Final Reflections

(See link to photo album at left)

I'm home again, still a bit jetlagged and knowing that little bits of memories and insights will continue to pop up at random times (like 3:00 a.m.--see reference to jetlag above). But I like to neatly tie up loose ends so I'll go ahead and officially finish this blog with what I've processed so far. Overall, I'm left with a long prayer list that I'd like to invite you to include in your own prayers--maybe not all at once since that can be a bit overwhelming, but remember each of these items occasionally and that will still get the job done. For one thing I was vibrantly aware of while we were worshiping in the refugee camps was the power of prayer, the beauty of prayer, the efficacy of prayer. One person's prayers can change that person--a multitude of prayers joined together can change the world.

In no particular order...

1.) Thai citizenship issues. Visiting the various NGO offices, New Life Center, and the House of Love brought home repeatedly to us that for those displaced persons who have moved into Thailand as illegal migrant workers, who have been trafficked, or those hilltribes who are unable to prove centuries of habitation of their Thai land, citizenship is a huge problem. Thailand has something like 27 levels of citizenship, several of which state boldly that the person at that level has no legal rights. It is these levels which many hilltribe peoples and those running to Thailand from Burma (outside of the refugee camps) fall--which makes them easily exploitable and locks them into cycles of poverty. The newly elected Thai government is likely to be even more conservative on these issues than the previous one so there are tremendous fears the situation will worsen. Pray that there may be reform of citizenship laws for the protection of all.

2.) Refugee registration. Refugees in the camps must be registered by the Thai government before they are added to counts for food rations and other supplies; they may only apply for resettlement if they are registered. The government stopped recognizing new refugees in 2005, so any refugees who have arrived in the camps since that date are unregistered. In addition, they only ran registrations in camps on occasion, so if someone wasn't present the day of registration, they are also unregistered. This means that numbers of actual residents in the camps are far above those that are officially registered: i.e., Mae La has something like 45,000 registered residents but in reality there are well above 50,000. This means that the camp only receives enough food for 45,000--the communities share with those who do not receive rations, thereby lessening the amount of available food and supplies for all. Families are divided as some members are registered and others not--a wife and one child may be, the husband and another child may not be. Pray that the registration process may be renewed.

3.) Missionaries. We met faithfully committed people doing hard work in God's realm throughout Thailand. Pray for the Dieselbergs and the other staff at NightLight Ministries; for the Browns and their work at the seminary and other ministries; for Karen Smith and Kit Ripley and the other staff at New Life Center; for Kim Brown and the staff of the House of Love/House of Blessings/Tribal Health Project.

4.) Landmines. While at Mae La, we entered a building labeled as the handicapped ward and were confronted with many men missing arms or legs--limbs they had lost to landmines. Both the Burmese army and the resistance have used landmines--they pepper the countryside of Burma. We heard many accounts of children playing in the dirt around their village and tripping a mine, or the Burmese army forcing men from captured villages to walk in front of the army in rows to "sweep" for mines (in other words, stepping on them first so the troops wouldn't). Even after the battle has long descended into the annals of history, the landmines will remain a constant death-threat for all. Pray for the global cessation of landmine use.

5.) Budgets. A perennial problem--needs exceeding available resources. We're well aware, of course, that our missionaries and missions can always use more funding. In addition, however, there aren't nearly enough English classes to go around in the refugee camps due to limited funding by the US government and the NGOs own tight budgets (to choose one example). I was also reading an article today from the Fort Wayne, IN, newspaper online about the influx of Karen refugees there and its impact on local health care and social services budgets--an issue in many cities (and not just in terms of Karen refugees, either--it simply highlights the pre-existing issues of poverty and health care in the US). Pray that the government will attend to appropriate allocations of funds to meet the needs of refugees both in the camps and here in the U.S., and that our missionaries will have the funding they need to do their crucial ministries.

6.) Refugees themselves. There is a long list of needs but since I figure you can imagine many of them (health care, food, lack of adequate employment possibilities, etc), I'll highlight a couple that perhaps are less obvious. When we met with the cultural orientation team, they shared with us many of the fantastical rumors about life/resettlement experiences in other countries (especially the U.S.) that have flown through the camps and the ways the team works to dispel them; when we met with the camp committee at Umpiem, they told us of misconceptions about life in the U.S. that we tried to dispel in the very short time we had. Pray that refugees will have adequate, true information so they are able to make informed decisions about resettlement. When we met with the community leaders in the camps, they consistently told us that one of the problems they confront in their communities is the sense of hopelessness many have. They don't know what their future will be and it seems as if every obstacle is in their way. While we were inspired by the hopefulness of worship and the work of the leadership in the community, we were still aware of how hard-fought a battle it is to maintain hope. Pray for hope to be restored, renewed, or instilled. To go hand-in-hand with the hopelessness is drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence--as people are torn from all that is familiar and is theirs and thrust into limbo, or facing all the struggles of resettlement, incidences of substance abuse and domestic violence rise. Leaders in the refugee community are hard at work to educate their people and protect victims or potential victims but need our prayer support. Pray for those who seek solace in the wrong places and for those who lash out in their frustration--pray for the victims and family members. All of the refugees that we met, or that I have worked with here in Rochester, simply want jobs. They want to be able to support their families in the camps and after they've resettled. Some in the camps will put themselves at high risk for exploitation--or willingly enter exploitive situations--because their desire for self-sufficiency is so high. The NGOs and camp leadership do all they can to make as many employment opportunities available in the camp as possible but, as you can imagine, those jobs will only go so far. Depending on the cities they get resettled into in the U.S. or other countries, jobs may or may not be readily available. Pray for unemployment globally, and that those at risk for exploitation may find safe, healthy means of income.

7.) The war in Burma. It truly is a horrendous situation. The stories have not been exaggerated or sensationalized (Rambo notwithstanding). Torture, murder, systematic rape, villages burned down, men forced to carry heavy loads for days on end with no food or to "sweep" for all happens. Nearly as fast as the current refugees are resettled, new ones arive to take their place. Take the time to educate yourself on the subject--google "Burma war" or "Myanmar", read the information on or or other websites on the topic, set up news alerts for Burma...and pray over whatever you read. Find out if there are refugees from Burma coming into your community (they're currently being resettled in something like 140 cities across the U.S.) and build relationships with them. Pray that peace and justice will be restored in Burma.

I guess my hope in sharing my experiences of this trip with you is that you'd not see this as a travelogue so much as perhaps a call to action. Your action may be prayer, it may be resource support, or it may be political or social-justice activism. God puts people in front of us that we are called to care for, God shows us faces of those in need, God brings situations to our attention in which God needs our partnership. I don't know what those things are for you; I don't even know most of the time what they are for me until I'm in a situation where it's suddenly, blindingly, and sometimes even embarrassingly made clear. But just as some of the things I experienced in the last two weeks are whispering in my ear and nudging my attention in certain directions, perhaps something you've read in the words of this blog will do the same for you. May God be with us all as we pass through the steps of our daily lives, opening our eyes to what God would have us do.

(P.S. March 9, 2008, is being promoted by the organization Christians Concerned for Burma, related to Free Burma Rangers, as a Global Day of Prayer for Burma. Consider planning your own day of prayer for Burma--on March 9 or whatever day fits your church calendar. Gather facts about the war and the refugee situation, create a prayer list. Google "Global Day of Prayer for Burma" to find possible resources.)

February 19--Tuesday

I'm now in an internet cafe and other people are waiting for the computer so I must keep today's posting brief!

Yesterday we were unable to visit Mae La as had been planned--the Thai military had one of its rather whimsical changes of heart and wouldn't let us through the gates. So we made a stop at the Karen Women's Organization store outside of camp--they sell handicrafts to support all the work they do inside the camps. Then we made our way to the one-month-old Processing Center which has recently been established to centralize the interviews and medical appointments for those refugees coming to the U.S. We specifically met with the cultural orientation team and now have a much clearer understanding of how the refugees coming to the US are prepared (or tried to be prepared, anyway) for their resettlement. I'll have to give you more detail on that later.

Today we made a rather hair-raising 2 hour drive through the mountains to the Umpiem camp which is south of Mae La. We were much more restricted in Umpiem--we were only given permission to be there for a couple of hours so we had to keep our visit rather efficient. Fortunately, I walked right by the Karen Women's Organization offices in the camp and was able to have a good conversation with them, with the translating help of Duane. I will be using much of that material in an upcoming episode of the Real Women, Real Leaders podcast series so be ready to check that out!

The two camps are quite similar in many ways, of course, but Umpiem is at a much higher elevation so it's very cool--we joked that it might be better preparation for being resettled in the northeastern US!

Unfortunately, I must go now so I'll have to share more with you later. We will be in a van for 6 hours again tomorrow heading to Bangkok in preparation for our journey home. I hope to be able to post once more from the guest house in Bangkok tomorrow night but if not, I'll wind things up once I'm back on my home computer with more reliable internet!

Feb 18--Monday

Yesterday was a day I'm still processing and probably will be for quite a while. In some ways, the camp was everything I expected, in other ways, it was nothing I expected. I had seen Duane's photos of the camps on his website so I did have a particular image in my head, but it is true that when you have the sights, sounds, smells, and touches all together it makes quite a different experience.

Angela, Allen and myself were the first to get dropped off as the Kachin church was the first we reached. (Sharon ended up going to a Karen worship instead.) To be more accurate, the van pulled over to the side of the road and several of the Kachin men had waited at the gate to meet us. They then led us on a short five-minute walk (beginning down quite a steep hill) to get to the church. The Kachin community is still fairly small at Mae La--we were told there were about 200 there. However, only a small handful of those 200 are actually registered so the vast majority of the Kachin aren't counted into the Thai government's statistics about who is in the camp. In addition, registration can often divide families. We spent most our time talking with La Ja, who was the "ex" church chairperson just moving out of office because he's leaving for Jacksonville, Florida, tomorrow (Tuesday). He and his wife are both registered, and they have an infant daughter who is registered because she was born in the camp, but he has two older children who were staying with grandparents at the time registration happened so they are still unregistered, and therefore not eligible for resettlement. Therefore La Ja is going to Florida alone, with hopes of establishing himself to be able to support a family when the rest of his family is able to follow him. He has family members in Jacksonville but because of the Thai governments attitudes towards registration of refugees, he will be separated from his wife and children--most likely for months, and maybe years, to come. He doesn't realize that, however--most refugees who divide from their families think it will be just a matter of months until the rest of their families join them. But in too many of the cases, the Thai beauracracy holds up the reunification process for years. I watched La Ja hold his baby daughter and wondered how long it would be before he'd be able to see her again.

The three of us were served a wonderful lunch before worship--rice, two different types of chicken curry, fish, hot cucumber salad, and a potato/peach tree leaf soup. The food had all been wrapped in palm leaves either to cook it or keep it warm after cooking--it was a beautiful presentation, though!

Allen, Angela, and I were each invited to speak during worship so we brought greetings and gave words of encouragement. I was filled with memories of the last time I'd spoken in front of a Kachin congregation in the Kachin State 10 years ago, and very much felt the presence of my late father at my side--he had so wanted to continue his work with the Kachin community and I felt as if this experience was following in his footsteps. I had also shared with La Ja that when I was with the Kachins in 1998 they had taught me a song named "O Le Le Goi"--and so a group of them led the congregation in singing that during worship. It was wonderful to hear it again! I believe Allen got it on video so I'm hoping to be able to share it with you in the near future. Two young women were dressed in traditional Kachin dress--it was gorgeous.

And then it was "rock star" time. Angela, Allen, and I must have posed for about 30 pictures with varieties of groupings--many "official" groups, but also just folks from the congregation that wanted their picture taken with us. I handed my camera off to a young man to take photos too--and he did a good job, so I'll have my own copies of all those photos to share with you as well. It was an absolute hoot. And, of course, we were all snapping plenty of pictures ourselves. The church building is beautiful and I joked with them that they'll have to build a new, bigger one soon--they were packed to the brim! The rest of our team mentioned the same thing about the Karen churches--they are all thriving faith communities and doing fantastic ministries in that camp.

La Ja and another leader of the church took us on a forty-five minute walk through the camp back to where we were to meet the rest of the team--it was probably the best thing we could've done. We saw close to the whole length of the camp that way--and were able to ask plenty of questions and learned quite a bit from that walk. I have tons of pictures!

After we met up with everyone else, we were at the Karen Baptist Bible College (still in the camp). The KBBC draws students from all the camps, as well as a few IDP students, and a small handful of Thai Karen from the surrounding area. They explained the history of the Karen people to us as well as the history of the college itself. The students sang for us and the wall of sound was amazing. Several of us made presentations and brought greetings to the students as well--NM, IM, and some individual churches had brought donations and supplies to share.

Finally, we walked up to the orphanage. The residents there are from age 8 to 18, about evenly divided between boys and girls. In some cases, the residents are truly orphans (no parents), in other cases they may have one parent who is unable to provide enough food and safety for them, in other cases they may have both parents but the parents are IDPs and wanted their children to have a safe place to live so they sent them to the orphanage in the camp. It's a complicated system--one I think we'd have difficulty imagining. Every refugee is torn between wanting to hold onto their homeland but needing to be safe--between praying and working for the day when Burma could be free but having difficulty trusting in that future. So every refugee makes their own decisions about how best to survive an awful, tragic situation.

I had brought a frisbee with me and we taught the children how to throw and catch it--as we walked away, I commented to one of the other team members that I strongly suspect that frisbee is going to be confiscated within a day or two! The kids were, as usual, being kids, and I think the frisbee will probably put holes in a few walls or roofs before the day is done. But our shared laughter as we played for a few minutes was worth the knowledge that I was probably giving the orphanage directors a few headaches in days to come!

We're heading back to the camp today--we're going to attend cultural orientation classes and then simply "be" in the camp for awhile. I'm hoping to be able to meet with someone from the Karen Women's Organization so I can learn more about their work. Pray for the children of the camp--they find ways to play but don't have much space to do it in.

Sunday Feb 17--Mae Sot and Mae La

After a relatively uneventful--although occasionally frighteningly exciting--6 hour van ride over the mountains and into Mae Sot yesterday, we arrived at the offices of the Karen Refugee Committee by about 2:30p or so. We met with Rev. Robert Htway (and I don't think I'm spelling that correctly), general secretary of the Karen Baptist Convention and the chairperson of the KRC, and several of the other staff. We were given an excellent overview of the Karen people's history and an idea of some of the work that the KRC does now. The KRC serves to make sure there is enough food and supplies in the refugee camps, as well as helping those who have chosen to resettle to work their way through the process.

The KRC helped clarify the situation for us. There are about 40,000 registered refugees living in the camps--so all the food and supply rations allowed by the Thai government are based on that number. However, the Thai government has declared that there "are no new refugees", despite the fact that new refugees continue to arrive. Many of these "new" refugees have been living in the camps for several years. So the numbers are actually swelling well beyond the 40,000 registered residents and food rations and supplies can't keep up. The KRC, therefore, needs to work "under the table" with local authorities to get enough food in to meet the need. It is complicated, and often costly, work.

The KRC also works with the IDPs, or "internally displaced persons"--those refugees who are still in the country of Burma, having been forced out of their villages, and are now constantly on the run and hiding from the Burmese army. The KRC sets up mobile schools and medical clinics to assist the IDPs, hiking 6 hours over the mountainous border between Thailand and Burma with the supplies necessary on their back. They have to be ready to pack up the schools and clinics on literally a moment's notice--as soon as someone sights the army in the area, they pack up and move to find another hiding place.

I was also struck by the maps of the refugee camps which were hanging on the wall in the office. Particularly looking at Mae La's map--the camp is several times larger than the town I grew up in and rivals the city I live in now. At 50,000 residents, Mae La is indeed a small city, with something like 23 different elementary schools, and several middle schools and high schools. I had to chuckle when I realized we often speak of collecting school supplies for "the school" in the refugee camp. We should more accurately refer to it as "the school district".

There are also many churches of many faiths. Our group is dividing into four this morning to attend three Karen worship services and one Kachin service. The Kachin also have a long and deep Baptist history, also dating back to Adoniram Judson. They are not as highly represented in the refugee population as the Karen because the Kachin state reached a cease fire agreement with the Burmese Army years ago. Kachin state is now basically an occupied territory--although they are not actually at war with the Burmese Army in the same ways the Karen are, they still have a massive military presence, poverty, and discrimination. Still living with the effects of the oppressive regime, there is little hope for advancement or improvement in their lives, so some are moving on to refugee camps and hopefully resettlement in other countries. I have personal ties to the Kachin community because my father and I spent a week in the Kachin state in 1998 teaching conflict resolution to Kachin Baptist teachers to use in their classrooms, and the woman that I work closely with in my home church in our refugee resettlement efforts is also Kachin. She has given me the names of some of her relatives living in the Mae La camp--I look forward to meeting them today.

I will be joining with the Kachin in worship, along with Angela Sudermann of International Ministries (who also has some personal connection with the Kachin community), Sharon Porterfield, an independent missionary who has served the Karen for 23 years and would like to get to know the Kachin better, and Allen Williams, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's area director for Asia, based in Chiang Mai. Sharon and Allen have joined us for this portion of our trip. It's good to get to know our partners in ministry!

Each of the church groups will then have lunch with the church communities with whom they worshiped, and then we'll join back up together at some point in the afternoon and possibly visit the Bible school on the refugee campus. This part of the plan is a bit "loosey-goosey" as time is interpreted a bit differently in the Karen culture as it is in the western culture. We'll meet up whenever we manage to meet up!

Being able to worship with our Christian sisters and brothers here in the camps is an extremely moving experience for all of us--we have all discussed how this already feels like the highlight of our trip. I hope, if you read this before you head off to church on YOUR Sunday morning (which happens 12 hours after my Sunday morning does), that you will remember us while you're worshiping and lift a prayer for the Karen, Kachin, Chin, and other ethnic groups from Burma who are forced from their homes into hiding or into refugee camps, who struggle with feeling as if there is little future for them or their people, who face discrimination on all fronts, who get caught up in chains of paperwork that seem neverending, and who simply want to have a home and be able to raise a family in safety and security. May God be with them all.

Saturday in Chiang Mai (Friday night back home)

We leave in about 10 minutes on a 6 hour van trek to Mae Sot, the nearest small city to the Mae La refugee camp. We're planning on actually going to the camp itself tonight for a short time, and then spending most of tomorrow and Monday there. I'm so looking forward to this! (Well, not the van ride, exactly, but you do what you have to do.)

Unfortunately, I don't have enough time to go into great detail about yesterday--it was a day crowded with wonderful conversations. We began by visiting the House of Love (sorry--we didn't do it on Valentine's Day as rumor had led me to believe) and the House of Blessing which is a daycare center for children from the slums of Chiang Mai. The children--between the ages of about 4 and 8--sang for us and just absolutely loved having their pictures taken. I can't wait to share the photos and video with you! It was especially moving to those of us who had gone to the night market a few nights before and had a little girl--maybe 6 years old--approach us to sell us flowers. Parents force their children to beg or sell flowers in the markets all night and sometimes most of the day as well. For some families, it's to help put food on the table. For other families, they realize that they can often get as much as 1000 baht (about $30) out of a foriegner so they send their children out in order to buy motorcycles or TVs. But I vividly remembered that little girl, the sadness and exhaustion on her face, and how hungrily she ate the bit of bread one of our group members gave her--and compared that with the bright, clean, happy, excited children in the day care center. House of Blessings is doing amazing work!

We went from there to the McGilvary seminary to meet with Lamont Brown and hear about the seminary's programs and student life; then to the Thailand Karen Baptist Convention offices to meet Sunny, the general secretary of TKBC; then to the Free Burma Rangers office. I can't say more about those now due to lack of time but will try to fill in details later.

You may have read the news reports that there was an assassination of a Karen National Union leader by the Burmese Army in Mae Sot, the town we're heading to now. Several of us have gotten worried phone calls and emails from our family members--you need to know that we're perfectly safe. None of us is worried about what may happen to us--we're simply continually praying for the situation in Burma. Please join us in those prayers!

Time to go get in the van and get ready for the long haul...sigh...

ABC's Thailand Blog

Check out today's blog entry on ABC's Thailand Blog.

Day-I've-Lost-Track--Chiang Mai

Happy Valentine's Day! Rather fittingly, on today's agenda is the House of Love!

We flew from Bangkok to Chiang Mai yesterday morning--a very uneventful, comfortable flight of about an hour and a half or so. The main benefit was that between the airports and the plane itself we spent half of the day in air conditioning.

I have decided, however, that Chiang Mai is much more to my taste than Bangkok. Partly, although still hot, it is somewhat less humid here--so it's more bearable to my northeastern personal climate control. And this city itself is very green--trees and shrubs all over the place, so it's a much more pleasant setting. There's a river (not sure of the name) that winds through the city and our guesthouse is right across the street from it. Although the river shows the wear and tear of decades of close human habitation, it's a nice little moment of peace in a very busy city.

We were met at the airport by Pat Brown, missionary here in Chiang Mai. Her husband Lamont teaches at Payap University and Pat teaches English, among many other responsibilities in their mission here. We had lunch at the Thai Baptist Mission offices and met a Norwegian Baptist missionary who is working with the Lahu. I apologize that I didn't write down his name and I won't even attempt to spell it phonetically!

We then proceeded to the Lahu Bible School. The Bible school is partially supported by International Ministries, along with a consortium of other global partners. We were met by John Phillip, general secretary of the Lahu Baptist Convention. He and Duane (translating for one another where necessary) introduced our group to the students at the school and vice versa. The students are there for three years, and then some may go on to seminary. However, the Lahu Bible School teaches their courses in the Lahu language, whereas seminary is taught in Thai. Learning in Thai creates problems for the graduates who would then be serving in Lahu churches among Lahu-speaking congregations--the students would only know the Thai words in the religious setting. Therefore the Lahu Bible School really focuses on giving the students everything they would need to serve effectively in Lahu church setting in the Lahu language. Students from the school go on to be pastors, evangelists, Christian education teachers, and so forth.

The students (both young men and women) range in age from 18-21 or so, although there is one 16-year-old enrolled. They are recommended to the school by their churches or local area. They board at the school and go home a couple of times a year on break. Most of them come from villages up to 5 hours away by bus. There are also married students with married student housing right on the campus. John was very pleased to be able to show us the recently built chapel and classroom buildings--a vast improvement over what they'd been using for several years. Generous gifts from Korean churches made these buildings possible. They have plans for continued growth, as God makes the funds possible.

The students treated us to praise and worship songs (yes, I have plenty of pictures and even a video recording I'll make available as soon as I'm home and can download everything to my computer). They brought us a snack of the most amazing oranges I've eaten in a long time, some rose apples (sort of a cross between an apple and a pear), and a special Lahu New Year treat that consists of sweet sticky rice pressed into small pieces and coated with sugar. It tasted much like popcorn, without the crunch.

We took our time on the campus--it was a beautiful day, and there was so much to see. The students and teachers were quite gracious and welcoming--and it was just as much fun to run into them after they'd finished their official responsibilities, changed into their down-time clothes, and were "hanging out" as students do the world over.

Later, after we checked into the guest house, several of us went to explore the night market here in Chiang Mai to compare it with the one we'd been to in Bangkok. I have to say, I was much more impressed. In addition to the normal tshirts, knock-off purses and watches that you see sold on streets all over the world, there were many true artisans. There were excellent jewelry designers, artists, sculptors, photographers, and other crafts people with their booths tucked in and among the booths selling little plastic balls and Thailand souvenirs. It was an enjoyable evening and several of us got a jump start on Christmas shopping!

Overall, when I returned to my room last night and was reflecting on the day, I was struck by how global mission truly is. Yes, "global" in that we have American Baptist missionaries engaged in service around the world--but, more importantly, "global" in that those missionaries work in partnership with missionaries from other denominations and Christian organizations from all around the world as well. The bulletin board at the mission office here has a map of Thailand with photos of the missionaries based in various places posted around the map, with arrows drawn to their location. A short overview of the missionary's photos revealed several from the United States, certainly, but also names from Norway, Sweden, Korea.... We truly are a global society and although it's easy to blame that for some of the world's problems, while here you can only celebrate that we are in partnership with Christians from so many other countries. We could never accomplish anything by ourselves--it is only through joining with others that we are able to help God in God's mission.

Today we're off to the New Life Center and to the House of Love. I'm very excited about the opportunity to visit these missions that, once again, I've heard of and read about so often. It'll be wonderful to put faces with names and have conversation about the issues and ministries happening here.

Have a Happy Valentine's Day--and as the preacher for the worship service at NightLight Ministries in Bangkok reminded the women who work there--celebrate God's love for you on this day!

Day 2--Tuesday--NightLight Ministries

Another full day--but not full from a schedule point of view. Rather it was a day full of trying to get my head around the whole issue of sexual trafficking. No matter how much I study the problem, read, watch DVDs, talk with missionaries, go to's still just so hard to imagine this kind of thing truly exists.

We spent most of the day with Annie Dieselberg and NightLight Ministries. I have been familiar with Annie's work for years--having written articles on it, heard Annie speak, heard others speak of their experiences volunteering here. But it's never quite the same as seeing it yourself. As we toured the business and heard about the ministry, I was looking into the faces of so many young women who had experienced so much trauma in their lives--and here they were laughing together, talking about every day matters as they sat next to one another at tables making jewelry. It could've been any "normal" workplace--and, indeed, it is a "normal" workplace--but it is business as mission. What an incredible work God is doing here.

NightLight Ministries reaches out to women and girls in the strip clubs and bars in one of the worst red light districts in Bangkok. Because of Annie's shrewd business sense and her passion for this ministry, NightLight Ministries is able to employ 70-plus women in a jewelry-making business, giving them a competitive wage, provide life-skills training, and a strong spiritual foundation. Indeed, their ministry now reaches far beyond the borders of the neighborhood they occupy--Annie told us that some of their recent arrivals come from bars and strip clubs in other parts of the city. Through word of mouth, these women heard of the opportunity for new life that NightLight Ministries offers, never having met any of the staff of NightLight themselves. (For more information about NightLight Ministries, visit

Annie shared with us many stories of hope, but didn't sugarcoat it. There are also stories of tragedy, stories of fear, and stories of frustration that they can't do more. But God is moving strongly here, opening doors and making it possible for NightLight to reach more young women every year. In fact, when they first began it was with only a handful of women; last year they had 40, today they have 72. Annie and I spoke some during a break about this exponential growth and Annie's dreams for the future of other ways to expand their outreach; one of the cofounders of the ministry who told us to call her "Beng" (because, as she said, most Americans can't pronounce her real Thai name easily!) had also shared with us her dreams as well. Annie, Beng, and the other women who gave birth to this ministry and have been part of its growth don't know the word "enough". It will never be enough--they will be always looking for ways to reach more women and girls, ways to give more women an opportunity for a life of dignity, ways to help more women find their true worth.

NightLight Ministries has now branched out into the U.S.--one of the Year One designated projects of the Break the Chains national mission project of AB Women's Ministries is NightLight USA. Based in Los Angeles, NightLight helps in the distribution of the jewelry that NightLight Bangkok produces--but they're also out on the streets, trying to get to know the neighborhoods of LA, looking for the clues and signposts of trafficking, beginning to lay the groundwork for ministries that may eventually touch the lives of women looking for a way out.

Pray for these ministries--and the many others like them around the world. Trafficking is a global problem--and it is a problem down the street from your own home. Educate yourself--no matter how much (like me) you may have difficulty getting your head around the problem. Talk to the men in your life, in your congregation, anywhere in your sphere of influence, about trafficking, prostitution, and pornography--the triple trident-spears of sexual exploitation and victimization of women and children. This isn't "Pretty Woman"--there isn't a Hollywood happy ending here, nor does any little girl dream of being a prostitute when she grows up. The causes are complex--cultural, economic, political, and more--but if each of us can simply become more aware of the problem and more aware of our own attitudes and assumptions, we've made a start.

Tomorrow we board a plane for Chiang Mai. I've heard rumor I should be able to still have fairly regular Internet access there--so hopefully I'll be able to post again soon. Meanwhile, perhaps the short plane ride to Chiang Mai will give me a little time to process everything I've experienced in Bangkok.

Day 1--or Thereabouts

It's Monday Feb 11 where I am. I don't think it's quite gotten to be Monday Feb 11 back home yet--or, at least, people haven't waken up to Monday yet. It's around 3:15p here and we're done with our agenda for the day so some folks have wandered back to their rooms for a rest--I and my roommate, Belinda Jeung, have decided we're much better off if we ... just ... keep ... moving. So we're going to head out to do some sightseeing in a little bit. But I wanted to update you on what occupied our time today. What an incredibly informative day this has been!

Our first meeting was with Sally Thompson of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, or TBBC. Sally gave us an excellent overview of the history of the refugee situation in Burma, as well as statistics and some predictions for the future. When she first started with TBBC they were working with about 10,000 refugees; now there are 145,000 refugees in 9 camps along the Thai/Burma border. There are many cases of families with four generations living in the camps; whole villages are displaced at one time and move into the camps as a whole.

Between 1996 and 2007, 3,077 villages were destroyed, forcibly relocated or abandoned because of pressures from the Burmese army. In 2007, a further 167 villages were displaced last year. In most cases, the army moves in and tells the villagers they have three or four days to relocate.

Over half of the Karen in the camps have been there over 10 years, some have lived there 25 years or more. (I vividly recall one of the Karen men who has relocated to Rochester telling us that he'd been in the camps for over 15 years, and all of his children were born there.) There are whole generations of Karen growing up knowing nothing but life in the camps.

The numbers are staggering: there are 145,000 residents in the nine refugee camps. But added to that are 503,000 (estimated) displaced persons still living in Burma--many in hiding or temporarily relocating to other villages; and there are about 2 million "migrant" workers--or those that move into Thailand seasonally to work and escape political pressures and come back when they deem it safe again.

I asked Sally about whether there were any statistics on the incidence of refugee women and girls (or men and boys, for that matter) ending up victims of sexual trafficking. She confirmed that it is a very real problem, and the numbers would be quite high, but she didn't have any specific statistics. As can be imagined, it's difficult to get numbers for those kinds of things. But tomorrow we meet with Annie Dieselberg at Night Light Ministries, and later in the trip we'll be visiting the New Life Center and meeting with Karen Smith and Kit Ripley, so I'll definitely be getting a clearer picture of how the Karen refugees are victimized through sexual trafficking.

Our second meeting was with Genevieve Juli (although I'm not sure I'm getting her name right--sorry) of the International Organization for Migration. She explained to us the work of IOM and how it relates to the UN and the United States. I'm still not entirely clear on the flow chart--I will need to do more studying up on that. But the key pieces of information I received from this conversation was that Thailand is beginning to get more restrictive on whether they're allowing as many refugees to depart. They're concerned about the "pull factor"--the more refugees that are successfully relocated, the more refugees that tend to show up to fill their places in the camps. For example, Tampien camp (and no, I'm probably not spelling that correctly), was one of the first to be "emptied" because the Thai government hoped to close down the camp and use the land for other things. However, the camp originally had 9,000 residents--the vast majority of those refugees were relocated...and now the camp is back up to having 9,000 residents again.

For those of us who have Karen and Chin in our communities who are waiting for family members and friends to be released for relocation, it was eye-opening to learn where the bottlenecks occur, and it's not always where one would expect. In many cases, provincial Thai governors have the last other cases, it's higher up the political food chain. And there often is little rhyme nor reason.

Mae La camp, the one we'll be visiting later in the trip, has over 40,000 registered residents--and not all of the residents are registered ("registration" being another step in the process controlled by the Thai government). That's the size of a small city!

We also learned quite a bit about the cultural orientation and other preparation that refugees go through prior to heading to their relocation country, and basics about the resettlement process itself.

Our final meeting of the day was at the International Rescue Overseas Processing Entity. We had more conversation about the refugee resettlement process (as you can imagine, it involves a lot of paperwork). This is where I learned more about the registration process itself and, again, how subject it can be to political whim. Indeed, the Karen especially, although all the refugee populations of Burma deal with similar issues, are completely at the whim of various governments and people in authority. They simply want to have a home, to work, and to raise their families, and often every roadblock is put in their way.

I am spending my time praying for each and every nameless person that is living in those camps. May God clear a path for every one of them to a better life.

Some preliminary thoughts

I'm definitely feeling a little bit as if I'll be coming full circle on this trip--or, rather, completing a circle.

My parents were very involved in refugee resettlement throughout my growing up years. When I was about 12 or 13, we invited a Vietnamese brother and sister into our home as foster children--I have vivid memories of index cards taped to various objects around the house with the English words written clearly on them: "Clock", "Lamp", "Couch", "toilet"...even including "dog" taped to every canine collar (and there were many of them), although we never got the cats labeled because they wouldn't hold still long enough. My Vietnamese sister tried to teach us how to sing "Jingle Bells" in Vietnamese, but it ended in giggles--hers and ours alike--as we couldn't get the tonal language right and I don't even want to know what lyrics we actually were singing!

In 1998, my father--Dr. Don DeMott--invited me to go to Burma (Myanmar) with him to help teach conflict resolution to Kachin Baptist teachers. We were there under the auspices of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and the Kachin Baptist Convention. We met with a group of about 30 or so teachers who worked in the schools attached to Baptist churches throughout the Kachin state. Dad had asked me to go along because of my experience in children and youth ministry; in reality, I went along as a translator for Dad. I had taken his conflict resolution courses in college so, in Burma, he would lecture for a few minutes, I would translate some of his terminology into "plain English", and then the translators would put it into Burmese and Kachin. One afternoon, during a rest period, one of the Kachin men pulled out a guitar and they started singing praise songs in Kachin and Burmese. I asked them to teach me one of the songs--it was a thrilling moment. Less thrilling was when they asked me to teach them a song in return. In my sleep-deprived, culture-shocked, unprepared mental state, the first song that popped into my head was "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes"! They enjoyed it, and I often heard them singing it the rest of the time we were together, but I commented to my dad later that there were a hundred other songs I would've rather imported had I had my wits about me!

And the circle continues. About a year ago, I had just completed a volunteer commitment and said to my husband one evening later that week, "Maybe when the kids go to college I'll get involved in something like refugee resettlement." Not two days later (what's that saying about God laughing at our plans?), on a Sunday morning my pastor announced that he had gotten a call from our resettlement agency in Rochester--would our church be willing to sponsor a family? To make a long story short, our church--which has a long history with refugee resettlement as well--chose to work with all the refugees that came over without sponsors, which culminated in an interfaith, church-and-community volunteer network that's essentially sponsoring about 200 refugees from Burma resettling in Rochestser.

So by this autumn, I had experienced growing up with refugees as siblings, being in Burma to see how people lived there, and now working with recent refugees from Burma as they relocated in Rochester. I commented to my husband, "The missing piece for me is knowing what the refugee camps themselves are like."

Enter the Binkleys. I had met Duane and Marcia when they came through Rochester last June, and was able to be with them as they met with a number of the Karen who were in Rochester at the time. When I was notified about this trip, Virginia and I had some discussion and we decided it would be a good idea for me to go. This is definitely one of those "We don't know what God has in mind but something is obviously brewing" moments.

As I look forward to this trip I embark on in two days after this writing, I am honored to feel as if I'm carrying on a legacy set out by my parents. I hope to understand better what my own Vietnamese foster sister and brother may have gone through back in the 80s. I hope to learn more about the experience of those refugees from Burma who are now part of my church and city community. I hope to make some connections with women and women's organizations in Thailand and in the camps that will enrich my ministry here in the states as well as our corporate ministry as American Baptist Women's Ministries.

Members of my church and members of the Rochester Karen and Chin community laid hands on me this past Sunday to pray for this trip. I carry those prayers with me and, in return, will blanket the camps and the ministries that I visit with them. I can't wait for the opportunity to share with you through this blog all the wonderful women and men I'll be meeting, and what ministries are happening. It's exciting, not knowing what God has in mind but knowing that something is obviously brewing!