–By Samantha McKay
It feels so refreshing to be sitting at the computer screen processing and sorting out my grueling thoughts over the past few days. I am hoping to debrief and relieve some of the activities and meetings we have encountered while in Thailand from my mind and soul.
To start off our trip and on day one, we met with a lovely intern from IJM (International Justice Mission) to discuss the sex trafficking of young women, especially in Southeast Asia countries. Miss Hernandez, the intern, was full of life, energy, and purpose. Planning to study criminal justice – in particular for victims – she shared with us IJM’s mission of preventing trafficking of women, abuse, racism, human rights, etc. What I thought would be a meeting persistent on women and abuse, turned into a meeting about civil rights and the treatment of people that are presented as stateless. Instantly, I felt a mix of emotions wash over my heart. The feeling of being stateless. Something people that come from privileged homes have never had to worry about. Women, children, and families that cannot identify where they come from or do not hold any type of citizenship are degraded and looked down upon on a daily basis. Wow. How lucky are we? How lucky am I? What I liked best about IJM is the fact that they focus on PREVENTION instead of waiting for the action to take place and then step in. A good message that Miss Hernandez pointed out was that action can be documented and recorded; however, prevention is difficult to measure. We were lucky enough to have our lovely intern tell us about some stories that were extremely memorable to her and impacted her the most. She shared with us how a mother and daughter of a hill tribe village were related to a brother whom held a high status. However, the mother and daughter could not show that they belonged to some type of state. Therefore, they were stateless and treated extremely poor. As a teacher, my heart broke into pieces when I was informed that the daughter’s education lacked and her school teacher showed very little interest. All because they were stateless. They were considered less of a human being. Less than a person. Less than any form of life itself.
To wrap up our meeting, Miss Hernandez stated we were a breath of fresh air. Not only to be educating ourselves about the purpose of IJM, but also to come and share our own future purpose and that is to move forward with this non-profit to help those programs and other NGO’s already in place in these countries to continue their positive and difficult work.
Our next day in Thailand, we endured quite the trip to a refugee camp located by the border of Burma. We had been previously informed that not many people make it or travel to this camp and we soon had found out why. What started as a 3-hour drive and a fairly short trip in a transfer van ended up being a 5-hour drive and 30 minute truck ride. However, it did not end there. After the 5-hour drive, we were then relocated to the back of a ’93 or ’94 Toyota to continue 2.5 hours through treacherous, wet, bumpy, and leaf smacking roads. What started out as a giggling session, it quickly turned into a little bit worrisome and a physical workout to hold ourselves steady. Almost 8 hours later one-way, we made it to the refugee camp. It was a village of about 3,000 people and I might I add, the first time I have honestly felt like a woman with barely any status or respect by a man.
We were hoping to collect pictures and meet with young women to share with us their stories about their complicated and not-so-simple lives to later bring back as information to share with the future Million Girl Army teenagers about the differences of being privileged Americans compared to women in these third-world countries. We were greeted by the President of the Bible camp and his fellow male staff members. Instantaneously, I felt chills. We sat along a table and were eager to get out their and meet with the girls; however, right away we were told no photos or meetings with any girls outside of the camp. We were the minority and what felt like a nuisance. With this culture is was very rude of us to speak directly with the president. This type of agenda or meeting for them was only appropriate to have men address men. Sara’s father tried to smooth things out for us and explain our purpose and mission of the day. They had also informed us that they were preparing food. However, we were running out of daylight, had sore stomachs from our journey, and did not want to eat again knowing what was going to face us on the way back. Therefore, we declined. Strike number two! Our actions were rude and we were pushy. I felt frustrated and our group leader, Sara, held her composure and in result helped me to stay calm.
Finally, they agreed to let us look around the girls dormitories and we left the meeting room. Which was an instant relief for me and the girls excitedly led the way. I would say there were about 25-30 girls. They eagerly stood by their beds or sat on them with beaming smiles. Haley and myself went into one section together. I tried to make them laugh. One had a poster of pop star boys, I pointed, and we all giggled. We got to the end of the room and they persistently they asked us to sit with them for a photo. Before we knew it, we were laughing, smiling, taking hundreds of photos, and being led hand-in-hand by these beautiful girls around this portion of the village. Knowing nightfall was just around the corner, we decided to hit the road after our fun and exciting paparazzi session.
However, one girl in particular stopped me, held my hand and I honestly believe she looked deep into my soul. All she asked, “Are you happy?”
“Happy with what?” I responded.
“That you came here,” she said peacefully.
I replied, “I couldn’t be more happier than I am at this moment in life.”
She simply said, “I am happy to.”
Later to learn she is the teacher for the women, with decent English, and a mother hen because many have 1 or no parents at all, I had the hardest time saying goodbye to her eyes and most of all to her beautiful smile. Even if I felt I accomplished only a little bit on this trip, I know that I have delivered hope and passed on happiness. Not only to one teacher – but also to MYSELF.
Our third and final day in Thailand, we traveled up to Chiang Rai. We were meeting with the students that received scholarships from the MMF program in Washington. Our agenda for the day consisted of a beautiful picnic lunch followed by five or six interviews with the women from the university to share with us their upbringing and what it is like to be a woman in Thailand. I have not had the chance to watch all of the interviews because we did not want to intimidate these women into sharing with us any harsh experiences; however, I was able to listen to a very interesting story. This young woman shared with us how exciting university is for her and that she eventually would like to return to her village to work and give back to her community. She then shared with us how being a woman in a village to a woman in the city is very, very different. A woman in a village experiences difficulties of holding lower statuses than that of a man. However, in the city, it is often seen as women with an education to hold higher positions and provide for their families. The student we were interviewing described this as a difficult thing for her to adjust to when she goes to visit her community. However, what hit home most was that she was so excited to be meeting with us. She says that many groups like theirs is often forgotten or skimmed over. But when women like us, come to meet with them, learn about them, and show an interest in helping out already positive groups doing positive things it is not only encouraging but also empowering.
There you have it. Our first three days. From my own perspective. We have had our triumphs and hurdles. We have learned to adjust and adapt to these different cultural needs. But what feels the absolute best and not only fills my heart even more with joy is that I have been told we are: a breath of fresh air, a feeling of hope, and an empowering group of women.