While flipping through some photos today I was reminded of my first adventures in Bangkok, the people I met, and one of the reasons why I fell in love with the city.
In many ways, Bangkok changed the way I travel. It was more than just another destination to me. It was in this city of disorganized chaos that I forgot about myself and put my shoes into those of another. Well, several others to be exact.
I was staying in the city for a few weeks, cat-sitting, when I was introduced to an American guy who was doing work with street kids and refugees in the city. His name is Dwight.
Dwight was younger than I had expected but incredibly friendly, and in those first few days he took me to meet some of the asylum-seeking families he was helping, as well as to the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) to meet with asylum-seekers who had been caught and arrested by the Thai government. They were incredibly humbling experiences, and I found myself at a loss for words. I didn’t know what to say or how to behave. When we left to go back to ‘normal‘ life my heart was heavy, weighing me to the ground.
During our visit to IDC one of the men we spoke with (and I use this term lightly) was a Hmong from Vietnam. He didn’t speak English, and I have to hand it to my friend Kevin for miming his way through the conversation as it was an impromptu game of charades that I would never have completed. At the end of our visit, the man had managed to pass a note to Kevin (via a guard), who then passed the note on to me. The note was for the man’s wife who was somewhere in Bangkok.
Dwight and I headed to the Bangkok Refugee Centre and as I sat in the taxi I remembered my first visit to the Bangkok Refugee Centre, a place I would have never found on my own; it is that well hidden. I remember feeling a mixture of confusion and sadness that day as we walked through the centre, children in classes or running around, adults sitting in corners of the courtyard talking quietly. We made our way to a small area at the far end where I was introduced to a Sri Lankan man and his young family. He cooked food at the centre and soon Dwight and I was sitting at a small table eating a spicy version of a Sri Lankan Chinese/samosa roll thing. And holy wow, it was tasty.
Upon our arrival at the refugee centre, Dwight asked around to see if anyone knew the woman whose name was on the note, we then sat down for an extremely spicy Sri Lankan lunch. Several times that afternoon we said we should leave, but for some reason we both stayed, talking to refugees and asylum seekers. A few hours later we started to pack-up. That is when a Hmong woman appeared at our table. As it turns out, she was the woman to whom the note was for. We handed her the note and within minutes tears welled up in her eyes and began to pour down her cheeks.
Word had spread throughout the centre that Dwight was looking for her, and somehow it got all the way to her house. She had taken a couple of buses (a two-hour ride, and a dangerous task for an asylum-seeker) to get to the centre to see us.
The expression of joy and excitement on her face was almost more than I could bear. Hugging the note to her chest, she started speaking Hmong, a language that neither of us knew. The only thing we could figure out was that she wanted us to come with her.
Dwight found an interrupter in the centre, and the four of us left the centre, walking through side streets, a quiet neighbourhood, and finally down an alley to her sister’s house. Except it wasn’t a house. It was a room. A room with no furniture, six kids, two women, and a lot of plastic bags containing clothing.
We sat on the floor and for the next hour or two and spoke with the women through the interrupter as her sister’s four girls scrunched together in a corner. Turning on my front-facing camera on my iPhone I opened a camera app and tried to coax the girls out and closer to us. It took time, but eventually, they were huddled around the iPhone taking pictures of one another and giggling (pictures I still have and cherish to this day).
We learned that day that both husbands we in IDC and the sisters lived miles away from each other (the woman who received the note lived way out in the suburbs). The food was scarce as they had no money. No support.
Something Dwight took care of through his In Search of Sanuk project.
That was almost four years ago, and while I could look at those old photos and remember that day when I met a Hmong woman who had travelled two hours by bus to receive a note from her husband (who was in IDC), I have something better. I can see how those four girls (and their mom) have grown and blossomed under the care and watchful eyes of Dwight. It’s amazing, I barely recognize them when he posts photos!
Volunteering abroad is not always about how you can impact locals in a foreign country. In many instances, it’s about how those locals will impact you, and what you will do with the lessons you learn from them.
The world can be a scary place. There are so many things that are wrong and horrible. But there is still a lot of beauty and love. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to make a difference, you just have to be present, open, and willing to give of yourself and your time.