Over 200,000 members of the Karen Tribe in Burma (Myanmar) have been displaced due to political turmoil and persecution. As many as 160,000 of them live in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. The Karen are not Burmese, they were there long before Burma existed. They aren't Thai, even though many residents of the camps were born in Thailand. In the 20 years the camps have existed a whole generation of children have grown up there and are starting to have children of their own. Two generations of people who have never stepped foot in their homeland, yet are not free to move about the country where they live. One of the largest of the camps is MaeLa, home to about 50,000 people. In January we were able to visit the MaeLa with staff members from Women's Education for Development and Empowerment (WEAVE), an NGO (non government charity organization) Buy The Change works with in northern Thailand.
We were required to submit our information to the Thai government for a special letter of permission to enter the refugee camp zone. After taking a 5 hour car ride from Chiang Mai, our home base in northern Thailand, to the small town of MaeSod, we met with the staff of WEAVE and visited their showroom which is filled with products made by women in the camps. WEAVE is dedicated to assisting refugee women by giving them training in business building and helping them find worldwide markets for their handmade goods. We were able to see many new products and placed a large order for our Spring/Summer inventory. Maybe sometime soon I will tell you about the northern Thailand rest stop toilets and roadside food we experienced on our 5 hour drive north. We weren't doing the driving in case you were wondering. Even I, who loves an adventure, would not take off in a car through the mountains of Thailand without a guide.
The next morning, after passing through 4 or 5 police check points, we entered MaeLa camp. The camp is a virtual city in itself with homes, stores, restaurants, schools and offices. There are many NGOs with a presence in the camp focused on assisting the refugees with everything from education to relocation. We saw a setup of a typical American kitchen and bathroom used to prepare people who will be relocating to the United States. Can you imagine having never left MaeLa camp, where there is no running water, plumbing or electricity in your home, getting on a plane and being plopped down in a city in the US. Talk about culture shock. At the WEAVE tent we met Newah, a 20 year old mother of 3 who spoke a small amount of english, she makes her living doing embroidery for WEAVE. She had gotten word that she was approved for relocation to the US and will be living in Kentucky. Of course we gave her all of our contact information and expressed several times that we would be glad to help her in any way we can after she arrives. Newah gave us a tour of her home which is made of bamboo slats and sits up on stilts to be above the water that rushes through the camp during the rainy season. There was a stack of mats that they roll out to sleep on at night.
Because of the bamboo construction of almost all the buildings in the camp, fires are a common occurrence. When a fire starts it rages through many buildings quickly. It is so sad to think of people who have been displaced from their country, lost everything, watched family members be killed, lived in the forest moving daily to avoid Burmese solders and walked hundreds of miles to get to the relative safety of the camps losing everything again. You can see from the photo they do not have much. A fire had raged through an area of MaeLa shortly before our visit and we were able to see the rebuilding taking place. This is a typical street in the camp so you can see how a fire would be very difficult to stop.
Everyone who knows me or follows Buy The Change knows how much I love kids and enjoy taking photos of kids on our artisan visits. The good news at MaeLa is that all the kids go to school. The bad new, for me anyway, was the kids were in school during the time of our visit so I didn't get the chance to take any photos. We passed this group of little ones while walking from the site of the fire.
At the WEAVE tent we watched the women sewing, on foot powered sewing machines, and weaving on back strap looms. It is a fascinating and time intensive process, from setting up the loom to weaving the scarves and shawls one thread at a time. They asked if we wanted to take a try and we said no, for fear of messing up a project it takes 3 days to finish, without having to fix the mistakes of visiting Americans. Buy The Change sells scarves and shawls made by these women and we have only a few left in stock. You can see a couple of colors on the website here: http://www.buythechangeusa.org/scarves. We also have a couple each of khaki and peach left in the show inventory. Message us if you are interested in any of those. Each purchase will enable us to order more products from these wonderful women and keep them working. The blue in the photo is sold out, sorry.
Thank you so much for joining us on this journey of creating positive change for women around the world. Together we are changing lives one bag, blanket, scarf and piece of jewelry at a time.
I leave you with one of my favorite photos from MaeLa camp.