As my twin engine plane descended on Mae Sot, the wet-black runway beneath me shimmered like a mirage. Rainwater, reflecting a blinding white light, was evaporating to grey under the mid morning sun.
Emerging from the rear door of the aircraft I narrowed my eyes to the distant hills, where heavy clouds still lingered, but their payload of relief had been spent the night before, and now the only promise they carried was humidity
A lifetime of preconceptions regarding Northern Thailand and the border of Burma swam through my mind; with visions of hill tribes, painted faces, muddy rivers and countryside of mystery and allure. My thoughts were fuelled by stories of intrepid explorers, secret agents and adventurous travellers.
But the realities of this region in recent years, posed a stark contrast to my romantic daydream. Mae Sot, considered the primary land gateway between Thailand and Myanmar, has become a land of limbo for over 200,000 Burmese refugees and economic migrants. Included in these numbers are close to 30,000 children. Only a lucky few of that number are being provided education, through schools that are funded by a network of NGO’s.
For those with no access to NGO support the future is grim. Poverty and exploitation is driving a trade in human trafficking, slave labour and the sex industry. Migrants working in local businesses struggle to earn enough to feed their families while the local police collude with business owners and Mafia to capitalise on the situation.
My role in Mae Sot for the next three days would be to build a photographic portfolio. One that would support campaigns and communications carried out by Thai Children’s Trust. With the local TCT project co-ordinator as my guide, I would visit project sites including a safe house, local schools and an orphanage.
There is a striking contrast between the faces of the children in this situation and the reality of their environment. I was offered a wide and bright-eyed smile by every new face. Laughter and playfulness filled nearly every room. It highlighted to me that even when children are without, they can find a distracted happiness somewhere deep within themselves.
But witnessing the children in their quiet moments I saw fragility and a questioning soul. Their smiles, wide eyes and painted faces were but a very thin veneer.
The lucky few who attend schools and live in shelters are not blind to their own difficult circumstances. While certainly more fortunate than many of their peers, the help they get is from overworked locals funded by unseen faces. They are often separated from their parents, living on meagre nutrition; afforded no luxury of anything new or playful. Their dreams of becoming, while just as vivid as any other child’s, are shrouded in doubt and concern.
I left the area with an incredible feeling of mixed emotions and such a strong respect for the work of TCT and the other organisations in the region. I have a huge admiration for the individuals working locally, their commitment and compassion. I left with quiet feelings of sadness and hope for these children.
Living in a western society with access to information about global issues I am constantly reminded of the tragedies that plague humanity, our conflicts and disasters. Every day I see the suffering of innocents, the struggle of those living in poverty or places where resources are scarce. For years these images have made their way into my home.
But in just three days, Mae Sot, the children and the images I captured, made their way into my heart. I only hope that they might also find their way into the hearts of others.
With a four-year-old daughter at home, I’m acutely aware of the stark divide between her lifestyle and that of the children I had just met. It occurred to me when I asked “Do you realise some children don’t have what you have” that actually, she didn’t.
Instead of reading to her one night, I lay on her bed and opened my laptop. I used my images from Mae Sot to tell her a story. It started with the children at school. Then moved into the homes of those children. She asked questions about why they didn’t have books; she wanted to see their teachers. We talked about dinnertime, and breakfast. I showed her where they have their bath time. She asked me where they brushed their teeth. We talked about orphans and the people looking after them. We talked about the students in the schools, learning to speak English. She asked why it was so muddy. She asked so many questions.
I’m not sure she understood the concept of poverty. Her life is so different. But I don’t underestimate her. Like all children she is desperately eager to learn about everything. To me it is not important that she grasps the concept of poverty; it is more important that she understands that not all children have books, beds and toothbrushes… let alone drivers, nannies, and concrete at school.
I asked my daughter if she would like to donate some of her toys to these children. She loves the idea. We’ll go together. She can carry the bag.
I wont take her to Mae Sot. No more than I would take her to Mali, or Guinea, or Haiti, or Burundi, or Afghanistan or the DRC. I’ll take her to a local orphanage in her neighbourhood.
I challenge all parents to take their child on a journey, outside of their homes and into the homes of others. So that we may raise a generation of people who believe that compassion, education and goodwill, will help us all to get a little bit of concrete under our feet.