hop3-850x592In the darkness of the room barely lit by a cheap wax candle, the struggling light revealed the glass eye of the man recounting his story which in itself atrocities bespoke. Prompted by a compliment of how well he spoke English, I had expected him to tell me the name of a migrant school on the border where he had developed such a good grasp of the language, but instead he told of running in the jungle. Running for dear sweet life.

Running because to not run meant death. He told of running from the army because they had burned down his village. "That was in '93," he said, "and I have not been back since. We ran for a year from place to place in the jungle until it was no longer safe and we had to run again. When we stopped, we were able to have school and that's how I learned English." He has lived in a refugee camp ever since and his wife lives in a refugee camp four hours away with their three children; 1, 5 & 7. They are waiting to go to the U.S. Running, waiting, hoping; the threads that tell the stories of several hundred thousand people living on the border. When I asked about his siblings he simply said "trace ... no trace." When they ran from their burning village they did not make it out.

Barely weeks earlier I had heard a story of similar threads; different village and different people, but yet another life scarred from one regime's horrifi c acts. The father of the family told me they ran because the army came to burn down their village, they ran and they never went back. I didn't quite gauge how long they had been here so the next day I asked the son where he had been born, knowing this question would at least hint towards how long they had lived as displaced people. He told me he was born in the refugee camp. He is 18 years old. A few nights later the grandfather came to visit. He said he was 70 years old, although he appeared as if he was at least 90; harder and harsher living conditions mean that people age a lot faster. He told me how his children are scattered through at least three countries; some he hasn't seen in years and some he doesn't know where they are or what they are doing. He cried, tears streaming forth as he told me he didn't want to go home that night because the toilet was too far from where he slept but that the problem with this son's house was the breaking bamboo fl oors that he would be in danger of falling through.

Having returned after some time away there are things that I have forgotten, things that remain the same, new things I have learned, people that remain here, people that have gone to third countries and sadly the tragic death of a former student in a hunting accident.

Over the last month or so I have visited several different villages and done a range of different things from hauling buffalo poo for compost, gardening, teaching English and Bible studies. If I had a list of things that I thought I would never do in my life it would be the following two things which I can add to that list; teach maths (if anyone knows how strongly I dislike maths and how bad I am at maths then you will understand. Thankfully it was easy maths – year one so I should be able to do that, right?!) And the other thing would be learn any kind of dentistry skills. Yes, you read correctly, dentistry skills! Because there are many countries in the world who have peoples who are neglected or whose health is not a priority a dentist in America began a ministry called 'Dentist training for missions'. He teaches people basic things with basic tools to help neglected peoples receive dental help where they might not otherwise receive it. The techniques he teaches are approved by the world health organisation so I am assured this is not 'cowboy' dentistry. This week I have learned to fl oss and clean decay out of other people's teeth and basic tips for improving teeth strength such as fi nishing a meal with a green vegetable; advice that is feasible and practical for people who do not have access to a dental clinic. I can whole heartedly tell you teaching maths and learning 'dentistry skills' were never on my to do list but where there is a huge need and an opportunity to learn it seemed crazy not to try. Although as I write this 'study' is on hold for a few days as my tonsils have decided this is a good time to swell and make me feel not so good. But hopefully, by the time I actually fi nd WiFi to send this, I will feel better and would have fi nished what I came to study, especially since the person training me is returning to the states soon. Like in any culture, one of the best ways to learn is by experience and so I have learned; eating rice and chilli with your fingers is fi ne until you have a cut on that crucial index fi nger, when looking after babies who don't wear nappies getting peed on is not a now and again occurrence, showering with a sarong so it doesn't fall down – (four walls while you shower? What kind of concept is that?!) not to mention eating so much chilli your stomach surely feels like it must be a kiln.

Cuisine is of course one of the wonderful things about living in strange and remote places. It also makes for particularly good grossing out stories' for those of you with not so keen palettes for the divinely unusual. Within my fi rst week of being back I was visiting a family who told me the dish of the evening was rat soup. Having dined on this delicacy a previous time I thought this would be 'easy' and I was secretly pleased that I couldsay, "Oh yes I've eaten this before"... that was until I dipped my spoon in, only to pull out the skeletal head with its mouth gaping open and eyes puckered inward from the heat of being cooked. So as best as I could, so not to offend my lovely hosts, I ate not just rat but the rat head as best as I could. Then last week - this next delicacy gives rat head a run for its money and if I had to pick one over the other I'm not sure which one would come out on top. I was teaching in a school in the mountains and being lunch time the kids being rather young (8-12) were relatively distracted with the eating of their lunches, one of the teachers called me over to ask me if I had ever eaten 'Plerpo'. I tried to wrack my brain for some Karen word where I knew the English equivalent of this word 'plerpo'. Without success I could not retrieve any word from the caverns of my mind until the dish was placed in my hands. I looked at the small cream coloured squidy looking creatures before me and found the vocabulary to defi ne the missing lexical item – lavae. Lavae for lunch.

"EEEEEHHHaaaawwww" echoed against the mountains. There's an unintentional partial animal theme to this email and I'd love to tell you that was the sound of the village donkey but the only four legged creatures I've seen in this village are dogs and pigs and neither make any kind of noise resembling a donkey. No, this was learning conversational English and we had turned to learning the names of animals which incidentally turned to 'what noises do animals make in your language' and that was in fact my donkey impression – the one and only that I can recollect. I don't think anybody had laughed so hard as we did that night, laughter of the muffl ed kind because that's what happens when the sound is lost when you laugh so hard you are rolling on the fl oor trying to contain yourself and there is no longer any chance of being successful.

One of the challenges of being here is to remember that because unjust circumstances are prevalent and personal accounts of atrocities sadly too common – it does not in any way make them okay and neither should it normalise them. Running. Waiting. Hoping. This is the unfi nished story of hundreds of thousands of people who deserve to be fought for.

There are several reliable websites you can fi nd more information on. Or to get involved with helping people on the border, look up:

  • The Free Burma Rangers
  • Partners Relief and Development
  • The United States Campaign for Burma
  • The Oxford Burma Alliance

Ashley

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