Good and God (1): Mae La Oon

20 Nov

It was not uncommon for the SPDC to go into the Karen village where he lived and requisition produce and livestock from farmers like his parents. They survived. But then their farm was taken, and things took a bad turn.

One day, not long after they lost the farm, his mother was visiting a nearby village when a Captain of the SPDC stopped her in the street.

“You work for the KNLA.” He said.

She said that she did not.

“You are a spy.”

She said she was not.

There was discussion among the soldiers about what to do with her and his mother saw an opportunity to flee.

Shots rang out, and while a cow was wounded his mother survived. The soldiers ate the cow, presumably happy at the turn of events.

The attack on his mother precipitated his flight across the Burmese border into Thailand, where he now lives in the Mae La Oon refugee camp.

His parents survived but he now lives alone in Mae La Oon trying to resettle in America, while his family remains scattered throughout the camps and in Burma.

His was the first story I heard in Mae La Oon, the refugee camp where I taught this week. Mae La Oon is tucked in the jungle of Northern Thailand, four hours by nauseating four-wheel drive truck from the nearest city, Mae Han Song. The camp, withdrawn from phone, internet and paved roads, is home to about 20,000 Karen refugees. Together they live in districts on steep mountainsides. There is little economy or a real hope for movement out of the camp, though some (including the man who told me how he got to be there) are working with the IRC, UNHCR, and IOM to make their way to America.

Mae La Oon

In many ways Mae La Oon is idylic. Bamboo huts pocket the lush mountain greenery. Chickens, ducks and pigs amble freely (before sitting peacefully on your plate). But the homes are made of bamboo not because they look better that way, but because they don’t allow the tin roofs that would provide an actual buffer against the rain (this is because tin and other metals would, in the mind of the Thai government, make the camp seem permanent, which they want to avoid…so the Mae La camp, existing for over 20 years, remains shielded from the elements by bamboo alone…and is obviously temporary as a result). And as nice as it is to be surrounded by the beauty of the mountains…hospitals, farming, education, electricity and communication are hard to come by as a result.

As a trial run for teaching English, my  week in Mae La Oon went well. I figured out some things that worked (hang-man & other word games, watching Step Up 2: To the Streets w/English subtitles) and some things that didn’t (listening to Billy Joel and K’Naan out of terrible laptop speakers and playing two-truths and a lie in English).

Mostly though, it was a chance to immerse myself, unwillingly, in the awesome power of  Jesus Christ. Yes, that guy.

Talk of god generally annoys me…more than that, it sort of upsets me when children talk of god incessantly. It’s a biased and closed-minded view, I know, but I can’t escape the urge to mock when someone asks to pray before a meal or says that they are a refugee because god willed it so, or worse, says that they are eating chicken today because god told them to eat chicken today (this is not exaggeration). So teaching at a Evangelical school, and spending a lot of time with a pastor who didn’t quite know how to turn the J-Switch off when talking to me on a 12 hour truck ride was difficult for me.

Before breakfast, class, lunch, class, volleyball, diner, etc — “We thank you Jesus….”

What do you want to be when you grow up? “Doctor” “President (of a free Karen state)” “General (of the Karen army)” or  “A Missionary” were the answers I got, with equal frequency, from the one hundred students I taught.

At first I tried to block myself off, nose to my book (ironically A Brief History of Time), when conversations turned inevitably towards the big man. This didn’t work so instead I tried to imagine that god meant something else, like peanut butter, or Batman. While entertaining to myself, giggling during prayers is not very respectful, so I soon felt like an asshole(rightly so). Finally I decided to try and listen and see what they were getting from it…trying maybe to understand why the students, pastor and the few missionaries in Mae La Oon were so enthusiastic about Christ.


I still don’t get it. I realize that when you lose your home, family, country, etc. you may either challenge your faith or see faith restored/encouraged, but it’s still hard for me to see how such beliefs are sustained as you wait and wait and wait for change that is unlikely to come in a refugee camp in the middle of the jungle.

I hope to look a little more carefully at this issue as I start teaching at a Christian school at Mae La and to write a little more in general about God and the Aid Community…because as much as I take comfort in my prejudices, I can’t help but realize that most of the long-term aid workers I have met here are deeply religious and are clearly the ones with their boots on the grounds in a way I can never hope to be.

Sorry this post rambled and here are some pictures of Mae La Oon!

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2 Responses to “Good and God (1): Mae La Oon”

  1. Richard November 21, 2010 at 3:28 pm #

    Great writing. Just keep safe guy, and do your thing. Remember, you can’t fight OR understand faith, just don’t let it get to you.

    R & R

  2. Richard K November 21, 2010 at 3:29 pm #

    Great writing. Just keep safe guy, and do your thing. Remember, you can’t fight OR understand faith, just don’t let it get to you.

    R & R

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