Working with Refugees
Thank you for volunteering with Project KARE! We hope you find your time teaching at Mae Rae Moe not only enjoyable but incredibly rewarding. This project will give you unique opportunity to learn about the history and culture of the Karen people and provide an insight into the life of Karen Refugees.
Our volunteers have various levels of teaching experience and diverse professional backgrounds. This means we don’t expect you to know everything, all we ask for is enthusiasm, dedication and a desire to make a difference. This document will give you some background information and guidance about working with refugees. We have created this information pack with you in mind, in the hope it will make your transition into camp life that little bit smoother.
The Karen are one of Burma’s major ethnic groups, who mostly reside in the mountainous eastern border region and the central delta area. The Karen population is estimated between 6.5 and 8 million people. The Karen have been seeking political recognition and autonomy from the centralized Burmese government since the country’s independence in 1948. Over the last 60 years, the Karen have faced political restrictions, economic exploitation, and cultural suppression at the hands of Burma’s military regimes. As a result of the prolonged conflict, many Karen people have been forced to leave their homes becoming Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and refugees. There are currently over 90,000 Karen refugees living in 7 camps located along the Thai-Burma border, with Mae Rae Moe being one of the largest.
The Karen are well known for their kind nature and hospitality to guests. They can be quite shy and quiet, especially when meeting new people, but they will soon open up and laugh and joke like anyone else. Typically, the Karen are individuals with strong faith, often enhanced by their challenging circumstances. Across the community, there is some diversity in the religion of choice. Worship is often a sociable affair meaning visitors may be invited to participate. With religion being a significant part of not only camp life but the Karen identity, people may be curious about your own spiritual background. The Karen are incredibly caring and have very tight-knit communities where everyone knows each other and visiting friends for tea is a common pastime. You will only need to walk for a few minutes before you meet a friendly face who will ask you where you are going and of course, ask you to visit them.
The Karen are a persecuted population many of whom have experienced extreme hardship at the hands of Burmese military regimes. While you may be inclined to ask questions about people’s experiences in Burma, to increase your understanding of the conflict, please be aware that this is not always appropriate. It is not uncommon that refugees will have experienced or witnessed traumatic events in their home countries before fleeing to safety. Such individuals can become vulnerable if asked to recall traumatic events and in some cases can be forced to relive experiences they would not otherwise have to confront. We ask that you are mindful of this while volunteering in the camp. Ensure you do not ask someone to “tell their story” and recognize that even questions relating to family members, who may no longer be around, could be a stimulus for re-traumatization.
As with any society, there is diversity within people’s experiences and opinions, meaning there are some people who will happily share their story or even demand you hear their personal perspective. These individuals may have made peace with past events and are therefore happy to share, but alternatively, sharing may be their mechanism of processing the past. If an individual offers to share their story with you, it is a great opportunity for you to listen and learn. Feel free to ask considered questions, but only once the individual has finished speaking. Following this advice will ensure the individual has the space to express themselves and process any associated emotions in their own time and in a respectful environment.
The individual circumstances of refugees can vary significantly -some people may have fled with their entire family while others made the decision to leave by themselves. When people attain refugee status they should be provided with protection, yet sometimes this is not the case and people may still be vulnerable after they arrive in Thailand. We can never know each individual’s circumstances, so we should take extra precautions to ensure we do not put people in danger.
Before taking photographs in the camp, please ensure you have the permission of the people in the frame, especially if they can be identified in the picture. Not only is this common courtesy, but it also means people are empowered to make their own decisions about personal privacy. Additionally, if you plan to share any of these photographs on the internet, ensure you ask permission to do so. Remember that the internet is a public platform and once a photo is posted, it cannot be undone. In other parts of the world, photos posted on social media have identified vulnerable individuals staying in particular locations, who were later found and threatened by the very people they were trying to flee from. Posting photos without permission can put people in danger. Extra precautions must be taken when photographing children who they can not legally give consent until they are 18 years old. In this case, the dangers are also increased, in that a photograph of a child, when posted online can identify their location, putting them at risk of trafficking.
Generally, the Karen are a close-knit community and the likelihood of issues arising is small. However, as the photographer you have the responsibility to ensure you do no harm. Luckily, this is simple to avoid. First, ask before taking a photo in which people can be identified. Second, if you have any intention of posting or sharing the photo, ask if it is okay to do so. Third, if the photo includes children, check with a parent or guardian. If you follow these guidelines you will encounter no issues and will be able to take some incredible photographs in the camp.
Within a refugee community, trust is fundamental to the day-to-day functioning of the camp. Organizations working in the camp cannot do their job properly without the trust of the people they work to help. This is no different for Project KARE. Please ensure you stick to your word. If you say you will do something, do it. More importantly still, never promise anything you cannot deliver on. Life in the camp can be monotonous and there is very little for people to do to occupy their time. As a result, people can hold onto promises and spend a lot of time thinking about them, eventually leading to feelings of betrayal. ‘Maybe’ and ‘try’ are key words -“I will try and return” or “maybe I can help you find a sponsor”.
Yet more important -don’t give advice unless you are qualified to do so. Whether that be medical advice, information about rights, higher education or anything else. The wrong advice can be very detrimental and it may mean an individual doesn’t seek medical help or submits important paperwork to the wrong place. No one expects you to know everything or have the answers and it is always best to say nothing rather than give the wrong information.
This section defines some terms that are often heard around the camp. This is by no means a comprehensive list and is purely for your reference and clarity if you happen to hear the terms in conversation.
Asylum – Protection granted by a state to a person with refugee status.
IDPs – Internally Displaced People’s (Peoples forced to flee their homes but who remain within the borders of their own country.)
KNU– Karen National Union (The Karen political organization)
KWO – Karen Women’s Organization
Refugee – A person fleeing conflict or persecution as defined by international law.
(Refugee) Status – A form of protection granted to a person who meets the definition of a refugee.
Repatriation – A voluntary UNHCR program offered to those who wish to return to their country of origin.
Resettlement – A voluntary UNHCR program offered to vulnerable refugees for permanent settlement in a third country.
UNHCR – United Nations High Commission for Refugees
UN(HCR) Card – An identity document for refugees, provided after protection is sought from the UNHCR.
The above information is just a guide and suggestions to help you -they are not hard and fast rules. In fact, when working in a community so large and diverse, there can be no strict guidelines for conduct. You have graciously decided to dedicate your time to help the Karen people and so we know you have the best of intentions. We ultimately believe in your judgment and know that you will act to foster mutual respect and uphold the dignity of the individuals living in Mae Rae Moe!
If you would like to learn more about the history of the Karen and their plight, please refer to the links on the Project KARE website. Additionally, “Secret Genocide” a book written by Daniel Pederson, combines a historical timeline of the conflict with the opinions of NGO workers and notable persons in the Karen community.
For more information of Refugee Rights and related issues there is free online course provided through Amnesty International which is available until November 2017. The course is incredibly informative and is split into short manageable units made up of interactive exercises. It is run through the edX platform which is easy to navigate and can be accessed via the following link.
We would like to thank you for choosing to volunteer with Project KARE. We hope you will enjoy your time volunteering with us and getting to know the Karen people and their rich culture!