By: Dylan Sexton
This trip has taught me so much about not only myself, but also about the experiences of people vastly different from me. I learned, for instance, that it is entirely possible for people to adjust to circumstances that would otherwise be intolerable. The migrant workers and even the staff of our partner NGO had to deal with regular deportations and harassment from the police. There were days when we just had to wait and hope that our contacts would be able to evade the military police as they swept through the migrant neighborhoods. Trying to reach the communities that they needed to help was also a challenge. There were no buses, and in fact the only way to reach these communities in need was through a modified pickup truck on dusty dirt roads. When there, there was often a lack of running water, sanitation, and electricity. Yet despite all of this, the people thrived.
I saw far more smiles and laughs than I ever did frowns or depressing sighs. I think that subconsciously I had expected the negatives, but not the positive reactions that the people I met had to them. These were people not defined by their circumstances, but rather by their responses to them. Throughout this trip, I was able to learn the stories of many people working to make things better for themselves and for their communities. Aung Htun Lin, our main contact with Social Action for Women—our partner organization—is a prime example of this. He told us that he had been born in a poor village in Burma, and had emigrated to Thailand when he was very young. He had worked his way up from a farmhand to where he is today—a social worker who can speak three languages, has his GED, and who plans on attending college next year.
There are plenty of other examples. I remember specifically talking to Saw Tun Tun Kyu, a student at the GED school run by SAW. He told me about his struggles being raised in a refugee camp and how it was hard to get the attention necessary to thrive in school because of chronic understaffing and a lack of qualifications on the part of the teachers. But once again, despite these circumstances, he has persevered and taken initiative. He moved to Mae Sot specifically for school, and while our team helped to tutor in his history classes, he became the most outspoken, most intelligent, and most enthusiastic student I have ever seen. Additional sources of inspiration came from Thin Thin, a mother who left her children back in Burma to work for enough money to give them a better life, and in the women of the Green Hope Center, who battled HIV/AIDS, stigma, and isolation only to come out stronger and push for their own financial independence.
Seeing how vibrant, flexible, and determined the people of the Thai-Burma border were was a real source of inspiration for me. Perhaps more importantly, however, it revealed my hidden biases and made me rethink the way we in the West view other parts of the world. If I had read about these people in an article, or even in the more in depth analysis of our own ghU sessions in GlobeMed, I would have gotten a much different story. Far from hearing about these peoples’ joys and hard-won victories, I would have heard—and have actually heard—only about their troubles and defeats. I would know that they had high rates of prostitution and drug trafficking. I would know that their life expectancy was less and that they had problems with even basic sanitation. There would be a greater focus on the disease, poverty, gender disparities, and ethnic violence than on any positive facet of their lives.
Perhaps what makes this analysis and reflection more difficult is that all those thing are also true. The people of the Thai-Burma border do have all of these challenges set before them. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we had front row seats to witness some of them. But what this trip has taught me is that the full story is much more rich, interesting, and three-dimensional than any picture that could be painted with mere facts and statistics. Life is not defined by circumstances but by one’s response to those circumstances. If that lesson holds true for the people I met while on GROW, then their lives are far more successful and meaningful than my own. I am humbled to have seen the world at least in part through the eyes of another and to know that my own view of the world had been so woefully incomplete. I come away from this experience with the knowledge that complexity, struggle, and valor are universal, and that real change must recognize such values and abilities in others.