A Story to Make You Smile

This year’s Christmas campaign is all about smiles. Smiles that brighten up the holiday season and smiles that light up the faces of friends and family.

This year, Room to Grow accomplished a lot. We helped feed and shelter over 400 children from Mae Ramat, Mae La, Mae Sot, Pho Phra and Umphium, and that number is steadily growing. We laughed, we danced, we sang, and most importantly, we ate, we studied and we slept.

But it was also a difficult year. Rations got cut in camp. New arrivals, including many new children looking for an education, weren’t able to access simple rations like rice and went hungry for a while before we could assess and fix the situation. At Agape, some children made the choice to leave school and go back to the streets. Other children made the choice to leave the streets and come to school. Most recently, we faced the overwhelming flood of refugees from Myawaddy and Wah Lay and then their shocking forced return.

During all of it, during the times when I am sad, during the times which are difficult, during the times when I am simply tired, the things that keeps me going are smiles.

I first came to Mae Sot in 2004 on a six month contract. I thought I would make the most of my time here, and then move on because the world is a large place and there is lots of work to do. I was fortunate enough to have a job working with young adults. People who were my age and acted like most people my age. They had homework, they had crushes, the agonized about pimples. But little by little I learned more about them and their stories and how they came to be living in a refugee camp. I learned that strength is not simply about surviving when bad things happen to you, but learning how to sing again after they have. I met people who live beautifully in horrible places. It was inspiring. Those smiles inspired me to continue working long beyond my six month plan into what has become six years.

Those smiles still inspire me.

Last year, I met a little boy at Agape who, for the purposes of this blog, we will call Kyaw Kyaw (not his real name). Its hard not to notice Kyaw Kyaw. He is a beautiful little boy with big eyes and a cute face. Lots of people who visit take his photograph. And in every photo he has his big eyes open wide and a blank face.

I see a lot of blank faces among young children who have lost their parents. It’s like some part of them has shut down or shut off. They eat, they sleep, the walk through the playground, but it is as if it is all happening in slow motion, through a fog, and none of it registers on their face.

Kyaw Kyaw was just over two years old when I first met him. I couldn’t help but pick him up and cuddle him. Every time I visited, I would hold him in my arms for a while and kiss his cheek before leaving. Sometimes I held him as we walked around the school, surveying the fish ponds or looking at the site for the new well. Kyaw Kyaw started falling asleep in my arms. It was like he could finally let go there, or maybe that he finally felt safe. I often left him napping in the dormitory.

Kyaw Kyaw and his older sister both live in the boarding house at Agape. Their mother is dead. Their single father brought both children to the school to enroll them. At the time, Kyaw Kyaw was (and still is) too young for school, so the headmaster asked the father to keep the child at home. “Children this young require a lot of attention,” the headmaster explained to the father, “so it’s really better for him to stay with you.”

The father nodded and took Kyaw Kyaw home. At the end of the school day, he picked up his daughter. The next day he brought her back to school, and picked her up again. A week went by in this manner. But the following week, the father brought both children back again. “I really need help,” he said. “I can’t work and take care of my son. Please, will you take him into the nursery for the day.” The headmaster, a man of incredible compassion, relented and took Kyaw Kyaw into the nursery program. And all week the father dropped the children off in the morning and picked them up after school in the evening.

Until one day he didn’t. He dropped off his children in the morning and he didn’t come back for them. He hasn’t been back and Kyaw Kyaw’s face has been blank ever since.

I wanted to make that face move. I started wearing sparkly jewelry when I visited the school.  I wanted to entice the little boy, to get him engaged, to see him playing with something. Sometimes he would pick up my necklace in his hand and turn the beads over, slowly, one by one, but nothing registered on his face.

It was more than six months since I first met him when Kyaw Kyaw started to change. I noticed it during a dance session. The music was playing and he was in my arms and we were whirling around. I found out the way to turn his frown upside down was to turn little Kyaw Kyaw upside down. Whirling around upside down I saw his crazy little grin for the first time ever, his half rotted teeth a little creepy to look at but the expression on his face simply sublime.

The next week, I was sitting in the kitchen speaking with the headmasters wife when he saw me. And just like that, he smiled.

Last week, I had the music on and all the students were running around, being crazy, moving to the music and dancing their faces off. I was taking a break, sitting on a bench, when I noticed Kyaw Kyaw in the corner. He was playing with another little boy his age. Then he stood up and started dancing.

He was dancing in that way that 3-year-olds do, which has nothing much to do with the music playing outside, and everything to do with the rhythms inside. Their knees jerk and they flail their arms around.

As soon as I grabbed my camera, he stopped and went back to playing. So I put the camera away and just sat watching him. I watched him play with the other children. I watched him laugh. I watching him smile mischievously and joyously. I watched him dance all by himself in the corner, totally oblivious to the world. It’s the dancing that made me cry. Watching him dance, I was reminded that it is never too late, that nothing is ever too horrible, that we can’t come back from it if we try hard enough and have enough love around.

At the end of the CD, when Jive Bunny and the Mastermixes was playing, and the last school bus was getting ready to leave and take children home, Kyaw Kyaw stops playing in the corner. He runs outside for a little victory dance. He eludes his sister who is always looking after him, puts on his shoes and shakes his fists in the air with a wild little jiggle.  You can’t see his smile from this little video, but I think you can see a little boy who is wild and alive and fully present once more in this world, and what a beautiful, beautiful thing that is.

This year’s Christmas Campaign is all about smiles, the smiles that light up my life and keep me going, the smiles that inspire me. The photographs that are part of the gift you buy when you donate in someone’s name were taken during some of the song and dance sessions we have done over this past year and they capture some of these amazing moments of joy, from children with unbelievable strength, who have been through so much, and come so far, and still know how to sing, how to dance, and how to smile.


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