Friday, July 29, 2011

How to get free clothes for ten people fast in Albany circa 2009

I saw this on facebook last night and wish to comment. (BTW, I'm still in Mae Sot but we'll ignore that interesting tid bit today.)

"New family of 10 arrived from refugee camp last night. We are desperately looking for kids clothes and shoes for this family. They have only the clothes on their backs, no socks or underwear, and 1pair of tennis sneakers each. Looking for boys and girls clothes and shoes of all sizes."

It was followed by a flurry of well intentioned activity and offers.

However, when I was the furniture guy at USCRI-Albany I learned to deal with these things quickly and easily. (Many people thought I was the "Stuff" guy.) Unfortunately as the organization does not communicate well and has little to no institutional memory that knowledge seems to have been lost. Or perhaps it's that I'm two years out of date.

First the Albany city mission gives away free used but clean clothes. They have what's called "the free store" or IIRC, "Blessingdales."

Many refugees know this. (They taught me.) However hours are normally limited and patrons are required to wait in line with other patrons for a brief visit. Unfortunately, this often brings newly arrived refugees into friction with untreated mentally ill and drug addicts and such. This is not good.

Fortunately the staff knows this and if contacted would discuss making appointments for refugees during off hours so they could get what they needed.

As always, if one uses this service encourage people to replete it when they can, through donations of their own.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Teaching in Mae Sot area

First, some photo links:

Photo links

Mae Sot and its environs:

Karen food:

Second, let me clarify some things.

I have told some people that I am teaching in a refugee camp. This is

not exactly true. I am volunteer teaching for a few weeks with an

organization that provides educational services to "Burmese migrants,"

some of whom are refugees and at this time none live in a refugee

camp. I've started teaching, for instance, but have not yet seen any

of the refugee camps. (I had thought I would be teaching in a refugee camp.)

As most know, the gov't of Burma (Myanmar) is among

the worst in the world and the country is both under terrible tyranny

and impoverished.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand (p. 413) there are

approx. 2,000,000 (two million) Burmese "migrants" who have fled Burma

(Myanmar) for Thailand and many, many others who have fled into

Malaysia, Bangladesh, China and elsewhere that a Burmese can flee to.

(they recommend and for more info. I

have not checked these sources though. No time now.)

Of these (using the same source) about 120,000 are registered refugees

in 13 camps. There are other unregistered refugees who live in camps

as well.

The Thai gov't does not classify people as refugees unless they are

fleeing political violence (this is a very difficult distinction to

make in practice however. I most certainly do not believe every

Burmese who has told the US gov't that he is fleeing after his role in

the 1998 protests was actually involved in them.) Many choose to live

outside the camps. These folks are generally politically marginal at

best, illegal or semi-legal in most cases (it's very complicated) and

often take jobs that others do not want at sub-Thai minimum wage with

little opportunity to complain if mistreated. They are often


It seems it is the people of the last category I am teaching at the moment.

The result is the region is something like an Asian version of a south

Texas border town full of illegals save that that "questionables" all

have thanakha smeared on their cheeks and noses.

If I do not see a refugee camp before I leave I will be disappointed

but it is quite possible that I will not have the opportunity to do


Thirdly, Burma is a multi-ethnic country with many minorities who are

quick to point out that they are not Burmese. The Karen are one of

these. They live in the eastern part of Burma and nearby parts of

Thailand (where they are considered one of Thailand's six "hill

tribes.") The Karen have been fighting the Burmese since independence

from England (1948, their independence date from Britain, not ours).

I stay in a building full of Karen with some Burmese. I teach at a

school that is full of Burmese but no Karen. The Karen speak primarily

(Sqaw dialect of) Karen and study Karen, Burmese, Thai and English in

school. Most eventually speak three or four languages. The Burmese

learn Thai, Burmese and English in school..

Many Karen are Christian and the school I live at is Christian. The

Burmese school is run by a Buddhist monk though. They say his toughest

task is to acquire five or six large bags of rice each month to give

the kids lunch.

The kids all seem surprisingly healthy and happy so far.

Many at the boarding house are orphans.

But as for me, weather is cool, cooler than both Shanghai and New York

right now. It rains a lot. Today I'm in Mae Sot downtown. Northern

Thailand is the first place in Asia I've been that does not seem

overpopulated so things are spread out. There's lots of rice patties

but also many, many cornfields and empty fields.

I sleep on a bed in a spare room that is half full of storage. Privacy

is minimal and I'm woken up during the night a couple times by

chickens, ducks and a strange wild lizard that sounds like a bicycle

horn. (Or so people tell me. I've never seen the lizard actually.) But

it's free. (I budgeted about 15-20$ plus airplane for this trip and am

way ahead as I spent zero money on Thursday or Friday.)

For breakfast and supper I eat Karen food and for lunch I eat Burmese

food although honestly they seem so far basically the same to me. I

must, I guess, refine my palate.

A Karen or Burmese meal is mostly rice. I'd estimate 80% rice by

volume. By contrast a Chinese or Taiwanese meal is around 20-25% rice

by volume. Meat, vegetables, sauces and strongly-flavored pastes are

used to flavor and stretch the rice and leave you with a satisfied

palate. For instance, a smidgeon of very spicy or very salty tomato

paste or fish paste can leave you feeling full and satisfied much

faster than bland food.

Vegetables are often strange (by USA-ian standards) and include bamboo

shoots, scallions, pieces of banana sprouts and things I can't

identify that probably serve to add bulk and fiber to the food.

Meat is eaten, like vegetables in very small portions, One will note a

series of photos of some frogs. Now, assuming one eats frogs, an

American would normally eat half a frog (of this size) minimum,

perhaps a full frog, for a meal portion. Here, instead, one eats about

half a leg only and thus these frogs will last several people for

about four or more meals.

But I feel full and healthy. (I also started eating stress vitamins

daily in China and continue.)

I like everything I've tried except for one dish that was made with

sour fish (fish left to rot for a few days before preparation.) I

quietly did not eat it --and since I only had a spoonfull or so on my

plate, another advantage of small portions was revealed.

One thing I have never gotten used to about the Burmese and karen

though is that they eat with their fingers, not forks or chopsticks or

anything, and wash their hands carefully before and after each meal.

(Obviously I've enjoyed my time, overall, with Karen and Burmese

people or I would not be here, but it still seems strange.)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Heading off for Mae Sot to volunteer

Although I've moved to Shanghai where I was offered a job teaching English as a foreign language with a major university, I do keep in touch with several refugees in the USA using skype, the telephone, e-mail and facebook. But I confess I've been feeling a bit guilty the last year as there is so much more to be done and so much more to be learned and understood.

So I've decided to volunteer as an English teacher for a few short weeks at Mae Sot refugee camp in Thailand.

I am scheduled to leave on Tuesday and am focusing on things like washing my best socks. (I have trouble buying good socks here in Shanghai and therefore do not have as many good socks as I want. Most are too thin and small to be comfortable.)

I've been feeling stress and have been watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer a lot. (One of the ways I deal with waiting induced stress.)

Anyways, here's a few links I found to let people know what I will be doing and where I am going and even some of the people I will meet.

Again, just to summarize, I began writing about refugee issues on this blog when it became obvious that many refugee workers did not really know how to do their jobs. It became angrier as I became convinced that some agencies, notably USCRI (the Non-governmental organization known as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants) do not terribly care if their workers at the local level know or are able to do their jobs. I wish it weren't so. Meanwhile if people wish to help there's lots to do not just to help out refugees but also to try and bring light to the agencies that are receiving federal funding to assist refugees and then not doing their jobs well.