Phi Phi is eager and ready to start work in Burma
There exists an old Karen oral legend that tells the story of the original nomadic migrants that travelled from the Mongolian Gobi down through China and Tibet and over the Himalayas to settle and domesticate the fertile mountainous region surrounding the Salaween river, that which separates modern day Thailand from Myanmar.
Led by a prophet patriarch, the early Karen trailblazers marched south in search of new lands. As some groups were slower to advance, and being that they were exploring new and unknown lands, they needed to find a way to keep together, to allow the slower moving parties to find their brethren.
The legend of the seashell is borne of this diaspora. The faster moving groups placed markers along the way, so the others would not get lost. In addition to carving niches in trees and piling and bending branches, they would place seashells along the route. In this way, the Karen people would be able to reunite with each other.
In recent years, the Karen have again been separated from their loved ones, this time forcefully. Some have literally seen family members murdered before their eyes, while survivors have had to undertake long unwanted journeys far over the mountains and across rivers to seek refuge in Thailand.
But now, with hope, that tide is changing, and the possibility now exists of refugees being able to return to their homeland and be back with long lost family again. DARE Network and the Step Back to Burma program is supporting that ideal, and playing an active role in it.
The Step Back to Burma staff who have been undergoing extensive training in the Mae La camp for the past several months are preparing to make their first full force deployment across the border into the Karen villages within Myanmar. And as the date rapidly approaches, the magnitude of this “step back” is beginning to hit the young addiction workers, all but one of who was born in the Karen state on the Burmese side, but were forced to flee in the face of overwhelming violence.
There are mixed feelings. There’s excitement and pride, along with a certain sense of trepidation, particularly among some of their parents, who remember even more vividly the horrors of previous times. A recent ceasefire agreement between the central Myanmar government and is a hopeful sign, but hope nevertheless remains mixed with caution.
Nearly all of the addiction workers who are venturing into Myanmar are between the ages of 18 and 25, and many have only hazy memories of life there, but all of them still have some family who were left behind. Grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles…..they all have family with whom they will hopefully be able to reconnect.
For Phi Phi, the 28 year old project leader who will oversee the first group’s entry into Myanmar, the Step Back program has special significance. Phi Phi has been living in the refugee camps of Thailand since he was 6 years old, 22 years now, and has dreamed of this day for a long time. He is anxious to bring the work of DARE Network to his homeland, where an older brother who stayed behind awaits him. “I want to continue working to grow the DARE program to help all of the Karen people” he says. “DARE Network helped me when I was addicted before, and I want to help show the good way for Karen people in Myanmar.”
The Step Back program is the first phase of what DARE Network hopes will be a continuing process, and the young eager workers are in this for the long haul. I sat down with the entire team of new addiction workers recently and asked them all a question. I asked “Given ideal conditions – peace in Burma and an end to refugee camps, if you had your choice of where you can live, where would it be?" The choices being: In Thailand as a fully recognized citizen, in a peaceful Burma, or in any third country of your choice – including the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia…anywhere. Where would it be?
I had imagined, perhaps naively, that of the 17 young men and women, that the vast majority would say “a third country”. I was thoroughly mistaken. Only 4 did. 5 would choose to remain in Thailand. And 8, the majority, said that they want to go back and live in Burma. Despite the pain and suffering and trauma that so many of they and their families have faced there, they still want to go back and make a life there, and help to rebuild their communities.
The only member of the group who was not born in the Karen state of Myanmar is Shergaytaw, a 20 year old young woman whose father was shot and killed as her pregnant mother fled on foot over the border, to give birth to her here in Thailand. For her, the journey “back” to Burma, where her grandmother and grandfather still reside, will be extremely special. “I don’t know what to expect, but if I can live in Burma, I will live there and work with the Karen people.”
In about a month, the team will be immersed into the villages within Myanmar. In a way, the long odyssey of the Karen people’s journey goes on. The Step Back program is one part of that journey coming around to full circle, reuniting “lost” nomads once again.
And when they cross the big swift Salaween river and step foot onto Burmese soil, they’ll be carrying seashells along with them, so that they will never be separated again.
Training sessions in progress in Mae La camp
Map of villages in Burma where DARE will operate