I’m there, but really I’m here; New York City, here.
That was six years ago. How time really does change things. From one year to the next. Year five to six. One continent to another. Europe to the US. US to Asia. Places can be transient. People, too. Sometimes so much that we feel like something was stolen from us. Is it the people that make a place come alive? Or would the place be alive regardless? Can forests, which habitually contain less people, still be considered alive in the same way as a city? I digress.
I saw They Call it Myanmar last week. I walked by a Thai restaurant in Chelsea today. Not that either of them should have something in common but for me they do. 2006. A border. They Call it Myanmar is a film about Burma, but as the title suggests, “they” call it Myanmar. Burma’s government. The military. Junta. They’re corrupt and unruly. Dishonest and ruthless. The country renamed itself Myanmar in 1989 however select countries around the world, the U.S. included, refused to call it Myanmar because it would indicate we, as a nation, were acquiescing to a criminal government. So I still call it Burma. Burma.
In 2006 I spent 10 months in a refugee camp on the border of Thailand and Burma. It was a covert period in life where my safety, admittedly, was in the hands of a community of 20,000. I left every other week on the back of a motorbike to call home and lived quite disparate to how my life in camp was carried out. Bucket baths. Rations. Escorts around camp. I left a free world and heard stories that left your heart aching for answers days after. Now it’s been years. As I sit here in my home, palatial compared to what I left, I remember these stories. How their voices were lit by the evening candles that left their faces aglow. Hiding out in the jungle. Joining the military as a porter. Stories of events that I, nor anyone I knew, ever came close to experiencing. The beings of these stories taught me about strength. About hardship. About perseverance. I taught them English. Oh, and answered questions about western life. “Do people in America really live in multiple story homes with sprawling green lawns?”
Watching the film took me back to my four days in Burma. Shwedegon Pagoda. Walking past Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. The guards. I remember looking over my shoulder wondering if someone was following me. I remember the monk who approached me and left me feeling uncomfortable because he asked too many questions about why I was there. A visa run. I remember questioning the large gated estates and the individuals appearing with cell phones. Who lived there? Who were they? Government officials. There was no way anyone other than the military could live in, or own, such items. Burma’s people and the outlying regions are grossly mistreated. Think, human rights violations and child soldiers. Think, communities fleeing these situations. Think, thousands of people and families seeking refuge nearby. Refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border. 9 of them.
I am reminded of the refugee camp more often than one may think living in New York City. It’s the lives of the people I see here who have just arrived. Who are struggling. And adjusting. Who are here for a better opportunity than where they left. Resettlement. It may be an option for some refugees but not all. Now, many of the families I knew from camp have resettled. America. Finland. Australia. Canada. Is it better for them? Will they achieve a higher standard of living? Don’t they miss home?
My hope for them is that someday, their home is exactly where they’ve chosen their feet to land. Not where an application directed them to live. Not where a government forced them to flee. Not where a makeshift community exists until the conflict ceases.
But, here. Wherever that choice happens to be.