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Today was a sobering day. We traveled an hour north along the Thai/Burma boarder to visit a refugee camp that is home to 50,000 Karen (ethnic minority people from Burma) who have escaped ethnic cleansing by the military government in their home country. These people have fallen victim to the evil desires of men who find no use for them and their traditions. In many cases, they have lost everything - their family, their homes, and their land. They have been forced to flee for safety on the Thailand side of boarder.
Our visit was arranged by our partner Jim Blumenstock for the purpose of experiencing what the girls from Faith House have escaped as well as visiting a full fledged Bible college inside of the camp. More on that later...
As we approached the camp on the left side of our van, the small shanty home made from bamboo poles and teakwood take over the landscape. Many of them can only been seen by the small leaf-covered roof. The camp sits at the base of an imposing mountain amidst lush vegetation. As we park along the side the road, we were met with armed guards who had already had printed pictures of our passports. We were welcomed with a smile and a request for a group photograph...not as a souvenir but as evidence in case we don't return as planned.
We were loaded into the back of pickup truck and carried into the camp along the rough cut roads. As we approached the school building, a wooden bridge carried people over a small stream. Curiosity got the best of me (Scott) so I had to ask about it. Jim clearly said that the bridge took people back into the most densely populated area of the camp. And he made it clear, we were not welcomed back there. You see the camp is tightly controlled. In fact, it was closed to outsiders for more than a month up to the day before we arrived at the gates. We were some of the first to be allowed. The government clearly wants to minimize the exposure of the poor conditions in the camp.
The people are trapped here. They have no rights in Thailand. They have no freedom to leave the camp. They have no home to go home to. They have no right to work. They are completely at the mercy of a foreign government. They live on a small humanitarian pack of rice per day. Many of these people have never left this camp.
As we arrived at the college building, we immediately departed and took part in the morning chapel service where 400 people gathered. Listening to the Thai people sings praises to the Lord is simply an amazing experience. Glenn had the privilege of delivering a devotional message and reminded the students of God's faithfulness. Immediately afterwards, I had the privilege of teaching the college professors practical lessons on leadership development. Afterwards, we were blessed to share a traditional Karen meal with students from the Master degree program. Our mission partner is the Dean of Asia Biblical Theological Seminary and they have partnered with the Bible college to offer this next step. It is amazing to see what they are doing in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.
After the meal, we had the humbling experience of touring a small portion of the refugee camp that primarily houses the students. One could not be help but be struck by the small shanties that housed so many people, many of them without walls. None of them had plumbing or electricity. We strolled through the narrow paths quietly taking in the surroundings. Around one corner, the view opened over a wide swath of land that held many small gardens. They sat as a beautiful contrast against the tower of a mountain that stood behind dotted with the small shanties on its hillside. It was there that we paused for a minute to take in the sight and more importantly pray for those that called that camp home.
As we we returning to the school, the professor leading us took us into a small home. The home was designed specifically for those with physical disabilities. And these physical disabilities were inflicted by men...in the war being raged against them.
Three men were present. All of them blind from explosive attacks. Two of them were completely missing their eyes. One young man had both arms amputated just below the elbow. They shared their heartbreaking story with us as we sat quietly and listened. For 20 years they have lived in this small room with metal beds and boards that served mattresses. They remain hopeful that someday they will be able to return home. The only problem is they aren't sure that there is anything to return to.
Before we left to return to Mae Sot, we had the opportunity to sit in one of the ABTS seminary classes (Systematic Theology) to gain a taste of the quality of the education. Upon exiting the classroom, we filed back into the bed of the pickup truck that would take us out past that bridge that I so desperately want to cross. And at the end of that rough road, the same armed guard stood ready to take another picture of us that served as evidence that we indeed left the camp.
The one hour ride back to Mae Sot was quiet. I am certain the conditions of the camp, the plight of the people and those three wounded men weighed heavy on everyone. Upon returning, we enjoyed a dinner with Jim before he headed back to Chang Mai and we went to visit with the girls at the house. Our time together with them was sweet as always as we sang praise songs, shared testimonies, and allowed them to apply Burmese make-up (comes from the bark of a tree) on all of us - yes, that included me and Glenn!
It's hard to believe that we are approaching mid-week already. It is a tiring trip so keep your prayers coming. More importantly, keep the Karen people in your prayers as they seek God to rescue them from this terrible situation.
Grace and Peace, Scott Arvay