When I accepted a mission assignment to Thailand in 1990, I had no idea I would be working with refugees, but helping these most vulnerable people has given me the greatest fulfillment as a missioner.
I was still in Thai language studies when I met the Mon/Burmese abbot of a small Buddhist temple in Bangkok, who asked me to teach English to the young monks in his monastery. I hesitated, being newly arrived in Thailand and a Catholic missionary. But the abbot begged me to help the monks, who themselves were newly arrived in Thailand. They were refugees, the abbot said, having fled across the border from Burma after the military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, in which the monks participated, and the subsequent civil war.
“The military shot us in the street,” the abbot said, explaining why the survivors fled across the Thai border. “Three thousand or so died. Five monks drowned in the river.” Moved by his words, I agreed to teach the monks English. Soon, one by one, the monks began seeking me out to share the unspeakable horrors they had experienced. I could see the pain in their eyes and was humbled they felt safe enough to share their stories with me.
One day the abbot said to me, “I now believe I can trust you; come with me.” He led me to a dimly lit room where monks ministered to people on mats. “We carried some of the wounded with us,” said the abbot. “Please help us! We are not legally in this country. If they send these people back, the Burmese army will shoot them.” Using my nursing skills, I did what I could to help. More importantly, with the aid of the monks, I got local hospitals to treat the wounded free of charge.
That was the start of my work—and Maryknoll’s—with the Mon/Burmese refugees, a ministry that expanded over the next decade as increased numbers of refugees crossed into Thailand from the civil war. Other Maryknoll missioners, affiliates and volunteers joined in the work.
Our ministry involved getting medical treatment for the wounded, prostheses for landmine victims, assisting with filing refugee recognition petitions to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and assisting with resettlement papers and teaching English to those who would be sent to new homes. Sharing this ministry with Buddhist monks gave us the chance to learn more about Buddhism. And the monks came to appreciate the Maryknoll charism.
With the signing of the cease-fire agreements in 1995 in Burma (which had been renamed Myanmar by the military government), the several hundred thousand Burmese remaining in Thailand were no longer viewed as refugees but as migrants. We Maryknollers continued to assist these displaced people, chiefly by working with the Buddhist monks to operate a school for the children of the displaced, a work we continue. The students live with the monks at the monastery and we provide for their educational and other needs, including food.
One day I noticed students trying to hide what they were doing. It turned out they were sharing the food I had given them with a deaf boy who lived at the monastery. I said, “You don’t have to give away your food. I will give you another plate for the boy.” Such generosity from children with so little moves me to tears.
The year of the cease–fire marked another expansion of our mission: into Myanmar. Bishop Paul Grawng from the country’s northern Kachin State, having heard of our work with the refugees in Thailand, asked if we could help in his diocese. While the Burmese constitution prohibits foreign missionaries from working in the country, he felt confident we could obtain one-month visitor visas to serve in his diocese, teaching English to seminarians and assisting in the local orphanage. Maryknoll Affiliate Margaret Meehan and Maryknoll Volunteer Jim Mulqueen, both retired teachers from New York, accompanied me on visits to Kachin State. Other Maryknoll representatives joined in this mission over the years.
The needs of the people in isolated north Myanmar are pressing. Frequent heavy fighting between the Burmese and Kachin armies in many parts of the state continues to displace villagers. More and more internal refugees struggle to get to the outskirts of Myitkyina, the state capital, hoping to find shelter in camps administered there by local churches and non-governmental organizations.
Jim Mulqueen and I bring food and other relief to several of these camps with the help of diocesan priests and sisters. Some camps are fairly well established and have adequate shelter, medical assistance and day care for the children. The real problem is food. When camps such as these are opened, they get adequate relief from international organizations, but after several years, the organizations discontinue food assistance. Meanwhile the refugees can’t return to their villages while fighting goes on, which it has for years. The local organizations and churches assist as best they can, but they have very limited resources. There is food in the local markets, but someone has to purchase it and distribute it in the camps. That’s how Jim and I help.
The hardships of the Kachin refugees in Myanmar are a small reflection of the needs of refugees worldwide. Certainly the greatest needs in Myanmar today are those of the Rohingya people. Unfortunately, no one is allowed even to visit where they live.
However, every Christian is called by the Gospel to respond in whatever way possible to the needs of refugees. I see it as being called to become a messenger of mercy. I feel blessed to be one.
Featured Image: Kachin children face an uncertain future in a camp on the outskirts of Myitkyina in northern Myanmar.