Among Karen Refugees in Thailand

DSC_0046-Luigi-2We just got back from three days among the Karen refugees  in Mae Sot, at the border with Myanmar. It was quite an experience, like any experience that brings you into direct contact with people’s pain.” Luigi Butori has lived in south east asia for many years, in one of the focolare or “hearth” communities of that region. “We loaded up the van, more than 30 crates that had arrived from Italy and took off with Glauco and Num, a Buddhist Gen. It’s now customary for us to make this 500 km journey every three or four months.”

Mae Sot is a city of west Thailand close to the Myanmar border. It’s an important link with the nearby country, a place of refuge for many refugees and immigrants in general. They live in bad social and economic conditions.

 “These are our people,” Luigi writes. Those of them who have a job in the agricultural plants or in local industry are at times the victims of exploitation and paid starvation wages. But multitudes of refugees have found a refuge in the many camps that have been set up by international organisations that work in the border region, on Thailand territory. Many of the persecuted come from the Karen people. Their story is largely unkown. They’re simple farming folk who were forced to fun away. This is one of the many neglected conflicts which the media, however, considers to be of low intensity.

DSC_0549-002-768x513We had planned this trip a long time ago with Father Joachim, a Burmese priest who lives in Mae-Sot. Jim, another focolarino from Bangkok, met us in the morning, after a ten-hour overnight bus ride with a lot of checkpoints along the way. Every time you arrive in Mae Sot, it feels like you’re entering another world where values are changed. In the place of consumerism and comfort, we meet people without anything, yet they’re happy with the little they receive from us, and which we’ve recevied from many others from far and near. They know that we’re only there out of love for them: “This love that you bring to us is the reason why we carry on living and hoping,” they said to us more than once. We ate togetherw with them, which was a witness that spoke on its own. One evening we went into the midst of the camps and it was like walking into the middle of nothingness, with our van sinking into the mud and surrounded by the corn fields. It was all because we had to pick up a Catholic family and go to another location where forty Catholics were awaiting us for Mass. It was dark, rainy, and the place was full of mosquitos. We stood beneath a canopy in a large barn with a little bit of light. I suddenly started to think about the beautiful cathedrals in Rome where I lived five years ago. I thought about the paintings, the organs and the beautiful lights. That barn filled with mosquitos, with that gentle light and with all those people seated on the ground, seemed like a basilica to me. Because Jesus was there, spiritually, with us, in the midst of that crowd that didn’t have anything.”

DSC_0050-BambiniFor several years Luigi has been the link between a schools twinning project that links Karen children in Mae Sot with those of Latina and with a group in Lucca, Italy and Poshiavo, Switzerland. With the funds and the materials gathered, it has been possible to build and start up a small school called “Drop by Drop”.

“All of us in Class Four have met Luigi,” write the students from the C. Goldoni Elementary School in Latina. “We were happy to see him again, but mostly curious to hear the news about our Karen friends and their school. He showed us photographs and shared information about what’s going on up there. We were surprised to see how things that we consider totally normal – like a bathroom, a wooden bridge – for them is still something that is totally missing in their daily lives. Thanks to the Drop by Drop project we can build bridges of solidarity with our friends far away.”

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