In their political reports, American media encourage their audience to associate the word “refugee” with Syria—but what about the other 21.3 million refugees in the world who aren’t Syrian? While the Syrian refugee crisis is incredibly important, it’s too easy to forget about the people and issues in the world that are less prevalent in the news.
When I visited the Mae Ra Moe Refugee Camp on the Burmese border two summers ago, I was more exposed to the pertinence of challenges that refugees face. This past summer I returned to the area for a program in Mae Sariang, Thailand, and befriended a 20-year-old student named Pae. At the end of the week, I continued my travels and then flew home to Boston. Pae returned to Mae Ra Moe, where he has lived since 2007.
Pae is Karen, a member of one of the ethnic groups that fall within Myanmar’s borders. He speaks the Karen language, as well as English and “just a little” Burmese. He grew up in Myanmar, but as is common among refugees at Mae Ra Moe, he has neither Burmese nor Thai citizenship.
The first time Pae’s village was attacked, his family chose to stay. Karen villages are often subject to violence by the Burmese military as part of the Karen Conflict, one of the world’s longest civil wars (1949-present).
The second time Pae’s village was attacked, his family fled. After hiding in the jungle for three weeks, they joined his aunt at Mae Ra Moe.
Nine years later, Pae’s mother, father, five brothers, and sister are still together at the camp. His eldest brother is currently studying at Minmahaw School in Mae Sot, Tak, Thailand.
Pae started at the refugee camp’s middle school, finished high school, and will graduate from the camp’s Junior College in April. He told me he wants to study at another university, but chances are slim; most refugee students aren’t able to get an education outside the camps.
Yet , the students I met consider themselves lucky because they have the chance to learn. Pae has no bitterness about the hardships he’s faced and exercises a soft sense of humor that I can recognize even with the language barrier.
I asked him how he sees the future. He said, “I want to be a teacher because my country didn’t get enough education, so I want to teach them.”
I asked Pae what his dream was. He responded, “One day the Myanmar country will be peace, living all together. All I want is peace.” The senses of comradery at Mae Ra Moe, and within the Karen community, is something I had not anticipated.
I would not have an emotional connection to the Southeast Asian refugee crisis had I not met Pae. But I didn’t need to fly across the world to become educated about it.
Blanket terms like “refugee,” which contain extreme generalizations about groups of people, perpetuate ignorance and make it easy to forget the nuances and complexities of each human being.
We can’t hope to solve (or even identify) these issues until we recognize the importance of understanding current events more thoroughly. To educate ourselves successfully, it’s critical that we treat popular media sources as a foundational tool to understand global news, keeping in mind they offer only one perspective. Especially in America, where empty rhetoric and bold headlines are used to provoke emotional reactions, it’s more crucial than ever to do our own research; to make an effort to become knowledgeable global citizens.
Knowledge leads to empathy leads to action. As a nation, we will make more informed decisions once we look beyond sensationalized media and generalized terms, and do our own research to figure out what’s actually going on.
Anna Liss-Roy SC ’20 is a travel and language enthusiast from Boston, MA.