Mae La, on the Thailand-Myanmar border, is sometimes called “the Club Med of refugee camps”—the sardonic point being that Mae La has reliable electricity and isn’t in the middle of a scorching desert. But like other refugees from Myanmar (aka Burma) who live in Thai camps, the residents of Mae La have essentially been stuck there. Some of them fled the country in the mid-1980s and have never been able to return; some were born in the camps and have never known any other home.
Rosemarie Hunter, an associate professor in the University of Utah’s College of Social Work, and six U colleagues, visited Mae La for the first time in 2008. Before they set foot in the camp, they were cautioned by aid workers that the refugees would be helpless and hopeless.
But the residents, the Utahns soon discovered, had built a flourishing high school out of bamboo, and had set up shops, with items they had bought after paying off guards to let them sneak outside. Hunter saw the experience as illustrative, because too often, she says, “There’s a tendency to only see need and weakness.”
Hunter’s approach—the goal of all social work, she says—is the opposite: to discover a person’s or a community’s strengths. To see, for example, the ingenuity and resilience of the refugees, and then to build on those. To not so much “serve” as build partnerships.
That initial 2008 trip led to Bridging Borders, which takes U social work students to the Thai camps each summer for fieldwork and trainings. Just as crucial, Hunter says, is the fact that they also take along former residents of the camps who now live in Utah, cultural liaisons who bridge past and present, local and global.
Bridging Borders—an interdisciplinary partnership between the U’s Asia Center, College of Social Work, and Division of Occupational Therapy, —has also helped inform the way social workers and others interact with other refugees in Utah, and has led to several cutting-edge U projects: a study of urban refugees in Bangkok; an online social work course for refugees in Africa and Asia; and a Case Management Certificate course at the U for former refugees and immigrants who work with their own communities in Utah.
The social work term for all this is “capacity building,” but like most institutional lingo it’s a meager translation of the complex give-and-take necessary to create real change. Perhaps the best summary is Hunter’s own: “Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job.”
On a muggy morning a few months ago, Hunter and several U social work colleagues set out for Ban Mai Nai Soi, one of the more remote refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border. The hour-long car ride was so hot and the road so rutted, Hunter recalls, that it felt like she was being tumbled in a clothes dryer.
When they got to the camp, to do a series of trainings with residents, the generator was broken and there was no electricity, so the group began with a community-building exercise using animal “spirit cards.” There was an overwhelming theme of freedom, Hunter says, with residents choosing birds and butterflies—the kind of creature who can come and go whenever it wants to.
That very same day, the United Nations released its most recent tally of the world’s refugees: 16.1 million people who have fled war, violence, and persecution to find shelter in some place that isn’t home. The numbers don’t include the migrations of 2016, nor the nearly 41 million displaced within their own countries, nor 5.2 million Palestinian refugees nor 3.2 million asylum seekers. Each minute in 2015, according to the UN refugee agency report, an average of 24 people were forced to flee their homes.
Syrians are the refugees who have captured our attention lately, but there are also hundreds of thousands of people worldwide languishing in refugee camps because of protracted conflicts in places like Somalia, South Sudan, Burundi, Congo, and the country that is called both Burma and Myanmar. (The Burmese military government officially changed the name of the country in 1989, but the U.S. State Department and many other countries and groups continue to call it Burma. To make matters even more confusing, although the adjective for Burma is “Burmese,” that actually refers only to the majority population, not the ethnic populations—the Karen, Karenni, Chin, and others—who fled Myanmar after decades of attacks and persecution by the country’s military. Although these refugees were finally eligible for resettlement in 2005, the camps are still home to some 120,000.)
To understand how the U got involved with camps like Ban Mai Nai Soi some 8,000 miles away, it helps first to understand two current university directions, one of them local and the other global.
Close to home, the U created the University Neighborhood Partnership in 2001. The idea was to offer the university’s academic resources to help Salt Lake’s west side communities, including communities of immigrant and refugee background, help themselves, while at the same time providing learning opportunities for U students. Hunter became UNP’s director in 2006 (and stepped down just last year). Her College of Social Work colleague Trinh Mai connected U faculty with the westside communities, including at the Hartland apartments in Glendale, at the time the largest concentration of new refugees in the state.
Because of this connection, it was to UNP that schools and community services turned in the mid-2000s as refugees from Myanmar began arriving in Salt Lake City. “’Who are these people?’” Mai remembers the agencies asking. The newcomers were labeled “Burmese,” but some had never been to Burma. How had living for so many years in a refugee camp shaped their goals, their day-to-day habits, and their sense of cultural identity?
In February 2008, Hunter and Yda Smith from the U’s Division of Occupational Therapy initiated a field study at Mae La. Over the next year after they returned, they did half-day trainings for 350 Utah teachers, case managers, and youth advocates—trainings that were applicable to other resettling communities as well. And, because they learned that the Karen and Karenni women loved to weave—but hadn’t been able to bring their back-strap looms with them when they resettled—Smith set about setting up looms at the Hartland apartments.
Bridging Borders also dovetails with the broader U global initiative to create students who are “international citizens.”
The College of Social Work is on the cutting edge of global outreach, says Caren Frost BA’82 PhD’95, director of the U’s Global Social Work initiative. The U is one of only nine universities in the U.S. that offer courses in global social work, and one of only two that offer a global social work “concentration,” she points out. The college also offers learning-abroad programs in Mongolia, Ghana, and Mexico, and soon will help launch the Center for Research on Migration & Refugee Integration, linking the global outreach to local communities once they immigrate or are resettled.
Frost calls Bridging Borders a “global interactive dialogue.” Like other social work global experiences, she tells students, “this isn’t about you going out and saving people. This is about you learning something.”
The camps on the Thailand-Myanmar border are both spare and lush: clusters of simple bamboo shacks crowded onto forested Thai hillsides. Bamboo structures have always been a requirement, since the Thai government continues to think of the camps— some now 25 or 30 years old—as “temporary.”
Associate Professor Trinh Mai was herself once in a camp in Thailand, a decade before ethnic troubles escalated in Myanmar. In Vietnam, her mother had a law degree but to make ends meet sold sugar cane juice on the street after the war. The family was eventually resettled to Poteet, Texas, where Mai was the first Asian student anyone had ever laid eyes on. She arrived knowing no English.
“I think that feeling of being an outsider, not fully immersed in any culture but having a foot in several cultures, drew me to this work,” Mai says about her current efforts with Salt Lake communities of refugee background. “I live at the border of many cultures, and I float in and out. This gives me access to different ways of living and being in the world.”
At Ban Mai Nai Soi and other camps, Mai has conducted mental health trainings for camp residents who work with fellow residents struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
Training topics are chosen by the camp residents, and the learning is mutual, she says. “We bring this learning back to classrooms and communities here in the U.S.”
Each year, Bridging Borders also takes one or two former refugees from Myanmar back to the camps as “cultural liaisons” to interpret and give other trainings. This past summer, Htwarreh Win returned to Ban Mai Nai Soi, his first trip back since being resettled in 2009.
Win remembers sneaking out of Myanmar in 1995 with his uncle after his mother had died and his father disappeared. Win was 7, a barefoot child with swollen feet whom his uncle carried as they traveled for three nights to evade Burmese soldiers. In Ban Mai Nai Soi, where he lived for over 20 years, he knew little about the outside world.
In Salt Lake, Hunter says, “unfortunately, many would only describe him as a refugee,” a soft-spoken man who works at a meat packing plant. But Win has always wanted to be a teacher, and during the week at Ban Mai Nai Soi in June, he had a chance to lead a workshop with the camp’s Special Education teachers, and to talk with school staff about the importance of engaging parents in their children’s education.
“When he taught, he took command of the room,” Hunter recalls. “He is clearly a teacher, a leader of his community, an accomplished man.”
Win wove in the stories of the Karenni community in Salt Lake City, their challenges and their resiliency, and shared his insights about how these two communities continue to share many of the same visions for their children.
Individuals who are resettled often feel they are viewed as a sum of their deficits, Hunter notes. “And if people treat you that way long enough, that becomes your identity.” But when they travel back to the camps, she says, “I see them come into their own. I see them come back to Utah stronger,” and that contributes to the confidence of the larger community. For current camp residents, too, these visits are empowering, she says.
When she learned about the work of a nonprofit called Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, she set about creating a paraprofessional social work course for camp residents, entry-level Salt Lake-area social service workers with a refugee background, and those who work with urban refugees. To date there have been three graduating classes for a Case Management Certificate, following a nine-month course held at the U, as well as two online CMC cohorts in Thailand, Myanmar, and Africa.
The U College of Social Work, in conjunction with Salt Lake Community College, is also developing a path for camp residents to earn an online bachelor’s degree in social work, connected online with traditional students at the U, “so they’ll be learning from each other,” says Hunter. The program begins in Fall 2017 at SLCC and Fall 2018 at the U.
With a new, pro-democracy government in control in Myanmar, Thai authorities say they are going to close the camps and repatriate the refugees. That sounds like a happy ending—but for the younger residents, the country is hardly home, and many of the older residents have no village, land, or job to return to in a country that is considered the poorest in Asia. They’re afraid, too, of the many landmines that still dot the countryside, and are distrustful of the army, one of the largest military forces in the world.
Aid organizations have now cut back rations and other resources in the camps, focusing their attention instead on setting up schools and clinics in Myanmar in preparation for repatriation. Malnutrition in the camps has increased, says Hunter, and the number of suicides last year was the highest ever.
There is clearly still much work to do, in the camps and beyond. Hunter is now working to bring collegiatelevel, online social work training to Myanmar, working with St. Aloysius Gonzaga Institute, a teacher training and English language school in the country’s Southern Shan state. “If we are successful,” says Hunter, “it would be the first undergraduate social work program in Myanmar.”
Another bridge across a border.
—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.
Web Extra: In the short feature article here, read about an inspiring related art projected coordinated by the College of Social Work. And learn more about the new Center for Research on Migration & Refugee Integration here.
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