Monday, February 3, 2014

Assisting Urban Refugees in Bangkok: Helping the "Forgotten People"

Though there are officially 5.5 million urban refugees who have fled their home countries to settle in foreign cities, the actual number is much higher. In most cases, these refugees have fled political persecution or ethnic violence in their home countries. This population, most of which are women and children, represent one of the most vulnerable populations in the world. Most lack access to services like education, health care and government assistance. In addition, they are often subject to xenophobia and daily discrimination.
In Southeast Asia, due to the ongoing ethnic tension in Myanmar (in what has been labelled the world's longest-running civil war), over a million people have fled their homes. Hundreds of thousands of these people (especially those from Karen and Shan ethnic groups) have fled their country seeking protection and refugee status. While most are living in United Nations-sponsored refugee camps in northwestern Thailand, those families that have applied for official asylum status can settle in Thailand's capitol city of Bangkok, where there are more educational and work opportunities. While they wait for their paperwork to be processed, they are provided with 6 months to one year's worth of assistance from the UN: money for rent and food and assistance getting their kids into school. But these families face many challenges:                                                                                   WATCH SHORT INSPIRATIONAL VIDEO HERE
1) Due to their inability to speak good Thai, they are discriminated against and the kids have trouble adjusting to school, both academically and socially
2) They face discrimination on a daily basis, which makes the children feel inferior and makes it very hard for the parents to find work to support the family
3) After the UN assistance runs out, they are left on their own, often with no income to buy food
4) Since they do not have official refugee status, they are technically stateless people and are often randomly stopped on the street by Thai police, who throw them in jail if they do not have papers. In many cases, this means the sole provider for the family (on their way to or from work) squander in jail for months before being deported.
Seeking a way to help these "urban refugees," Cause and Affect searched for an organization that was effectively assisting these "forgotten people" in Bangkok. Thanks to the help of our mentor Marc Gold (founder of 100 Friends Project), we discovered the amazing In Search of Sanuk Project. Founded by Atlanta native Dwight Turner (who has been living in Bangkok for 4 years), this project supports numerous refugee families from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and other countries in a myriad of ways.

The first way is by providing accommodation and food assistance, what they call the "Survivor's Project." Last year, Cause and Affect visited some of these families and was treated to a very special home-cooked dinner by Mary, a Sri Lankan mother of three who has been in Bangkok for three years. We pledged to return to help.

They also help victims of trauma and torture through their "Esteem Project." By providing life-skills training and job placement assistance, they are able to help these overlooked, abused and often discarded women and girls, helping them find the courage to rebuild their lives and restore their dignity.  On our most recent visit, some of these teenagers showed their culinary skills as they prepare to become professional cooks. With great local cooks guiding the way, these young chefs seem to be on the right path! Cause and Affect has assisted culinary projects in the past and recognizes the value of encouraging under-privileged youth to become professional cooks.
Another great project is the "Thrive Project" which addresses the lack of engaging educational activities many of these urban refugee children face. Basing their approach on using play and reading, teachers are able to better prepare these kids for Thai schools and ensure each child develops self-confidence and a sense of achievement they can draw upon as they grow.

Upon our second visit to In Search of Sanuk Project, Cause and Affect learned that the project was looking to supplement their "Thrive Project" with art supplies and children's books, so we jumped to action, purchasing a myriad of supplies (crayons, markers, scissors, glue, paper, glitter, etc.) as well as children's books we got a great deal on.  Seeing as how the food and toiletries stocks were low, we also purchased lots of soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, female sanitary pads, cooking oil, rice, noodles, etc.                          

With only $500, we were able to make a profound impact. This is the beauty of the "micro-philanthropy" model: a small amount of money can accomplish so much!

Special thanks to my father Allan and step-mother Gina for their generous donation that made this project possible. You have made a big contribution to help these wonderful but forgotten people. Much love from Bangkok!

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