach me anything at all about a country in central Asia for which I had no frame of reference or real concern, or make me care so deeply for a people I had never met.

But God works in mysterious ways.

I began attending a church that ministers to some refugees in the area. I joined a small fellowship group through the church’s network, and one of these families was in my group. I had just moved to Thailand, and I was feeling very lonely. This family saw the loneliness I was carrying inside me, and they invited me over to their home. I went, a bit nervous, but was welcomed with the most genuine Christian love and hospitality I have experienced in many years. It didn’t matter that their home consisted of two small rooms with one big bed on the floor—which they converted into our dining table. They showed great appreciation for my company. In reality, I appreciated their company more than they knew, and I kept going back to sit and visit with them. Sometimes we would sing or play music. Other times we would play chess. Always we laughed and prayed, and there would be delicious food and tea. They told me many stories about their lives back home. They told me of their persecution and how Muslim Extremists had registered the blackened 295-C legal case against them: The Blaspheme Law against the Muslim Prophet Mohammad. In Pakistan, anyone accused of blasphemy receives execution. So the family fled to Bangkok.

In Bangkok today, there are approximately six thousand asylum seekers from Pakistan, most of whom have been accused of violating the Blaspheme Law. They come to Thailand because it is very easy to enter on a tourist visa. However,  as soon as those visas run out, they are regarded as criminals. 

Thailand, to this day, has never signed the UN Commission of Refugees;  this means that every asylum seeker and refugee, regardless of their status under the UNHCR (the UN High Commission on Refugees), is illegal. In the last month, police have arrested hundreds of families and thrown them behind bars. Last week I visited the Immigration Detention Center; the "prisoners" are detained in hot, overcrowded rooms. They are let out to walk around the building only twice a month, and they have extremely limited contact with the outside world. They have no clean drinking water, receive meager meals and very limited medicine. There is a host of diseases inside. It's a terrible place to be, but for most, it is their only option. The only way out is to be granted refugee status by the United Nations, a process which takes years, or to go back to Pakistan.  There is no choice but to suffer in prison. It is a terrible, terrible place.

Yet despite these struggles, something remarkable is happening. Communities of asylum seekers are uniting to create lives for themselves and their children. They may not be in control of their futures, but they can change their present circumstance, through faith, perseverance, friendship and sharing their stories. And they are doing just that.

 ************************************

Last year, my friend opened a makeshift school in his one room flat for the neighborhood children to learn. The school has grown to reach of 140 children all over the city. A few months ago, I went and taught drama lessons to some of the children. Their enthusiasm, excitement, and sharp wit brought me to tears (not in that room, of course. I had to be cool. They are teenagers, after all.) I miss them. I hope to see them again. I haven't been back, because the learning center had to shut down. Thai police began patrolling the neighborhood round the clock, and most families were too afraid to send their children outside.

Still, God works through the darkest circumstances. He brought these children out of Pakistan. He has delivered them from incredibly dangerous situations. He has opened four learning centers, one of which was given generously by the wife of a high-ranking Thai army official. The Lord works in miraculous ways.

When I visited the IDC last week I had the honor of meeting other residents of Bangkok who are doing their best to care for the detainees however they can. They work under the constraints of the visitor's rules and regulations to deliver home cooked meals, diapers, water, food and supplies to as many people as they can.

So why is this so important? Well, being here has showed me with my own unbelieving eyes how powerful prayer is. Most of all, these people need our support and to know we love them and our thinking about them. Even if you don't pray, just sending some thoughts, or talking to a friend who may not know what's going on, can do tremendous things to alleviate the suffering of people who feel so alone. And somehow, I feel like I'm here to help.

************************************

For more information about the situation, I recommend the following articles:

http://bigstory.ap.org/article/907aad6cecba463794926748e1fb4369/stuck-limbo-bangkoks-hidden-urban-refugees-scrape

http://farrukhsaif.com/crack-down-against-pakistani-asylum-seekers-in-bangkok-thailand/

http://liferaftinternational.org/about-us/the-situation-in-bangkok

With Love,
Mel

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Being 'Miss Rumphius'

Glacier National Park and environs  Gardens in front of East Glacier Lodge.
lupine flowers in full bloom

I'm not a parent, so I can't say much about what makes "good parenting," but I can tell you this: we read so many books as kids, and those books, with their poetry and pictures, still stick like stamps firmly in my mind.

The picture books especially remain close to my heart. Perhaps this is why I am a visual learner. Or, maybe I remember these books because I was too young to stay up late listening to my dad read The Hobbit to my older siblings. I still listened through the wall between my bedroom and the living room, but again, only pictures of scenes remain in my mind from that time.

There were many whose watercolors captivated me. My mother would read these books to me at bedtime, and I would half-listen as I lost myself in a sea of soft pastels. The books of Barbara Berger: Grandfather Twilight, When the Sun Rose, and The Donkey's Dream were three of my regular favorites.  I loved falling asleep, dreaming of beautiful twilights and sunrises and friendships and visits. Thanks, Mrs. Berger, for giving me sweet dreams :)

A page from Grandfather Twilight, by Barbara Berger. (Philomel Books, NY, 1984).

But perhaps one of my very favorite childhood books, one that, as an adult, I find myself going back to in my mind again and again, is Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius.

Miss Rumphius has a more involved plot than Berger's books, and the main character's journey along with the pictures, still captivates my heart.

The story is about a little girl who grows up and travels the world.

As a child, travelling far from home was never something I thought I could do; not because I was not capable, but I just didn't think it was real. The places I read about in Miss Rumphius seemed like wonderful fantasies to me, like The Shire in Tolkein's The Hobbit.

When I first moved to Israel, I felt this same captivation with every step I took. Every rock, every tree, every bus stop and plant and bowl of hummus was unique, precious, and undeniably extraordinary. Israel felt like a present God had given me to step outside of my own skin and into the pages of my favorite adventure story.

Of course, the unpleasant realities of politics and social clashes brought me out of that dream bubble, and I struggled with this clashing of my dreams and my reality the whole five and a half months I was there. But that's a different story...

I always admired Miss Rumphius, not because she traveled, but because travel was not her ultimate goal. Miss Rumphius, in my opinion, was the first real backpacker. In the story, she hikes the Himalayas with a guide, rides camels in Egypt to the pyramids, and meets a local village elder on some tropical beach, somewhere in the world. She didn't just lie on a beach getting seriously suntanned for two weeks and then go home (guilty as charged).

A page from Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney. Viking Books, 1982. The house on stilts in the background resembles traditional homes in Thailand and Cambodia.
Don't get me wrong--every once and a while, relaxing on a beach for a week in the sun can be a glorious thing. But my point is that all these places she visited, people she met, and adventures she had were real. They were not fantasies. They were very real experiences that await many travelers today. But there's something about her poise and grace that always fascinated me. Maybe it had to with the fact that she rode that camel side saddle and wearing a girdle. (Did I forget to mention that the book is set a century ago?) Or maybe, as a woman in 1915, it would have been nearly impossible for her to do what she did. But in the book, she did it. And she did by her own fortitude.


Yet, she also had the wisdom to come back to her own corner of the world after her travels were finished. In the story, Miss Rumphius becomes a librarian (probably yet another reason why I love this book).

And then she grows old.  And she lives in a house by the sea.

But before she passes away, she has something left to do. In the story, her grandfather told Miss Rumphius these words as a little girl:


You must do something to make the world more beautiful.


So she does. She rides her bike through her little seaside town and scatters lupine seeds everywhere, so that, come next spring, fields of lupine flowers suddenly spring up all over town.


Have you ever seen lupine flowers?

I love them, because they are wild and free and vibrant. Just like Miss Rumphius.

 Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney. Viking Books, 1982.

Home

It's that time of year again.

Yes, it's spring time, and somewhere outside of Bangkok there are flowers blooming. But the time I'm referring to is decision time. Transition time.

I have always associated the months of March, April and May with stress, stress, stress. As a student, this is crunch time: exams, final projects, papers, recitals, formals, etc. etc. etc.

But on top of that, at the end of spring comes the highly anticipated yet simultaneously dreaded summer break, which we are taught must be for furthering our still kind of amorphous career aspirations. Get an internship! Volunteer! Go abroad! Then come with just enough time to kiss your family and head back to school.

Man, I'm glad that's over...

Except, here it is again, nearing the end of March, and it's my decision time again.

Do I stay in Bangkok?

Do I stay in Thailand?

Do I go home?

I admit that, as thoughts of summer time pools and hugging my dogs fill my mind, I get so overwhelmed that I want to pack my bags right now and hop on the first plane to Tennessee.

Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing.

I'm not exactly homesick, or even nostalgic. I'm just trying to find my place. Sometimes, I think home is my only place.

I thought about home, and what it means to different people. A line from the Hobbit [movie, unfortunately] popped into my head as a young Bilbo Baggins admits to his courageous friends "I do miss home. I miss my books. And my armchair."

I feel ya, Bilbo.

Everyone around me is soaring off on grand adventures and making wild summer plans, and I just want to go home. Not because I'm lonely, or unhappy, or disappointed. I just love home.

Yet the word "home" also stirs up something else in my mind: a popular song by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, bearing the same name. When I studied abroad in Israel a few years ago, this song became our anthem; not only because we were young students half way around the world, but because home, in Israel, is a contested thing, not always permanent, and often transitory.

I struggled with homesickness a lot in Israel, and my close friend and counselor reminded me of the lyrics of this song:

Ahh, home
Let me come home
Home is wherever I'm with you

He doesn't say "home is a two story brick house in Mississippi with a front porch swing and a lot of dust bunnies."

Anyone who's moved a lot can tell you that a home is much, much more than the infrastructure; it's the people.

And though my biological family isn't in Bangkok, God has given me many satellite families. He has a way of bringing everything together in ways that are impossible by ourselves.

With men, this is impossible.
But with God, all things are possible.
Matthew 19:26

I've been blessed with many friends and new family members who, like me, have uprooted themselves and replanted in a crazy new country. A very wise friend  reminded me recently that "lemongrass and celery plants" can regrow in a new pot one they are uprooted and replanted.

Maybe this is us, she thinks. Uproot, replant, grow. This is the transition time, which comes from the decisions we make that we may never be completely confident in. But somehow, God keeps giving us soil, water, and sunlight. We just have to have faith.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Living Inside the Outside

What happens when you move into the outside of your comfort zone??

Having passed the six month bench mark of living in Thailand (actually, I'm going on month EIGHT already...amazing..), I recently found myself in a self-prescribed "funk." After the country-hopping adventures of Christmas break, I was back into teaching, finding myself caught up in a routine of "get up, go to class, come home, eat, sleep, repeat." I was reminded of the late David Foster Wallace's college graduation speech given at Kenyon back in 2005 on the importance of remembering to look up from the steering wheel every once and a while to appreciate where you are.

Even though I am in a different country, I still fell victim to that nasty habit of taking everything for granted and becoming weary of the everyday, the "mundane;" the repetitiveness of work and the pressures of life got to me. I was "in a funk."

So what do you do when you suddenly move into the outside of your comfort zone? What do you do when everything that was new and strange becomes normal, routine, and slightly predictable?

I struggled to answer this question. For a few weekends I hibernated, shut the world out, watched Youtube videos and ate bowls of noodles. And sometimes, a girl just needs a curry-noodle-Boy-Meets-World kind of weekend. I'm okay with that.

Me on a Friday afternoon.
But eventually, I had to emerge from my hole in the wall and breathe in the smelly air of Bangkok, because at a certain point I ceased to recharge, and I ended up hurting myself by isolating myself beyond what was necessary. This is something, I'm noticing after many years, I tend to do.

Fortunately, life has a way of meeting you where you are, grabbing your hand and pulling you along when you least expect it and most need it. And, by the Grace of God, I found amazing ways to cope. I reached out to friends who, it turned out, were experiencing similar feelings. Together we vowed to make the most of our time here, and a few weeks later, I can honestly say that things are picking up with amazing speed!

It was not an easy transition--but I wonder if any transition is easy. But, when you pick up your head long enough to realize "this is water," you will be amazed at what you can discover. So, in my case, I decided to take a walk down a street I had never been down before, and guess what I discovered?

WATER!

Yes. I had been staying with a friend in a local area of the city, and last Friday night I found myself alone and on the cusp of another "funk." So I left the apartment to go to 7-11 for some milk, but instead, I turned right instead of left and set out on a nice, long, solo walk.

I began to notice things I had never noticed before, like coffee shops and karaoke bars (no surprise there), apartment buildings and even a university--who knew?  Then, I came to a bustling, unpaved intersection with no hope of crossing it. So I watched the cars and semi-trucks whiz past me at break neck speed, and I thought to myself "this is so different from home." And I was happy. I was happy to be looking at a traffic scene, witnessing a cross-section of local lives before which point I had never come into contact. And I felt different...calmer...more accepting of my current reality.

Finally, when the traffic ceased, I raced across the road and continued my journey. It did not last very long, because I came to a dead end. How strange, I thought, that this seemingly busy road suddenly dead-ends. Why would it do that? I could have just turned back and accepted this peculiarity, but I was not ready to go home. So I kept walking, and that's when I discovered the pier.

There's a PIER at the end of my street. A pier, where boats and water taxis come and go, where people get on and off and are swept away down the Chao Praya into other pockets of Bangkok, unbeknownst to little ole ignorant me. Of course none of these occurrences depended on me seeing them; they, like everything else God made, existed before and without me. Yet to me, this pier is  special, because I learned something very valuable that night.

I never have to accept things just as they are, or resign myself to the fact that "this is all there is," because "this" is never all there is. Somewhere down the street, there is a boat dock waiting to float me down another river I never even knew existed.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

What I learned from Travelling in Vietnam

What I learned from Travelling in Vietnam:

1. Culture shock is real, even if you only stay in a country for ten days.

2. Ten days is not nearly enough time to appreciate all that Vietnam has to offer.

3. Vietnam is diverse. The south is hot and humid, much like Bangkok. Yet the North feels cleaner, calmer, and crisper. It certainly was colder! I never left the hotel without a sweater, a jacket, and two scarves. But then again I'm used to the 80 degree (F) winter in Bangkok :)

4. The landscape is incredibly diverse as well. The south is full of dense, tropical forests and muddy river deltas. The center boasts pristine mountain peaks with some truly exquisite views, and more coffee plantations than I have ever laid eyes on in my life!

Some of the many hills lined with coffee plants.
5. The capital, Hanoi, has a "petit Paris" feel (due to a century of French colonialism), but the abundance of motorbikes and confusing street names will not let you forget that you are, indeed, in Southeast Asia.

Getting a chuckle out of linguistic diversity.
6. Vietnam is industrial, noisy, hectic and yet somehow still charming in an unintentional sort of way. I think most of the charm, at least what attracted me, came from the fact that a lot of people live exactly as they always have before opening up to the West, and so you don't feel the insane effects of commercialization that you get in Bangkok. Most locals seemed to have little regard for regulations or standards and simply went about their business as they pleased. Charming, and yet frustrating, especially if you are the one trying to do business with someone.

7. Things are authentically inauthentic, like the little "Italian" restaurant where I ate my Christmas eve dinner. The food was questionable, and I've never had a caprese salad with olives in it before, but still I loved it for its unintentional charm. The old, gray haired Vietnamese man carried the little wine glasses with such pride, and the old maps and Etruscan pictures on the walls relayed a true passion for all things Italiano...even if he didn't actually serve the promised gelato.

Enjoying a new recipe for caprese salad.
8. Christmas is not Christmas like I had ever experienced it. To most people in Vietnam, Christmas is just an excuse to party, kind of like Americans do on New Years eve, Halloween, St. Patty's Day and virtually all non-religiously mandated holidays.

9. Foreigners are almost always charged twice the normal price, because everyone assumes that you are rich, even if you are not. Still, according to Vietnamese standards, you probably are.

10. I have never been anywhere like Vietnam. Even Cambodia and Thailand, its close neighbors, differ so much in spirit, charm, history and life-force. I'm not sure if I'll ever make it back. But I am really glad I went.

Hanoi, the capital city.
With love,
Mel

Monday, January 5, 2015

Backpackers Unite!

Backpackers unite!
Crowds of tall, blonde and
curly, strong merry wanderers,
balloon pants wave and
tattoos adorn.

See their beards and long hair
blow in the dusy wind,
Lit cigarettes fall to the earth
beneath elephant feet
and ancient temple sand-stones.

"Another beer, please!" They cheers--
Proust! Salud! from the balcony
as dark skinned locals pour
them shots
and dance
the merengue.

`````````````
The List

"One, two, trois!"
Take a photo, quick,
before you get elbowed away by eager tourists
out of the spotlight.

Here it is, folks! The famous TOMB RAIDER temple.
Never mind that it honors the Buddha,
a Hindu god incarnate.
LAURA CROFT WAS HERE
as if spray graffiti and internet memes mark
the spot.
Quick! Take a picture!
It might
disappear.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Cambodian Complexities: I have a feeling we're not in Thailand anymore, Toto

Today I'm typing from a close friend's apartment in the Udom Suk neighborhood of Bangkok. Yesterday I walked through graves in Cambodia: the Killing Fields, one of many sights where the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia's most notorious mass-murdering regime, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent Khmer people not more than thirty five years ago. As I walked, my audio tour guide gently reminded me not to step on any bone fragments, as such remains tend to surface after the rainy season and the soil shifts. I couldn't take any pictures ( I was allowed to take pictures, but emotionally I could not), but I found part of a jawbone with a few teeth lying half-exposed beneath the dusty soil, and pieces of what looked like arm or leg bones appeared near by.

I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The complexities of Khmer culture, both ancient and modern, overwhelmed me as soon as I stepped off the bus in Siem Riep. Before that, as my bus chugged slowly across the border from Aranyaprathet, Thailand into Cambodia, I was surprised at how similar it felt: rows of young and old women selling fruits and snacks, car repair shops and convenience stores dotting the drab, dusty landscape. But as we left the border town, I was struck by verdant beauty: miles and miles of lush rice paddies, palm trees and mangroves. Milky-white cows grazed on bright green grasses as local farmers squatted by their rice crops preparing to harvest. It was so calm, and it was so beautiful. I felt a sense of peace I hadn't felt in a long time.

Yet when we arrived in Siem Riep, the town closest to the famous Angkor temples, I realized that things operate differently here. First, there were no taxis--two or four wheel--in sight. As soon as I was off the bus, twenty or so men approached me asking if I needed a tuk-tuk, which is a motorized rick-shaw, the Cambodian answer to taxis. My first instinct was to walk away and search for a "legitimate" taxi driver, but as I did so I noticed that there were no taxi drivers. There were only rows of tuk-tuks parked along the street. I guess there was no other option. 

As it turns out, there isn't, at least if you're a foreigner, and especially if you want to see the Angkor temples, about 15 km outside of town. My first morning there, on the way to Angkor Wat, I turned around in my seat and couldn't help laughing: a sea of tuk-tuks paraded down the road behind us, fading into the horizon, as if this were a rehearsed, daily ritual. After spending a few days in Siem Riep, I believe this is exactly the truth. The part of Siem Riep that I saw seems to have been constructed entirely for foreign backpackers, and the glow-in-the-dark signs that hang overhead state my case: "Night market" and "pub street" illumine two crossroads like cheesy Christmas lights in a shopping mall. Rows of rowdy pubs with a ninety-eight percent foreign clientele make it hard to believe that this is still Cambodia, the small and ancient country that was up until very recently a United Nations protectorate. 

It's easy to forget this if you stay in Siem Riep, but as soon as you leave--on a drive through the countryside if you have a nice tuk-tuk driver who's willing to take you, or on a speedboat down the Tonle Sap--you realize how poor most of Cambodia is, and it hits you in the face like the hard, strong sun. Most of Cambodia's people are farmers--not commercial farmers, but subsistence farmers. Many take boats into the Tonle Sap river to fish and sell their findings at market, but they rarely make a large profit. I'm no expert on Cambodian economics, but I know that, materially at least, most of these people have very, very little. 

Still, I couldn't help but be taken in by the natural beauty and picturesque tranquility of the fishing villages that dotted the landscape as my speedboat whirred past. Mangrove forests, floating houses and family fishing boats came to greet us like beacons into another world. This was truly foreign to me--a lifestyle so untouched by modernity, yet so at peace with nature. I admit I felt jealous of them. 

One of many fishing boats we passed. 

Homes built along the water. These are not built on stilts, though most houses are, to protect from floods.
There was something that appealed to me about this lifestyle. And yet I wondered what they thought of me and the other tourists in the boat. As we passed, many of them smiled and waved. I wondered how genuine was this gesture. There's no way of knowing, though to me it felt truthful. And that, in the midst of everything else, made me feel welcome.

There was one more place I had to visit before I left Cambodia.  I know most people don't travel for the museums, but I do. Having written a paper on the Cambodian genocide last spring, there was no way I was going to Cambodia without visiting Tuol Sleng, the former prison and interrogation center of the Khmer Rouge.

Tuol Sleng, or S-21 as it is also known, stands in the middle of Phnom Penh, the capital city. From the outside, it is nondescript and seems to blend in with the other beige cement buildings around it. But as soon as I stepped inside I felt chilled. Tuol Sleng used to be a high school; it was built in the sixties during a brief period when Cambodia had a sovereign leader, before the civil war began. When the KR took power, they emptied the city and turned Tuol Sleng into their interrogation headquarters. Here, they imprisoned and tortured thousands of innocent people: members of the opposition government, those with educations, those with glasses, and their families. They also imprisoned a string of westerners here. Their testimonies remain, displayed on the third floor in the original Khmer script for all to see. The kinds of confessions people made up are absurd. The whole thing is absurd. It's impossible to comprehend.

So I just cried. I cried a lot, and I couldn't really stop, but I told myself to keep it together, because these stories needs to be told. I felt so grateful to the hard-working men and women who are now running the museum and guiding tourists like me; they have a great responsibility to share these stories. It's chilling and gruesome to walk through the prison cells, and even worse when you continue on the 15 km journey outside of the city to the Killing Fields, where the mounds dug as mass graves are still deeply imprinted in the earth. I don't think I had ever been that close to human bones before. It's a terrible sight. 

So what now? I left Cambodia early; I didn't want to stay. I confronted reality, and it overwhelmed me, so I left. But for the million and a half that died under the KR, and for millions still living in poverty or under threat of land-mine explosion today, they can't leave. This is their reality. 

I didn't stay long enough to ask anyone about it. My tuk-tuk driver, Alex, told me a little about his life as a boy. He is twenty-six years old, and his parents survived the Khmer Rouge. But he didn't talk about how. He told me how he used to go on the Tonle Sap every day in a boat to fish for extra food to sell at market. He said they were very poor. 

Sympathy, empathy, guilt and a host of other feelings overtook me during my five powerful days in Cambodia. It's a lot for anyone to stomach, and I try not to shame myself for it, though I wish I had answers and cures. If all I can do right now is to tell this small story to someone else, then I can be happy with that. And maybe you can share this with someone else who may not know about it.  I visited Cambodia, and I found a world that was simultaneously untouched and hopelessly crushed by modernity. It isn't fair. Cambodia is so beautiful, and I wish I had stayed for a much longer time.

If you'd like to read more about Cambodia's recent history and to learn about excellent recovery projects like Land-Mine removal, I recommend these sights:

De-mining efforts in Cambodia (this contains information about the Land Mine Museum near Siem Reap, which I also visited. It chronicles the efforts of one former KR child soldier in de-mining Cambodia and helping land-mine victims. Absolutely worth a visit if you are ever in Siem Reap).