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Fire in Umphium

It happens all the time, right? Somewhere in the world, sometime (like NOW!), something messed up is going on. Many of us are so thankful for all of our modern technologies – great! – we can learn about disasters as they are happening. How exciting. (Or how heart wrenching.) And it’s just so typical that it’s always the places that are already messed up, yes, they are the ones that get hit. You  know, yearly flooding in Bangladesh, oh earthquake in the Philippines, I can’t even keep track of it all. It just seems like it keeps happening to the same kind of people again and again – those already down on their luck. And it so happened that, just before lunchtime on the 23rd of February, Umphium Mai hit the messed-up jackpot.

They believe that it was just a result of a simple kitchen fire, cooking up the TBBC food rations that were distributed the day before, that a fire quickly spread out of control and overtook many sections of the camp, due to the dry conditions and wind in the mountains, and destroyed nearly a thousand homes, 2 nursery school, some mosques, and other buildings.  Can you believe that? Almost a THOUSAND homes. Unreal.

And it’s just so typical that is happens in a place like this. A refugee camp. Do these people need any more hardships? I think we also know the answer to that ridiculously rhetorical question.

Now, this is a protracted refugee situation, meaning, it basically isn’t going anywhere. Yes, some of the residents resettle to third countries, and we all ‘ooh and aah’ about that, but so many more don’t go anywhere. If they do, they are just replaced by like others. I remember teaching in the camp, this was in 2004-5, and when my student told me she was actually born in the camp, I was floored. I couldn’t imagine that. There are many people in the camps there who were born there, are raised there, and remain there, day after day after day after day. Not moving forward, not moving backwards, barely moving sideways, just existing on the brink of what, I don’t know. They live on the aid of NGOs who exist on the ‘aid’ of country’s governments, all trying to make some sliver of a difference to improve these people’s lives. And they do, I really believe they do. I would not have gone out there and eventually worked for one of those NGOs otherwise.  And I would not have become involved with co-founding Room to Grow Foundation either, if I hadn’t thought that small things CAN make a difference in people’s lives.

Now, it also just so happens that we started Room to Grow because of a fire in camp. Can you believe that? Luckily that fire was small, in that it only (ONLY!!) burnt down one boys’ dormitory. This was a boys’ dorm for students who were either orphaned or separated from their families, and had no one in camp. The didn’t qualify for the meager rations offered to other camp residents. They subsisted on a little bit of donated(borrowed from or lent by their carers) rice, beans and chili, and that’s it! No vegetables! Ok, well, they sometimes ate vegetables but they had to basically escape from camp and go forage for it themselves. And when they were doing that, they had no time for their studies. And did poorly in school…and so on..it was just a bad cycle and a pitiful situation. We had found out about it from some of our students and we (myself, Jen Jones and together with Su Ann Oh) went to check it out, assess the situation. Long story short, the inception of Room to Grow Foundation began. It was an exciting time. We not only got to directly help – and improve the quality of life  for – those students, but it also sprung us onto 2 more projects in one of the northern camps. And from there it grew.

So, this is why hearing this terrible news of this terrible fire brought such strong emotions to me. Partially because I used to walk those exact roads every week in camp, and knew those places well. And partially because, after 5 years in operation, soon Room to Grow will no longer be working on in-camp projects (instead deepening our focus on the migrant communities), this is our last chance to easily and directly help and impact the lives of the refugees in camp, in their time of need, just as we started out doing 5 years ago.  Like many other things in life, this too has come full circle. Our last ‘Hurrah’. Except it’s not happy. It’s just our chance to help out again, and even say thank you to the people of Umphium, for accepting our little organization, and for working so kindly with us for these past years. I hope we made a difference in some of their lives.

As this disaster was so sudden, we are trying our best to organize things and coordinate with other organizations who regularly work in camp, so that we can continue to provide material support to the fire survivors. We have been able to provide some clothes and household items to camp and hope that we can send more in the coming days.

It’s just terrible to think that these people, who live in camp with basically NOTHING (look around your home and subtract 98%), just got it taken away from them. The old question, ‘What would you take if your house was burning down?” could have been asked to them. They would have thought back to when they had to flee their village due to fighting, or when enemy soldiers took over their home, or even burnt it down, when they had to leave in a hurry, or when they just decided to leave had to trek 2 days through mountains and jungle to get to the camp. They would have thought about those valuable things they had taken into camp. Those same things that are now just gone forever. All in the space of 2 minutes.

Life is cruel. But we can help. Little things make a tremendous difference. You can help.

Please give us your pocket change.

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