Giving thanks for my vivacious sojourners

I love this photo and I love the memory of this moment. Mae Sot, Thailand may be a small town (developing and growing fast) on the Thailand – Burma border where tourists go for border crossing and locals for shopping and business, but for me it is “home away from home”.

These kids from Mae Sot are my sojourners in life and part of my story of “peaceroads” and I am very thankful for them. I am not thankful that they were always on the streets begging or collecting plastic bottles. I am not thankful that they were not attending school or that they had to carry small babies to attract the foreigner’s compassion. I am not thankful that they were bathing in the dirty and smelly town canals.

No, my heart was sad and angry that these beautiful, smart kids were so adopted to the life on the streets that they thought this is normal and even kind of fun. Of course, it was not fun when they had to be out at dark or when their parents told them not to come home until they had collected a certain amount of money. It was not fun when they were hungry or yelled at or treated like some stray animals.

A little comfort but I was grateful that at least they were in a small community like Mae Sot where people tend to watch out for each other more than in the big cities like Bangkok or Manila with too many children-at-risk to count.

This photo was taken at one of my favorite tea shops “Borderline” which is a cooperative for women in refugee camps making handy crafts. Borderline also serves delicious vegetarian food and refreshing drinks. Whenever we could, we would buy the children something to eat and Borderline was one of their favorite places to go. It had a nice garden and calming atmosphere. An oasis of peace on a busy, dusty, noisy street.

The kids were so energetic, funny and savvy. They perceived things differently and they always looked out for each other. I realized that they did not like to be patronized (don’t we all) and they didn’t like to be pitied (don’t we all). But they wanted to be loved (don’t we all).

We communicated in beginner Thai and lots of signs and body language. The universal language of hugs, smiles, welcome, concern, pointing, nodding or shaking head… Sometimes I went home exhausted because in the West we are much less concerned with body language and much more concerned with the exact words. In Thailand and Burma it is the opposite and my brain was slow to adjust.

They read me. They read my walk. They read my talk. They read my eyes. They read my mouth. They read my hands.

However imperfectly, I hope that I was able to communicate the most important thing: ” I see you and I know that you see me. I am here because you are here. I am your teacher but you are teaching me things, too. I love you because I am loved. The image of God in you is the image of God in me.” Thank you for being you!

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Smile that spoke volumes (photos from personal archive)

Minnesota is a long way from Burma or Latvia

This is a photo from St Paul, Minnesota. Did you know that June 20 is a World Refugee Day? St Paul has become home to thousands of refugees. One of the ethnic groups settled in MN are Karen people from Burma (Myanmar). There are estimated 10,000 Karen in Minnesota and St. Paul currently has the largest and fastest-growing Karen populations in the U.S. Other communities in Minnesota with a large Karen population include Worthington, Willmar, Austin, Albert Lea and Faribault.

I never imagined that my life would be connected to this story that links places so distant and different from each other. When I see women or men with a traditional Karen shoulder bag walking down the street in Roseville or West St Paul, I think to myself “This is a long way from the villages and farms and jungle trails in mountains of Karen State in Burma.” It is also a long way from the refugee camps on Thailand – Burma border.

I have one of those bags and I love to see the smile on people’s faces when they ask me, “Where did you get this? What?! You have been to Mae La refugee camp? When? Why?” I explain about our former work in the migrant schools, about teaching English and our many many friendships. I love to talk about the beautiful Karen dances and songs and crafts. And the food but not the fish paste! Anything but the fish paste.

We went to this year’s World Refugee Day celebration in St Paul. It was a treat to see traditional Karen dances and hear the songs and also listen to the stories. These young people were very grateful for the opportunities and freedom they have in their new home country and also were proud to introduce others to their beautiful, rich culture and history.

It have mixed feelings as there is always a sense of homesickness. It makes me think of all the Latvians and other Europeans who came to Minnesota as refugees after World War II. I have heard stories from people who had Latvian neighbors or friends and husbands. Stories about all the good Latvia food, all the Latvian dances and songs and, of course, all the partying. (Unfortunately Latvians were known for the large amounts of alcohol they could consume)

One of the guys I know is named John. He is very much an Irish American but his best friend while growing up in North Minneapolis was a Latvian guy. And John got the special treatment from Latvian community because of his name. “Jānis” is the Latvian version of John and it used to be one of the most popular names in Latvia. (You walk in a room and say “Jānis” and see how many guys will turn their head!)

Making a new home in a far away land is not easy, but it is a part of our human story through the ages. Wars happen. Lives get destroyed. We get up-rooted and then we go and put our roots in a new place. It makes a big difference if the new place is welcoming and open. I am very grateful to know so many people in Minnesota who have opened their hearts and lives to give shelter and refugee to people who have had to flee their beloved countries and homes and farms and families. Thank you, Minnesota!

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Karen traditional dances in Mae Sot, Thailand (photo from personal archive)

 

 

Freedom from fear in Myanmar

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” This conviction by Aung Sun Suu Kyi, a Burmese leader and former political prisoner, highlights an important truth. It also describes a life that is lived in a non-violent and courageous resistance to this kind of fear.

Last week Myanmar (Burma) held first democratic elections in 25 years. The votes are still being counted but it is already clear that the National League for Democracy (NLD) has won an overwhelming majority. Estimated 70% of the votes. The people have chosen and now the world is watching whether the military rulers will respect their own people’s will.

I am rejoicing together with my friends. They have been waiting for this day for a very long time… I have been waiting for this for many years, too. Ever since my husband and I started working on Thai-Burma border helping refugees from Burma, we have believed together with our friends that one day they will be able to return home, that one day their nation will be truly free.

There is lots of joy but also awareness that there is still a long and hard road ahead. The government cannot be fully democratic while 25% of the seats in the national parliament are reserved for the military and the military appoints three government ministers.  The most popular national leader to become a president would be Aung Sun Suu Kyi, but it is not possible under the current Constitution. It disqualifies anyone whose children have foreign citizenship and Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s sons have British passports because she had a British husband.

Also, there were millions of people who were not able to vote – people who live in areas where there is still armed conflict, internally displaced persons, refugees in the camps on Thailand/Burma border, migrants working in other countries, the Rohingya ethnic group…

Sill, this is an amazing and big step towards long-awaited freedom and peace. The elections were peaceful and the results make a very loud and clear statement what kind of country people want to live in. My memory flashes back to 1990 when in my own nation, Latvia, we celebrated a similar moment when the parliament voted to reinstate the independence of Latvia. My grandparents had waited for 50 years. Honestly it did not seem possible that we would experience it in our life-time, but the ‘miracle’ happened.

Then began the process of learning to live in freedom and there were many many challenges. Latvia is still dealing with some of the residue from our Soviet past. When you are not used to being free, you have to learn to be free. Physical freedom does not mean automatically a psychological and emotional and spiritual freedom where you have peace with yourself and your neighbor.

When I exchange stories with our friends from Burma, I realize that I experience an amazing journey together with my nation. Journey of hope and dream that became reality, journey of freedom from fear… Now I watch my friends making the same kind of journey and I want to help them in any way I can. This is just the start and now the real work of developing, re-building, healing and transforming begins. But today is the day of celebration!

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Latviski:

“Nevis vara mūs samaitā, bet bailes. Bailes pazaudēt varu samaitā tos, kuriem tā pieder, un bailes no varas posta samaitā tos, kuri tai pakļauti.” Tā domā un saka Aung San Su Či, politiķe, opozīcijas vadītāja un bijusī politieslodzītā Mjanmā (Birmā). Šajos vārdos ir izteikta kāda svarīga patiesība. Un savā dzīvē viņa pati ir turējusies pie šīs pārliecības, izrādot nevardarbīgu pretestību šādām bailēm.

Pagājšnedēļ Birmā notika pirmās demokrātiskās vēlēšanas pēc 25 gadu ‘pārtraukuma’. Balsis vēl tiek skaitītas, bet jau ir pilnīgi skaidrs, ka Nacionālā Demokrātijas Līga ir guvusi pārliecinošu uzvaru. Tiek prognozēts vismaz 70% atbalsts. Cilvēki ir izdarījuši savu izvēli, un tagad visa pasaule gaida un vēro, vai militārā vara cienīs savas tautas gribu.

Es priecājos kopā ar saviem draugiem. Viņi ir gaidījuši šo dienu ļoti, ļoti ilgi… Arī es to gaidu jau daudzus gadus. Kopš mēs ar vīru sākām strādāt uz Taizemes – Birmas robežas un palīdzēt bēgļiem no Birmas, mēs ticam kopā ar saviem draugiem, ka kādu dienu viņi varēs atgriezties mājās, ka kādu dienu viņu valsts būs patiesi brīva.

Ir liels prieks, bet arī skaidra apziņa, ka priekšā garš un grūts ceļš ejams. Valdība un valsts nevar būt pilnīgi demokrātiska, kamēr militārajiem spēkiem ir atvēlētas 25% vietas parlamentā, un garantēti trīs ministru posteņi. Vispopulārākais kandidāts nākamajam Birmas prezidentam ir Aung San Su Či, bet, saskaņā ar patreizējo konstitūciju, viņa nevar ieņemt šo amatu. Tādēļ, ka prezidentam nedrīkst būt bērni ar citas valsts pilsonību, bet Su Či dēliem ir britu pases, jo viņas vīrs bija Lielbritānijas pilsonis. (Šis likums tika pieņemts tieši tādēļ, lai viņa nevarētu kļūt par prezidentu.)

Vēl viena liela problēma ir fakts, ka vēlēšanās nevarēja piedalīties vairāki miljoni cilvēku. Tie, kuri dzīvo karadarbības zonās; tie, kuri ir bēgļu gaitās gan iekšzemē, gan citās zemēs; tie, kuri strādā ārpus Birmas; Rohinga mazākumtautības cilvēki, jo tiem vispār netiek piešķirta pilsonība.

Tomēr šis ir milzīgs un liels solis uz ilgi gaidīto brīvību un mieru. Vēlēšanas noritēja mierīgi, un rezultāti ļoti skaidri un gaiši pasaka, kādā valstī cilvēki vēlas dzīvot. Atceros 1990. gadu, kad mēs Latvijā svinējām Neatkarības atjaunošanas deklarāciju. Mūsu vecvecāki un vecāki bija to gaidījuši 50 gadus. Daudzi neticēja, ka kaut ko tādu piedzīvosim savas dzīves laikā, bet notika ‘brīnums’.

Tad sākās grūtais un sarežģītais process mācīties dzīvot brīvībā. Latvijā joprojām mēs izjūtam PSRS laika un sistēmas sekas. Kad ilgu laiku nav piedzīvota brīvība, to jāmācās no jauna. Fiziska brīvība vēl nenozīmē psiholoģisku, emocionālu un garīgu brīvību, kad mēs mākam mīlēt sevi pašu un savus līdzcilvēkus.

Sarunās ar draugiem no Birmas, es arvien vairāk sāku aptvert, cik apbrīnojams ceļš iets kopā ar manu tautu Latvijā. Ceļš no cerībām un sapņiem uz realitāti, ceļš uz brīvību no bailēm… Tagad mani draugi iet šo pašu ceļu, un es vēlos viņus atbalstīt, kā vien varu. Ir pats sākums lielajam darbam, lai atjaunotu, dziedinātu, pārveidotu un attīstītu valsti, bet šodien ir diena priekam un līksmībai!

Burma road continues… by train

Just returned from two wonderful weeks in Burma (also Myanmar) where I was invited to teach. It is a beautiful country with great people. Yes, there are lots of challenges and problems and the country has a long journey ahead toward restoration and development and peace. Still, the energy and hope and times of change are in the air…

Here is a short photo journey from our train ride around Yangon, the capital city. The train makes a full circle in approx 3 hours and gives a glimpse in the daily lives of people and the city. Train is a great place to get some rest or take a nap. I love sleeping on trains. Except this time I kept my eyes open to catch all the sights.

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People work very hard to earn daily income. Some of the train stops were busy vegetable markets.

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The farmers are gathering one of our favorite vegetables to eat – watercress. Most of the vegetables in Southeast Asia are the green leafy kind.

There is a popular song from 70’s, written by a British musician whose stage name was Cat Stevens. It is called “Peace Train” and some of the lyrics come to my mind:

“Out on the edge of darkness, there rides a peace train
Oh peace train take this country, come take me home again

Now I’ve been smiling lately, thinking about the good things to come
And I believe it could be, something good has begun

Get your bags together, go bring your good friends too
Cause it’s getting nearer, it soon will be with you

Everyone jump upon the peace train
Come on now peace train”

Restoration and stability is longed for in Myanmar and it is one everyone’s lips. We feel privileged to be a small part of the peace building process there.

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The suffering of ‘unwanted’ people

This week I returned to my current home in Thailand and to the news headlines about the human tragedy in the Andaman Sea. This tragedy has been going on for many years since I have lived here. The story of suffering starts in Burma (official name – Myanmar) and it affects the whole region of Southeast Asia.

If you watch the news or read the headlines, you will see the boats crowded with starving, desperate people who nobody wants. Nations send their navy ships to pull them back out to sea. Thailand does not want them, Malaysia does not want them, Indonesia does not want them… but the source of tragedy is that their home does not want them. The Rohingya people are a large ethnic group, living in the western state of Rakhine. Most of them live in Burma and their religion is Islam.

International human rights groups describe them as one of the most persecuted people in the world. Since 1982 they are denied citizenship in Burma and the current government continues denying them citizen’s rights. They are not allowed to travel without a permission. There were even previous restrictions on marriage and children – allowed to have only two children, even though not strictly enforced. There has been communal violence in previous years, based on ethnicity and religion and a widespread sentiment in Burma, fueled by a few very nationalistic Buddhist monks, that these people do not belong there.

Thousands of them are forced to live in camps in terrible conditions they are not allowed to leave. In their own country! So, in desperation they attempt to make the dangerous journey across the sea. This becomes another huge tragedy of human trafficking, abuse, corruption and suffering. I will not go into all the details as you can read about it in any major international news source.

The challenges in Burma are complicated but one issue is very simple and clear. As I see the photos of these beautiful people… yes, poor… yes, uneducated… yes, Muslim and not Buddhist or Christian… yes, dark skinned… Rohingya are our neighbors. Human beings created in God’s image with exactly the same value as a Latvian, a German, a Thai, a Karen, a Chinese, a Barman, an Australian, etc.

Who is my neighbor? And do I love my neighbor as myself? Firstly, this is the difficult and important question for the communities in Burma. Secondly, this is a question for the neighboring nations and thirdly, this is a question for all of us. For me as a European, I think of our governments who are willing to ‘close their eyes’ and not bring up these questions in favor of economic trade since Burma is so rich with resources.

Many of my friends in Burma are wrestling with this most important question God asks of us. Also, to help Rohingya people can mean to become persecuted. Even big international NGO’s have been told by Burma government to stay away and not get involved.

This is time for serious and deep soul searching and time for brave and real neighborly love…

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Photo from news headlines

Burma road…

There is a well-known verse in the Bible. “He has told you, O man, what is good and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Because of my work, I have been privileged to visit many countries. In many places I have met people from very poor and sometimes very oppressive living conditions. And I have met many refugees – people who have had to flee their homes and country because of poverty, war or climate change. This story is about Burma and ‘peaceroad’ I discovered without looking for it. It found me…

The past few years my husband Gary and I have been living and working in northern Thailand. We started hearing of a small town called Mae Sot on Thailand – Burma border. I was aware of the military regime and civil war in Burma, and the subsequent human crisis  but not fully aware of thousands of refugees from Burma living in refugee camps or so called “temporary shelters” in Thailand. So, in 2007 we visited one of the main refugee camps – Mae La Temporary Shelter.

Through our friends who started an organization called “Compasio” (http://compasio.org/) we came in contact with Parami Learning Center –  a school for B28urmese migrant children.  The director, Min Lwin, was involved with human rights groups and worker’s rights groups which were focused on helping refugees and migrants. Most of the teachers were ethnic Karen. Others were Burman, Chin or Karenni. (Burma is a very diverse nation of 51 million people with more than 130 ethnic groups.)

I was asked to teach English and we started a monthly English class. Soon it became more than just class. I have always said that “teaching is relationship” and through sharing personal stories, experiences and struggles we became very good friends. And then the difficult questions started coming.

The more I listened, the more my friends would ask for my opinion or advice. Most of them were Christians; some were Buddhists. They wanted to know  my views on reconciliation… The vision and hope is peace, reconciliation, and democracy in Burma, but it starts in the place where they are at right now. My friends said, “How can we change our nation if we struggle to change our personal lives, our personal relationships and the relationships in our communities?”

I was deeply challenged. I believe that the core of God’s good news is reconciliation – setting things right. But you will know the tree by its fruit, and so many times I did not see the good fruit in my own life or in the life of church community. My friends admitted that their communities lacked a helpful and constructive dialogue about these hard questions. It is easy to think that I know or believe something until it is tested in real life.

What is the response to oppression, totalitarian regime, ethnic cleansing, rape, murder, land grabs? What are the things we propose to bring healing and restoration to broken lives and to broken communities? How to make sure that we are part of the solution, not the problem? One day Min Lwin wrote to me, “Many areas in our community have conflicts. Race, age (the elder gets more respects), class, religions, and all you have mentioned. I like this subject very much but I feel that a trainer of the course should have a clear mind. I am good at solving other one’s conflict (I think) but I myself am violent.”

Did I have a clear mind? Was I qualified to talk about these issues? Where does peace start? Where does reconciliation start? How do you forgive someone how burned your home and killed your family? How do you reconcile justice and mercy?

It is like riding on a train where someone ahead of you has switched the railroad track. You may notice or maybe not right away that the train is going new direction. This is a new and unknown road. And then I am looking for guiding posts. I know that they are there; I just need to open my eyes. And I start to meet people who have taken this road before  and I learn from them. I knew that I wanted to pursue this. That I absolutely had to pursue this.

Without hope, truth, forgiveness, restoration, healing and reconciliation, what is the point? Without these things, it is not a life worth living.

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