WEAVE: The artisan women on the Thai- Burma border
There are two scarves on my desk.
One is violet and the other is coral with detailed blue and white stitches. I picked them up yesterday morning and studied the patterns of thread in their design. They are tiny and asymmetrical; so specific that I find it astounding that they are hand-woven. It’s nearly unimaginable to think that human hands could make something so perfect and detailed.
The women who made them have years of practice. They have to be good at this because it’s their only means of income.
Last week I wore the coral scarf to an event with the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, and received so many compliments on its beauty. What saddens me is that I will never be able to share these good words with Naw Wa May Paw or any of the other women who make them in the Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp, situated on the Thai- Burma border of Thailand.
I became introduced to Naw Wa May Paw’s story through the Thailand based women’s economic sustainability initiative WEAVE. With offices in Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Mae Sot, WEAVE’s projects attempt to address common problems faced by marginalized ethnic women and children from Burma in areas concerning education, health, economic empowerment and self-reliance. The women in refugee camps that WEAVE serves have no means of income because they cannot work legally outside the camps. WEAVE has established artisan crafts programs to help them learn trade skills and earn income. This decreases the dependency on NGO food handouts and other humanitarian aid given to the camps.
Through the story of Naw Wa May Paw that will appear in “50 Women”, I learned of the harsh realities the Karen Burmese face everyday. The military government regime in Burma (now known as Myanmar) is one of the most oppressive and abusive in the world.
The Karen are a minority group which make up about seven million of Burma’s 48 million population. They have fought for independent recognition as an ethnic group within Burma for decades. Though they are not the only group that suffers, they have been under attack in their villages by Burmese government forces since shortly after World War II when the Burmese demanded independence from their former British rulers. At this time, the Burmese army was sent to bring all regions of Burma under control of the newly declared state of Myanmar. The Karen wanted the military government to acknowledge them as an ethnic group, so the government started to attack Karen villages, burn homes and use civilians as human minesweepers.
As a result of the violence, many Karen fled through the hills and jungles of northeast Burma and across the border into Thailand. This pattern of refuge- seeking migration has continued for decades.
Recently, more than 10,000 refugees from eastern Burma have crossed into Thailand since fighting erupted between government troops and the opposition Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in November 2010 after the country’s first national elections in two decades. Thailand considers the refugees to be illegal migrants, so they are not allowed to work or venture outside the camps. Women who venture outside run the risk of being raped.
In a refugee camp, one has few rights or freedoms. It is like being a human in a cage. The residents are stuck in a perpetual state of limbo as they cannot return to their home country and they cannot enter the new country because they lack citizenship papers.
Over the last 60 years, Thailand has been a major hub for refugees and asylum seekers. Bordered by Burma, Laos and Cambodia, it currently shelters some 1.3 million refugees. Current estimates put the Burmese population at approximately 160,000 refugees (100,000 registered and an estimated 53,000- 60,000 that are not) packed into nine camps on the Thai/Burma border.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, my place of residence, there is a sizeable population of resettled Karen refugees. Many of them were taken from similar camps and dropped into urban life where they excessively struggle. They are among the neediest local immigrant communities as many of them have spent up to 20 years in the camps with no health services or urban type of job experience. In talking to volunteers working with this community, I have learned that the struggles faced by these individuals are much more difficult than what they previously faced living in the camps.
I explained this to Sarah, WEAVE’s Communication Coordinator, as we shared a Skype session one evening to discuss the story of Naw Wa May Paw, and its inclusion in “50 Women”. Naw Wa May Paw is one of WEAVE’s artisan refugee women. It was important to me to capture the life of one of these women from in the camps and I was fortunate that WEAVE was willing to work with me. As I spoke with Sarah, she explained the economic growth projects WEAVE manages. “Many of these women WEAVE’s programs serve have lived in the camps for decades and it’s hard for them to provide for their families. They can’t leave the camp to find work because it’s too dangerous and they are not citizens of Thailand. They can’t go home because of the political situation so it’s quite a sad reality. WEAVE gives them options and opportunities that strengthen their lives and make them self-sufficient”.
Perhaps I will never meet Naw Wa May Paw. Perhaps she will never realize that her story is being read by many people in “50 Women” nor will she ever hear of it. I will send WEAVE a book for her when it is published if I do not have the chance to travel there. I hope to partner with WEAVE in the future when 50 Women Foundation becomes active. The work they are doing with these women is vital.
The night I finished my Skype conversation with Sarah, I poured over photographs of Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp, wondering if any of the women I saw would happen to be Naw Wa May Paw. There were pictures of women weaving, school children with shabby papers strewn in front of them and one of three young women sitting on the side of a hill with barbed wire fencing in the foreground. From that image, I recalled a book gifted to me to me by Refugee Transitions in 2009 after I got them a grant. In it was the story of a young Burmese girl who saw a pink flower for the first time. It was outside the boundary of the barbed wire fence that outlined her camp. She described reaching for it, sliding her tiny arm under the spikes of barbed wire and being unable to touch it. So she sat there, day after day, staring at that flower and marveling at its beauty.