Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Karen refugees

Well over a month ago now I went along a Christian Women’s Convention here in Canberra. The conference itself was quite fine, and well done, but that was actually one of those days I didn’t enjoy so much. The reason is that I went on my own. And I don’t know quite why I do that to myself. I go along to these events in enthusiasm and tell myself I’m a grown woman and it will all be fine, and then I get there, and it’s actually a little bit awful. I sat down by myself near the back of the hall in an unobtrusive spot and then watched hundreds of women come in talking and laughing with their friends and waving and saving seats for each other, and felt rather abysmally lonely, and sad about how my life might have been different, if things had been, well, different. At morning tea I lined up for the coffee and muffin, then split outside and around the corner of a building and up a path and around the back to somewhere I could sit by myself without looking like a complete loser. Because women go to these things to “bond” with the group they’re going with, not to meet random strangers, and I wasn’t about to walk up to a group of people and ask if I could join them. See, the thing about going by yourself to these things, is that by the very act of turning up by yourself, you signal that you are possibly a little bit weird, or maybe psycho, or desperate ... I think folks are wary of the person who turns up to large group events by themselves, and wonder why. So it’s best to look like you don’t care that you’re by yourself.

At lunch I grabbed the food and had nearly made it out of the building when someone said hello to me, and I turned and a lady asked if I came on my own, and said she was sitting up behind me with her friends, and then she asked me if I’d like to join them. It turns out she was from a Presbyterian church in Wagga Wagga. Thank the Lord for friendly country Presbyterians! So, I sat on a bench outside with two ladies from Wagga and ate my lunch and had a chat. After a time we all wandered off to look at the bookstall and other paraphenalia. I spied someone I knew from Sydney, who I would really have liked to talk to, but she was deep in conversation with one other person up against a wall and it looked sort of intense, so I stood around for a while a little distance away waiting for it to finish, and it didn’t finish for long enough that I felt like an fool standing around waiting, so I wandered off. I am not a walk-up-and-interrupt-other-conversations kind of person. And while I am at it I really dislike this whole crowd-walk-up scenario you have to go through every single Sunday after church and at all these large events. You know, you want to talk to someone, but they’re talking to someone else, so you start talking to someone else, then they’re free, but you’re not free and are stuck in the middle of the other conversation, and then you see them walking out the door, and months can go by and you don’t get to talk to someone you might fancy talking to. Or sometimes you make a big effort and do the strategic-crowd-and-conversation-escapist manoeuvring, and then you finally get to have a conversation, and it’s a big fizzer, or someone else walks up and interrupts you when you were just getting started and you feel like launching into a spiel about how long it has taken you to get to have this conversation and can they just go away for a few minutes.

 But I digress, and I sound like George from Seinfeld.

One of the reasons I went to this conference is that a girl I work with was getting up to share about her life, a feat she was quite nervous about. When I went to the interview for the job I now have they said something about opportunities for peer leadership, or something similar, and after the interview I wondered what that meant. It turned out that one of the things they had done in the office was to create a sort of apprenticeship/training position, and that the girl who had started in that position about a month before I started was a Karen refugee. I knew nothing about the Karen refugee people, and since refugees are the hot topic at the moment, I thought I’d share something about them.

You could just use Google (or poke around here), but the Karen people are a composition of a number of ethnic groups from Southern Burma. The political situation has a long and complicated history, but over the last few decades many Karen people have been driven out of Burma by the military dictatorship that rules what they have now called Myanmar. Many of these displaced people live in refugee camps on the Thai side of the Thai-Burmese border, and my colleague comes from Mae La camp, which is the largest. The conditions are basic, with food delivered once a month, and the camps are subject to attacks by soldiers from Myanmar (who raid the camps and do unmentionable things to the women etc). The refugees are not allowed to work, but many of the men do go outside the camps to find work, and suffer the consequences if they are caught (many of them just “disappear” and it is not known what becomes of them). The refugee camps are administered by the UN, and those refugees that are registered can apply to the Australian Embassy in Bangkok to be resettled in Australia (they are not generally amongst those arriving on boats). There is a Karen community in the south of Canberra, and an Anglican church there that is involved with them. So that is how I come to working with one of them. It has taken me a while to work out what my colleague does and doesn’t understand and can and can’t do, given her background, which has been interesting in itself. And I have pulled my CELTA notes out from under my bed to see if I could resurrect some capacity to help with English, but haven’t actually done much properly with that yet, other than answer the daily questions about what things mean and so on.

So, back to the conference. They had a mission spot on the Karen refugees and my colleague shared her story. They also interviewed a lady who has been, with her husband, in ministry in Bangkok for many years, and when they first arrived there and found out they had oversight of this refugee camp (even though it’s about seven hours drive from Bangkok) they thought they’d better go to see it, and so began for them an ongoing outreach to these people (and you can read more about that here).

That's probably enough for one post, but this might be something I come back to.


Georgina said...

Feeling your loneliness xxx

Ali said...

Ah thanks George. It rather unintentionally dominates the post doesn't it ... and I really did go on like George Costanza. But I think my days of making myself go off to conferences and large Christian events by myself are numbered.