Sunday, June 11, 2017

Refugee program in Thailand - way back when

I did not know that Bill Preston and Pat Satterwaite had joined the JVA/refugee program. I worked for JVA/IRC for just over a year starting in mid-1979 until mid-1980. I started as a pre-screener at the Nong Khai camp and went to another camp or two. Then I ended up at Ban Vinai, the Hmong camp in Loei. As I was stationed in Loei as a PCV, I "knew the 'hood". I eventually became the case worker for the Loei camp. After I stepped down, I worked briefly at Nan and a Cambodian camp or two, though not during that initial and terrible inrush of dying people. Like Bill, I learned some Cambodian: Bro, Saray, Salap - Male, Female, Dead. I have recently come into contact with "Mac" Thompson, who was a little higher up the JVA ladder at that time. He lives in Thailand and is active with projects like building school buildings in Laos. I just joined the Thailand-Laos-Cambodia Brotherhood to stay in touch. - Dick Linn

Monday, March 13, 2017

From Bill Preston on Facebook, Feb. 9 - 10, 2017

Our so-called president's attempted--and, mercifully, as yet unsuccessful--travel ban gives me pause to reflect on time spent with refugees more than 30 years ago. In revisiting photos this week from that time past, faded now with age, I bear witness again to the then diaspora of SE Asian refugees escaping from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, many of whom spent a year or more in camps awaiting resettlement. Following is a brief description of my time in three camps, a belated tribute to some of the extraordinary people I worked with there.
Part I: Nongkhai Camp. In the spring of 1980 I worked in this camp in northeastern Thailand, near the Mekong River on the border with Laos, as a pre-screener with the Joint Voluntary Agency (JVA), conducting preliminary interviews with Lao refugees seeking resettlement in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and France. Fellow Thai 58 member Pat Satterwaite was also hired by JVA at this time, and the two of us were sent to Nongkhai together as pre-screeners.
A bit of context: During the 60s and early 70s, the U.S. military dropped more bombs on the tiny country of Laos than all the bombs on Germany during WWII, and did this secretly (along with bombing in Cambodia) on a country with which we were never at war, and making Laos the most bombed country in history. Many of the bombs never detonated, and they continue to kill and maim the Lao people to this day.
In my experience, refugees in Nongkhai were subjected to a most rigorous and thorough vetting process, with numerous interviews and verifications of documentation and identity. Based on that experience, our so-called president's claim that we now need "extreme vetting" (whatever that might possibly mean) for refugees from the Middle East is, in my view, baseless, and constitutes yet another example of his demagogic play on fear and ignorance. Perhaps these photos of Nongkhai will help put some human faces on the otherwise abstract idea of what it means to be a refugee. (Photos on the other two camps to follow in separate posts.)
Part II: Phanat Nikhom. In the summer of 1980, Pat and I were sent by JVA to work as pre-screeners in the newly opened camp in Phanat Nikhom. At that time conditions in the camp were extremely rudimentary.
Some context: When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia at the end of 1979, driving the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime from power, refugees who had survived (between 1 and 2 million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, exact number unknown) and were capable of doing so poured across the border into Thailand. Shortly before, then U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Morton Abromowitz put out a call for volunteers to help set up another camp, Sa Keo, to accommodate the sudden influx of Cambodian refugees. Working in Bangkok at the time, I spent a day in Sa Keo, helping to dig latrines and set up water supplies, a deeply disturbing experience that revealed firsthand the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide: I can still see the hordes of refugees dressed all in black, with rubber tire sandals, many skeletal, missing teeth, some missing limbs, limping on crutches. Only the children were running about and playing, seemingly oblivious to the circumstances.
In Phanat Nikhom, Pat and I interviewed Cambodian refugees to get basic information re: where they were from, who their families were, what work they had done, etc. to begin the process of resettlement. Working with an interpreter, I quickly learned the Cambodian word for dead--salap--repeated again and again by refugee families as I asked the status various other family members not present. Of the different refugees I worked with, clearly the Cambodians had suffered the most. The Khmer Rouge "Year Zero" period from 1975-1979 remains a point at which humanity hit bottom, and many of the war crimes remain unpunished.
A few photos of the camp and some who managed to survive the genocide. What I still marvel at and love, as I reflect on this time, is the amazing resilience of the people, who smile and rejoice at being in this primitive camp, after spending a season in hell. In the words of the great Phil Ochs, "There but for fortune go you and I."
Part III: Galang. From 1982-83 I worked as a teacher trainer with many other expats in this camp on a tiny island in the Riau Archipelago, Indonesia, for The Consortium: Save the Children, The Experiment in International Living, and the U.S. Department of State. I don't believe any of us who worked there had ever heard of Galang prior to going, nor had been able to find it on any map.
As teacher trainers, we supervised groups of Indonesian teachers of English who taught ESL classes to Vietnamese refugees. We gave workshops, developed curricula, created materials, observed classes, evaluated teachers, and exchanged feedback. Other expats in the camp set up and conducted pre-vocational and cross-cultural workshops and classes, others worked in administration.
Groups of refugees completed our programs in multi-week cycles, before waiting--usually many months--to be resettled in the U.S. and other countries who would sponsor them. Most refugees in Galang were Vietnamese, though there were also some Cambodians in another part of the camp. It was an emotional event whenever groups of families would gather at the makeshift harbor, some waving, some weeping, to finally board the boats that would take them, first to Singapore for final processing, and then to their far-flung destinations and new homes.
Among many ways Galang was unique was that most everyone--expats, Indonesians, refugees, NGOs, other personnel--lived in the camp. In Nongkhai and Phanat Nikhom, we expats lived in town and were transported daily to and from the camps. In Galang we were all shoulder to shoulder--Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, nonbelievers, the devout, the skeptics, the ambivalent, the irreverent--and in such circumstances of close proximity learned to live and work together. To the question, often now expressed cynically, Can't we all just get along? our collective response would have been a resounding Yes. We did, and we grew and learned so much from each other, in an environment where improvisation often made up for lack of resources, where we all became our most valuable resources.
Reflecting on these times brings mixed emotions. Gratitude for the opportunity to have worked with so many remarkable and caring people from such diverse backgrounds. Hope that refugees found, and will continue to find, support and resources to help them start over and transition to new lives; and, to someday return safely to their home countries, if that is their wish. Profound sadness that as humans we remain incapable of ending the great tragedy of war, the suffering, and seemingly endless refugee crises.
When we build walls, we wall ourselves in. When we slam the door on refugees and immigrants, we slam the door in our own faces. When we lock the door, we become prisoners.
May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be compassionate.
May all beings be free from suffering.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Helping rural communities advance

Geoffrey Longfellow of the Thailand Sustainable Development Foundation has a few ideas for letting all Thais prosper

Bangkok Post, 15 Dec 2016. 

Geoffrey Longfellow, director of special projects for the Thailand Sustainable Development Foundation (TSDF), knows a thing or two about the mindset of the rural folks he works closely with to promote the philosophy of sustainability as taught by King Rama the whole article

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Sunday, February 14, 2016

40th Anniversary

Parichart and I will probably be going to Thailand in late 2016 or early 2017 to celebrate our 40th anniversary. Since 2017 will also be the 40th anniversary of our Peace Corps training, is anyone else interested in a reunion? Lawrence has suggested we all meet in Chiang Mai, where he has a beautiful home.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Kathleen's Photos

Kathleen has sent a number of photos that have been added at the end of the photo index.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy New Year 2011

Happy New Year Everybody,

Do you know how to say “doorknob” in Thai? (I don’t.) Just finished reading Peter Hessler’s article in the current New Yorker, The Peace Corps’s brightest hope, and his blog from March where he responds to Nicholas Kristof's question about doorknobs and the mission of the Peace Corps. Interesting reading for us aging former PCVs.

In our personal news of the year department, the highlight was surely our 16-day trip to Turkey for Harris & Seher's wedding celebration. To clarify: they were married in 2009 in a civil ceremony in New Haven, but this August Seher's parents gave them a fantastic party on the banks of the Bosphorus.

Before and after the celebration we took advantage of our chance to tour around western Turkey. (Too) many pictures if you are interested. It was sure interesting traveling around the country knowing only a few phrases of Turkish. Mostly we were able to find people who understood English, but nearly everybody we met was helpful.

One example, we will never forget. After we got off the ferry on our way from Istanbul to Bursa, we knew we had to get on a bus for the rest of the trip. There were a number of buses with different signs, so we showed somebody the address of our hotel, and they directed us onto a bus. The bus took us to a train station on the outskirts of Bursa (a fairly large city with a population of 1.8 million). Again we were confused which platform to go to and which train to take. A guard indicated to go up the stairs to a platform, and we started looking for somebody to ask which train. The first young lady we asked obviously didn't speak English and just looked away. That was probably the only time we got that kind of reaction. Next we asked a young couple sitting on a bench. They clearly understood our question, but the only verbal response we got from the guy was, "No English." But he took our printout with the hotel information, conferred with his wife or girlfriend, made a call on his cell phone, and then indicated for us to follow them onto a certain train. There was a route map on the wall of the train, and he indicated we would get off at the 5th stop. Very good. We understood that, and were happy that he got us on the right train. More talking with his partner in Turkish, another phone call, and shortly we were at the 5th stop. He kissed his partner, and got up with us. I tried to indicate that it was all right, we could take it from here, but he seemed to be insisting he would get off with us. Hard to convince him it was unnecessary when we couldn't speak the same language. So, he lead us to a bus stop and started asking people questions, apparently asking which bus we should take. After a while a bus stopped, and he spoke with the driver. Then he lead us across the intersection to another bus stop. After a while another bus came. He stepped up on the bus, spoke with the driver, and did something with a card at the front of the bus. Then he got off and indicated for us to get on the bus. In my best Turkish, I said, "Thank you very, very, very much." I wished I had something to give him, but didn't think money would be appropriate and didn't have anything else at the ready. Eventually I realized he had even paid for us with a magnetic card because we saw others entering the bus only used their cards, no cash. After about 15 minutes, the driver left us off right in front of the hotel.

What was the guy's name? Where did he live? What did he do? Why was he so helpful? I wish I knew. One thing I do know is we will always remember his kindness. In our xenophobic age where people protest against building an Islamic Center two blocks away from the World Trade Center site (in a former Burlington Coat Factory!), when "Christian ministers" threaten to burn Korans, when the word Islam is mostly tied to the word terrorist, we will remember the warmth and generosity we received in a 99% Muslim country. (And, we will also remember all the people who unsuccessfully tried with wonderful creativity to sell us Turkish carpets :-)

Back to the present, we are happily finishing up our 7th year in Tennessee. The mountains and lakes are as enchanting as ever. We've had a lot of snow this December. I've taken the opportunity 3 times in the last 3 weeks to drive to nearby Roan Mt. (elev. 6300') for cross-country skiing. Still doing a little computer work here and there for companies in NY and volunteer web design for a few organizations. That leaves us plenty of time for meditation, reading and being outdoors in the mountains.

And, finally, one more link from the past that I discovered browsing around the Friends of Thailand web site. This has been up for a while, so you may have already seen it. Can you recognize the guy in this photo?

Click to read the rest of the story.

Best wishes for 2011,

Peter & Parichart

PS Doorknob = ลูกบิด but we had to look it up. Parichart couldn't remember either