Will they stay or will they go?

When the alarm went off at 4:30am this morning, I really couldn’t think of a single reason why I would want to get out of bed. It was dark and cold. What could possibly be so important when sleep was so sweetly calling?

No time for coffee, I walked out to the highway, just in time to meet my ride, the lovely folks at Help Without Frontiers. Their staff and volunteers had spent the night preparing 800 meals for a group of 700 refugees from Wah Lay who were sheltering in Pho Phra, less than an hour from Mae Sot.

Our goal was to get out there and distribute the food before the Thai authorities sent everyone back. The refugees at this site do not want to go back. In fact, when I spoke with people this morning and asked them, “Where are you going today?” they told me that they were moving sites to somewhere not far away, where there would be toilet facilities.

These people do not want to go home and I don’t blame them. We continue to receive reports of fighting in the area and people’s fear of conscription into forced labor is well grounded in long experience. It is harvest time. Very little can keep a Karen farmer from his or her fields at this time of year. If people say they don’t want to be at home, harvesting their fields, you can be sure something serious is going on.

We left Mae Sot in the dark with the stars shining. We arrived in Pho Phra as dawn was breaking. The hills were covered in mist. People huddled in what blankets they had. They were gathered in a farmer’s field, sheltering under the livestock pens. The place had been provided for them by the Thai village headman who wanted to do more but who had very little time to prepare for their arrival. There are no toilets.

The team this morning consisted of TBBC, the Mae Tao Clinic and Help Without Frontiers, all of whom are doing excellent work with the new refugees. MTC brought out bags of second hand clothes which were distributed to much excitement. I waited with a man who was shivering to get his allotment of clothes. I watched a man get a bright blue ski jacket and a little girl get a pink skirt that delighted her.

The refugees are very well organized. They are in groups with leaders who have their names and family information written down. Distribution is relatively easy and extremely well organized.

A few people have fires going, some for warmth and some for cooking. I squat by the fire for a while making casual conversation that transcends culture. “It’s cold, isn’t it?” There are nods all round. The sun is rising, but the mist and chill remains.

Oddly enough, there is a monkey chained to a fence and painted half red. It seems like something from Alice in Wonderland. The children are fascinated by it, half scared, half excited.

There are so many children. There are so many babies and infants. I speak briefly with a woman who cradles a baby not yet two weeks old. I sit on the mat of a family with three small children huddling in blankets and ask their names. The children stare at me with wide eyes, not moving while their mother laughs and chats. She tells me their names and ages. I slip them a beanie baby each under the blanket. The wide eyed stare disappears in delight. A few minutes later the trio are running around showing their treasures off to their mother who is waiting for clothes.

We unload the boxes of rice and hurry that have been so prepared, boxed and bagged by the Help Without Frontiers crew and everyone lines up for their box and sits down to eat. We take the moment of calm to slip away back to the truck and back to Mae Sot.

While we handed out food, others spent the morning advocating with the authorities. Pleading with them not to send these people home. I haven’t heard yet if they were successful or not, but I spent the day with those faces and smiles in my mind, hoping those children and their families made it safely through another day.

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