After the fire

Yesterday afternoon, a fire broke out in the worker’s compound of a factory on the outskirts of Mae Sot. The houses were mostly empty, as the workers were in the factory working and the children were in schools or nurseries. We have not heard the official cause of the fire, although it is hypothesized that faulty wiring may have contributed. Some one thousand people have now lost their homes, including the families of thirteen children who attend Hsa Mu Htaw migrant school. In addition, a small school behind the worker’s compound caught fire and burned down.

Room to Grow has a pile of donated items in the office. I have been looking at the pile thinking we should do something with the things, perhaps for Christmas. When emergencies like this occur, I am glad that we have some items, no matter how small, on hand, to bring to those in need. We rounded up a large bag of adult clothing, another bag of towels, a bag of soap bars and a random pair of shoes.

We scraped together some money so that the 13 children who find themselves newly homeless, and who are temporarily staying in the Hsa Mu Htaw boarding house, will have a blanket and pillow tonight.

Walking through the ashes today it is surprising what survives a fire and what does not. We walk and stop and talk with people. We squat in the shade and listen to stories.

This woman stands in the ashes of her home. She has been talking to Nobel about her story while I walk through the site. When I ask if I can take her photo in her home, she agrees, if Nobel will stand beside her to give her strength. She has three children. Two of them are adults now and work with her in the factory. Her daughter is a student at Hsa Mu Htaw and she has been serving on the parent’s committee as well as working in the factory. She points to some of the ashes near what I can see was once the kitchen and says, “That is my dog.”

She had a small dog, who has been with her family for three years. The dog stayed at home while they all worked and was trapped in the kitchen while the building burned down. He is there in the ashes.

This is the first boy we meet as we walk into the temporary housing area the factory owner has set up within the factory compound. There are tarps providing a roof, and mats on the floor, and some blankets strung up here and there to try and make walls and some privacy. He is holding a very small ginger kitten on a string.

We ask the boy his name and how he is doing. He is very sad and trying to be strong. He says that he has lost everything. He owns only the clothes he was wearing yesterday and his cat. The factory owner provided him, and others with clothing to wear today. He tells us that it is his cat and that it was in his home when the fire started. But it escaped the flames and ran into the factory and somehow, amidst all the confusion, they found each other, the kitten and the boy. “That is your lucky cat,” I tell him. “You keep on holding him and don’t let him go.” And we leave them together, the lucky¬† cat and the strong boy.

Further on, Nobel meets someone she knows, one of the teachers from the school that burned down. She shows us the place where she held class today and tells us about the fire. Yesterday, she says, they were cooking a big pot of traditional Burmese noodles. They all contributed a lot of money to make this food as a special celebration for Christmas.

Unlike the factory workers across the street who didn’t know the fire was happening until it was well underway, the children and the teachers heard the fire and could see it coming, and they were in direct danger. They opened the back door and the children ran. The teachers tried to save some things from the school building. But in the panic they left behind many things, including the children’s savings bank. Every week, the children tried to bring in one or two baht each, and together they were saving for a really good meal for Christmas. They had saved all together 2,500b, in a piggy bank in the school. They left behind the noodles, the money and many things, running from the flames. Outside they counted the children and two were missing. There were panicked hours while the flames burned and everyone panicked and it was a while before they found the children and counted everyone as safe.

The teacher has a tent set up near the factory now with mats on the floor. She doesn’t have any materials but she is trying with some activities and songs, to keep the children busy and their minds occupied. She says its important to keep them happy and not thinking about what they have lost. I think about the bag of toys some blessed volunteer has left with us and know there is a reason they are there.

One family has been working at the factory for some time now and had a plan for their future. They were buying up the old factory sewing machines, one by one. Working together as a family, each month, they could buy one sewing machine. Later, they planned, they would use these machines to generate income back home in Burma.

There are many people working together in one area shifting through the ashes with spoons and knives and other scavenged implements. It’s surprising what they turn up. Here are fragments from a notebook. Here are pieces of a skirt. A whole kitchen reduced to a metal bowl and a grater. Nobel tells me they are looking for their gold and savings. Many people keep their savings hidden in the form of gold. While many people will wear their savings, others, try to keep discreet so that no one will know they have any money. They often hide away their gold in their home. The police cordoned off the area last night, and wouldn’t let anyone in, but in the middle of the night, people say, thieves and looters from elsewhere snuck over and raided the wreckage for whatever they could take.

A fire is a big thing. It takes everything and leaves behind so little. But this fire didn’t take any lives and left behind a community willing to clean up, sort through the ashes and build again. It left behind a factory owner who stepped forward to protect his workers from predatory poilce who are rounding up migrants on the streets every day this week and deporting them to Burma. He provided shelter and safety for his people. Today we saw many local groups, like SAW, stepping forward to provide what assistance they could. There are local Thai citizens dropping by with cooked food every night. The headmistress at Hsa Mu Htaw, who struggles to feed the children in her care, is sharing their food with those in need, cooking every night for the homeless.

When we leave, my feet are caked with charcoal and mud and I feel almost overwhelmed by everything that has been lost. But I hold in my heart that there is a little we can do, to help a few people a little. And there are a few more people dropping by here and there with a little bit of help. And a few more, and a few more. This is how we make the world a better place, I remind myself, by doing whatever we can, no matter how small, whenever we can do it.


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