–By Sara Johnson
I am traveling with an exceptional group of young women (ok, and a couple great men too). We have been in Asia for three days now and they have had to show tremendous endurance, flexibility, and patience along the way. Yesterday we piled into the van for what we thought was a relatively short journey to visit a refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border. We could not have been more wrong. “Relatively short” turned out to be a sixteen hour journey, four of those hours hanging on to a metal “cage” in the back of a pickup truck as we bounced over the roughest dirt road I have ever been on. Given that most of us are from Montana and have seen rough roads, that’s saying a lot.
But what could have been only a test of endurance turned into a bonding experience unlike anything I could have planned as their group leader. Laughter and camaraderie filled the air as we worked together to stay upright, dodge tree branches, and keep our limbs intact. I have no doubt it is a life moment that every one of us will remember forever. We felt we were part of a team, working against tremendous odds to obtain our goal of reaching the forgotten people at what felt like the end of the earth. We bonded, we belonged.
This was especially important because just the day before we had learned how so many people in rural Thailand don’t belong anywhere. Whether they are refugees from another country at the mercy of their host country and government, or citizens of rural villages with no proof of their birth or their citizenship, there are countless people here who don’t officially belong anywhere. And that’s a problem.
In Thailand, if you can’t prove you’re a citizen, you are denied medical care and education and confined to your immediate home area, unable to travel to a place that might provide a better opportunity for your family. As a result, the children are at high risk for all sorts of violence. From sex trafficking to abuse, kidnapping to exploitation, these people fight a losing battle on a daily basis. Not only do they worry about finding a way to feed their children each day, they worry about how to remain healthy, how to protect their daughters from predators, and how to provide a better life for the next generation.
Without proof that they belong, that they are citizens, and that they matter, they are denied many freedoms we take for granted every day. The freedom to move around the world, the freedom to receive an education, the freedom to seek and receive medical attention, and so much more. It’s heartbreaking.
We were inspired to learn about the work of International Justice Mission here in Thailand. IJM is a global group working against injustice of all kinds for the world’s disadvantaged, a group well known in particular for their work against human trafficking. But here in Thailand, they are working preventatively as well, helping the forgotten to prove their citizenship. In doing so, they give them back their power, their freedom, their sense of belonging.
It’s powerful to know you have a place in the world, whether it’s a place in a community, a country, or a group of people bouncing along in the back of a pickup. Belonging matters, it creates value which leads to empowerment, the key piece of what’s missing in the world’s developing countries. Without a feeling of worth, empowerment, or belonging, people here are at the mercy of those with authority over them. And when you are among the forgotten people, everyone you come in contact with has authority.
I am passionate about empowering people like these, those who have no voice. It’s why I will ask this team to bounce along in vans and pickup trucks for 16 hours to spend one hour with people few care about. I want the people at the ends of the earth to know that they matter to me, that I will travel halfway around the world to see them, that they belong. They belong simply because they are human, created in God’s image with hearts that love and souls that yearn, just like mine.
If I accomplish that for even one person in my lifetime, it will have been a good life. And if I get to do it while in the company of a team such as this one, it will be even better.