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.
May all beings be compassionate.
May all beings be free from suffering.