Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Courage: Thailand

Hearing stories have this amazing way of transporting us from eager listeners to supporting characters in the words being brought to life before us. I am currently addicted to the show “Once Upon A Time”. A friend of mine and I are both into the show and can’t get enough of it. It’s to the point where when I sleep at night, I dream about the characters—their lives, stories, where the plot is headed, and I happen to be involved somehow. I’m never a major character, but someone who is around viewing the happenings eager to lend a hand, an ear, or sometimes, even a little magic.

Magic, as people say, is all around us. I guess it’s what we view magic to be which varies. The idea of magic can be described as the whimsical beauty in the creation around us. The grand ideas people have, the way they are put to action with nothing more than a leap of faith, the power coming from within to change your circumstance, or the circumstances of those around you, for the better —that is truly incredible and could easily be classified as magic. 

When our team of volunteers visit the drop-in centre, a common question is how kids are able to cross the border from Myanmar to Thailand—to cross over from being at risk for exploitation, exploited or living in the garbage dump to the safe haven of the drop-in centre or hopefully the children’s home. There’s a bridge which connects the two countries. This bridge is comparable to any other border crossing—security on each side. You must show your passport, pay any fees that may exist, fill out immigration forms, all the generic stuff. What makes this crossing different is the bridge itself is sort of a ‘no-man’s land’, if you will. The bridge is between the two places and leaves you in transit from one place to the next. The bridge belongs to no one—except the individuals who sit on the sidewalks and beg, the kids who are selling easy-buy items or the children who play beneath in the water.

Myanmar on one side, Thailand on the other.
The river below has kids swimming in and across it. As I’m sure it comes as no surprise, these kids are often referred to as ‘bridge kids’. As kids who either play beneath the bridge, or beg on the bridge, these kids are often stateless with no side really taking responsibility for where they should be.  Parents are often either not around or the ones encouraging the kids to do the begging or selling of cigarettes or other items to make a quick buck for their family.

So, how do these at risk children or those stuck in unimaginable situations, when seeking safety, get across the border to come to the drop-in centre or to the children’s home? There’s a wonderful lady who aids those children and brings them across the border from Burma to Thailand. As a former Catholic Nun, she has quite an interesting background and a whole lot of spunk. As you can imagine, she has to bring these children across with no passport and often not even one single piece of identification.  When asking how she does what can be viewed as the impossible, the response from the workers at the drop-in centre is simple; “Just courage, just be brave to do what you have to do. If you have evidence you won’t hurt the child there can be negotiation over bringing the child across. Just in the right place at the right time.”

“Just courage, just be brave to do what you have to do.”

In a recent episode of Once Upon A Time the Wicked Witch of the West is attempting to travel back in time. To do so, she needs certain items for her spell. These items include a brain, a heart, innocence (which is portrayed as a new-born baby) and courage.  Courage is one of the main requirements for magic to reach its full potential and transport the witch back in time to re-create her destiny.

In the story of the worker I can easily see how her courage is like magic; how her courage finds her in the right place at the right time to receive compassion and understanding so she can bring across children to safety in Thailand. Against all odds she prevails and is able to save children from the understandably described as evil situations they are in. Even more like magic, in passing from Myanmar to Thailand in what is an instant in comparison to the length of life's journey, the lives of these children will have a future brighter than anyone could have imagined.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Girl In The Picture: Thailand

What an interesting place to travel to.
When you cross the border they take away your passport and give you a temporary piece of identification that becomes your lifeline. It contains a picture of yourself taken that day by the border security, your passport number, name (excluding your last name), birthdate and a number. That number is your connection to your passport the government is now holding. Upon leaving Myanmar, you hand in this piece of paper and retrieve back your oh-so-valued Canadian passport.

This process leaves many volunteers feeling vulnerable and, to put it quite honestly, kind of sketched out. You have been told all your life how precious your passport is—keep an eye on it, never let it leave your side when you are travelling, lock it in a safe when you arrive at your destination, keep a photocopy in your luggage, take a picture. Your passport, especially one of Canadian citizenship, is beyond valuable to the bearer and allows you access to anywhere your heart desires in the entire world. And here you are, trying to access another country only to find out they are going to take it away and hand you a flimsy piece of card-stock with random information on it instead, while they will KEEP your passport?! That piece of card-stock becomes your everything. You guard it with your life as if it were your actual passport because handing that piece of paper back in is the only way you get your beloved passport back.

This piece of card-stock comes with some limitations—you are only allowed in the country for 14 days, no sharing or transfers, and you are only allowed in the tourist zones of the country. That’s right, folks, Burma has set tourist zones where us foreigners are allowed to visit. You go too far, step out of the limits, and police have their say. We are nothing but mere tourists in this country with a troubled past and questionable present situation. As the tourists we were, we visited a couple temples (the Chinese temple had a cat which made me a happy lady #CatLadyInBurma), hit up the massive border market (my size stretchy floral print pants are perfect for 36 hours of travel) and we were sure to stay inside the tourist zone limits.

The Garbage Dump.
While in these limits we had the opportunity to drive past a very interesting area. This area is home to the beginnings of a huge international school, massive shopping complex, high end real estate, and the over 300 people that currently call the garbage dump home. The issue is, the garbage dump is quite the eye-sore in what will soon be a wealthy neighbourhood. The garbage dump is so undesirable to the vision of the area it begs the question of why they even chose to build there in the first place. Instead of building somewhere else, they have decided to clear the garbage dump of it’s residents, displacing hundreds of individuals and families who are stateless, providing no help to them. If their already dire situation wasn’t bad enough, forcing them out with no assistance is the exact way to make the situation worse. It’s unimaginable to everyone on the trip why this happens-- how the rich can easily forget the poor are human beings; individuals with value, hearts capable of love and limitless dreams.

Kru Nam answering questions
and New translating.
The child residents of the garbage dump are some of the same individuals that visit the drop-in centre on the Thailand side of the Burma/Thailand border. The drop-in centre is a place where street kids can come to get a meal, medical attention, hangout, and learn about the children’s home. Kru Nam was there the day we visited and we experienced her in action—reaching out to children and offering her help, building their trust and hoping they will accept her invitation to a life of love and education at the children’s home.

The combination of Kru Nam and eager to learn volunteers always makes for an interesting, informative, and emotional conversation. The volunteers asked many questions, and while statistics rocked our world and shattered our perceptions of Burma and the way individuals are treated, it’s the stories that stay with you and really change your heart.

One of the volunteers had asked about disease and sickness in the garbage dump—her question, as a doctor, was of how their must be so much devastation there. Kru Nams response was that if you were to ask the families living there about being sick, they would respond with ‘what do you mean?’. Their entire lives they are unwell. Sickness is normal for them—it’s common, it is something they live with every day. It’s not like how when we get sick it’s a noticeable difference from how we feel when we are ‘healthy’. For them this is how they are every single day. To expand on this with a tangible example, Kru Nam started handing around a picture of a little girl who is smiling and laughing as she stands behind a little boy who is playing the violin. The girl in the photograph, WaWa, is described as an awesome little girl. At her young age, she fell victim to the preventable sickness and disease of the garbage dump and passed away as a child of not even 13 years old. As the picture was passed and we each had the opportunity to put a face to the facts, you could see how the information went from head to heart.

Burma has the most human rights violations in the world. When the cyclone hit in 2008, the Burmese government denied the UN access to provide aid, furthering the amount of death and devastation, which could have been preventable. A noteworthy quote from the discussion referencing the situation was ‘just forget about human rights’.

The Declaration of Human Rights,
Article 25. December, 1948 hanging up
in the Mexican restaurant
A poster at a Mexican restaurant we went to in Chiang Mai references the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25 from December 1948. It states:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood.

While it can be easy in our North American society to think the Universal Declaration of Human Rights rings true to individuals everywhere, it doesn't. For those in both our own communities, and our greater global community, there are too many WaWa’s proving this is not the case.

Thanks for the image, Pinterest!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Others First: Thailand

Did you know I’m not really a ‘kid’ person? I don’t consider myself someone who really enjoys being around children. Being the one who has to entertain a child for really any period of time, and the idea of having one of my own, just seems so ridiculous I often laugh at the idea of it.

Why am I not a kid person? No reason in particular—I’ve never had a bad experience with children and there have been no traumatic events. I treat children like humans (as they are) and they generally respond well. Any child I tend to be around kind of understands I am someone they can sit with, but if they want to play around a bunch, they should find someone else. Bottom line, if there were a hyperactive child around who yells, runs, and is constantly up to shenanigans, I would choose to not be around.  Does this all sounds harsh? Perhaps. I don’t think people say things like this out loud so it is something we don't become familiar with hearing, even though they may be feeling it. 

If you aren’t a kid person, you probably understand where I am coming from and you probably understand what it is like to hear from folks with, or without, kids that you will surely become a kid person one day and basically become Mother Goose and Mother Theresa in one. While it’s true, you may change and become the most amazing person with children ever (!!) it’s also true you just might not. 
Both of these are OK. 
I know enough kid people to keep the kids in our lives happy. To be the most effective in serving other people and adhering to the gifts and talents I have been given, I know my strength is to stick to treating children like adults.
Want to talk about how you are, how your day is? Come on down.
Want to just sit with someone and not even have a conversation? I’m your lady.
Want to hug, cuddle, or hold hands for a while without doing anything else? Come at me, bro!
I am so down for these simple acts of love that make a difference.

What’s the most funny about all of this ‘not a kid person’ businesses is how, in Thailand, I volunteer at a children’s home.

What I find to be the best is that I don’t have to be a ‘kid person’ to hang out with these kids and get along with them. We sit together, hold hands, colour in silence, hug it out, and simply smile at each other to share moments. I don’t have to run around and play games (although when it’s organized game time I do and it’s enjoyable). I also don’t have to come up with a million different things to do to keep them occupied. It’s simple. It’s comfortable.

After Hair-Braiding, these little ladies brought me a bottle
of water (which I never had to carry or open) and picked
flowers for all of us to wear in our hair.
Loving & Serving.
Being comfortable at the children’s home is something our volunteers find easy. The kids are the most welcoming, gracious, others-centered human beings you will meet.  Notice I didn’t say ‘children you will meet’, I do mean people. These children are being raised in an environment that has a ‘love filter’ on everything they do. From serving meals and chores to general playtime, the idea of someone else coming before you is a concept they easily live out. It’s second nature to them—and it’s convicting for me. As an individual who strives to live an others-centered life I can say, with all amount of honesty in me, these kids put me to shame. Their priority is always to love people and ensure those around them are doing well before they think of themselves. When it’s a mealtime they ensure the other kids around them (especially the little ones) are ready to go. When it’s time to do an activity it’s ensured everyone around them knows what is going on and can fully participate with all the resources necessary (sharing is caring—even with oil paints and glue). When guests are around, ensuring they feel like they fit in, helping them figure things out and mesh with the routine is a priority you can feel.

Thanks Pinterest!

It’s truly incredible to experience yourself being the individual put first when the person putting you first is around 10 years old—or younger. When the person taking care of you (ensuring you are being well fed, hydrated and pampered with coffee, cookies, and the best seat in the house) is younger then half your age you feel a few things—humbled, convicted, gracious, and a sense of ‘wow, I have a lot to learn’. The way I feel I can learn so much from the kids around me at the home is quite awesome. It reminds me of the following scripture:
"And He called a little child to Himself and put him in the midst of them And said, Truly I say to you, unless you repent (change, turn about) and become like little children [trusting, lowly, loving, forgiving], you can never enter the kingdom of heaven [at all]. Whoever will humble himself therefore and become like this little child [trusting, lowly, loving, forgiving] is greatest in the kingdom of heaven."
Matthew 18:2-4 (AMP)

I believe the characteristics the children at the home display are contributing factors to what the Bible has to say about having child-like faith. The ease of sharing and caring, loving and accepting, and mostly prioritizing others are the simple things children can do without giving it another thought. It’s often adults, tainted by our history and perceptions, which cause us to loose that child-like wonder.  What is even more amazing is these kids have every reason to not act like this. The assumption is their previous exploitative or at-risk situations would make them act the exact opposite! Talk about really being put to shame in how we act!

Let’s strive to put others first, always. I know I will think back to this time in Thailand and use the children’s acts of selfless kindness as my inspiration and example of every-day simple ways I can put others first. It doesn’t have to be some huge expression, some elaborate display of selflessness—it’s the simple things that can consistently show the most love, the most kindness, the most priority of serving others first.

Thanks Pinterest!

Monday, May 5, 2014

From The Heart: Thailand

In very roughly translated paraphrasing from ‘The Art Whisperer’,  “Everything you do needs to come from the heart.

The past few days we were involved in a Creative Arts Camp with the children at the home. It was an interesting mix of fun and games, intense meditation leading into spurts of heartfelt art forms and even creating musical instruments! Live Different sponsored the camp and, as part of our contribution, we helped the kids with sketchbooks, which were used to express themselves and share their stories.

One little boy I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with these past few days is the most affectionate and enjoys the simple things—just a cuddle, holding onto your arm and sitting together. One of our amazing translators, Pim, was sitting with this little boy as we the children were working on their sketchbooks. I asked her to translate and share with me about what he had created and considered note worthy enough to save in his sketchbook….

Working on his sketchbook. 
We had the kids write down a few specific things in their books—since the book was intended to be all about them we wanted them to share their name and age, some of their happiest memories or stories, and to write and draw pictures of what they want to be when they grow up. On top of these few specifics, they could put anything they desired into the sketchbook. This special little guy is 10 years old but hasn’t attended school, which means he doesn’t know how to read or write yet. Pim was asking him questions and while he was responding, she would write down his answers. Some of his happiest memories are of fishing, shooting birds, and hanging out with friends. His dream of what he wants to be when he grows up—he wants to build houses.

It’s interesting to think of what the future will hold for this little boy. At 10 he hasn’t yet been to school, but still dreams so big. At the home, the children are instilled with such value, such immense worth in who they are, and that no dream is unattainable to them. Their peers encourage them, the staff does as well, and no one they spend time with looks down on them for their current skill set or current amount of education. Each child has the world in the palm of their hands and knows that they can be anything they want to be. I think about back in Canada and the amount of anti-bullying campaigns that exist. To know peers are picking on each other, devaluing one another, treating each other like garbage, is mind-boggling. No wonder there are people out there who have no drive to succeed—they have been told their entire lives they can’t. At the home with Kru Nam, the kids are being told they can from the moment they come into the home. They are being encouraged by those around them, lifted up instead of kicked down, and they are thriving. They are succeeding, they are dreaming.

Oil pastels and pencil crayons make for lovely sketchbooks.
Everyone defines success differently. When I look at the children and the work Kru Nam and her staff are doing, I think we can easily define success as doing the right thing in every situation and doing those right things, not with a feeling of ‘Ugh, I HAVE to do this’ or resentment, but doing these things with a sense of love and compassion for those around them.  When everything is done from the heart, you are bound to succeed because your success comes from the joy of seeing those around you succeed. When you help others reach their dreams and goals, you are being lifted up and positioned to reach yours as well. Just image, he wants to build houses. Perhaps his dream is just one piece of the puzzle connecting him with the other children in the home to also live out their dreams.

While this message of living life from the heart may be difficult for some to grasp, the children in the home understand it more than anyone else and are a shining example in all they do to the truth of the sentiment. Living life with your heart in the lead means you will succeed, because a life lived out of love cannot fail.