On March 22, a fire burned about 100 huts to the ground in a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand, killing at least 35 people and leaving thousands homeless. The refugee camp, Ban Mae Surin, is home to thousands of refugees of Karen descent who fled Burma due to ethnic genocide and fighting between Karen guerrillas and the government. According to The Wall Street Journal, the fire was said to have started as a result of a cooking accident; these fires are not unusual in the refugee camps in Thailand, especially due to the dense arrangement of huts and poor living conditions.
Ultimately, although the fire resulted in death and despair for these refugees, it has also put the conflict in Burma and the Karen people’s plight in the spotlight — at the very least for a few days — as the conflict in Burma and the suffering that occurs is relatively unknown throughout the world. In fact, last November, President Barack Obama became the first ever sitting U.S. President to visit the country, which is wedged in between India and China. The country is very diverse, culturally and ethnically, with at least 15 different ethnic groups including the Karenni, Mon, Burmans and Karen. This ethnic diversity, coupled with the effects of colonialism and imperialism is what ultimately created and fostered the racism that is prevalent throughout these groups, and for the past 70 years, the Burman-dominated government and eventually the military junta that currently controls the country has fought armed opposition groups made up of the other ethnic groups vying for independence. As a result of the conflict and genocide between the military junta and ethnic groups, several million people have been uprooted and displaced in neighboring countries and refugee camps, particularly along Thai-Burma border. Currently, several hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees live in nine official refugee camps or settlements across this border in conditions that vary widely and are often inadequate.
Again, the conflict in Burma is not widely publicized and most people do not know much about it. However, although this conflict and the plight of the Burmese refugees is occurring on the other side of the world, Cornell University and the Ithaca community have taken several steps in alleviating these refugees’ suffering. According to the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca’s website, for the past several decades, refugees from Southeast Asia have resettled in Ithaca. The Presbyterian Church sponsors several of these families; within the past decade, many of these refugees have been from Burma and are of Karen descent, and over 100 individuals now live in Tompkins County. The church provides several different resources for these families, including housing, transportation, paperwork, donations and a community of support. Furthermore, through the Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County and the 4-H Urban Outreach Program, Students With Interrupted Formal Education offers daily after-school and enrichment and summer programs for the children of these Karen refugees. All of the children were born in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border and are trying to adapt and integrate within the culture and school, so SIFE offers them extra support. The program is largely run by volunteers, many of whom include students from Cornell. Every year, the Cornell Public Service Center sends new volunteers to work with SIFE and the children.
When one hears about suffering, devastation and the plight of a group of people like the Karen refugees, it is hard to imagine the ways in which a difference can truly be made, especially for a Cornellian who lives on top of a hill in upstate New York. However, something can always be done, and even though Ithaca may be a small and isolated town and we may only be university students with minimal life experience, our community has consistently contributed to alleviating the plight of the Karen refugees and continues to make a difference in the lives of those who have suffered because of war and genocide. So, the next time you hear about the Burmese refugees, remember that you are a part of a community that plays an active role in relieving their suffering and making their lives more peaceful.
Ariel Smilowitz is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Why You Should Care appears alternate Mondays this semester.
Original Author: Ariel Smilowitz