International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Sarah Wayne Callies: Fear and hope confront a visitor to Thai refugee camps

Actress and IRC Voice Sarah Wayne Callies travels this week to camps on the border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, where the International Rescue Committee assists Burmese refugees who have fled political upheaval at home. Check back over the next few days for her personal notes and stories from the field.

ATLANTA, Georgia -- A woman I grew up with visited India in college and it left her nearly broken. She gave away all of her money, jewelry, and extra clothes in the first hour of encountering Delhi’s vast poverty. The rest of her visit was spent in a horror of powerlessness at the enormity of the indigence in the country. She returned home deeply shaken and, to my knowledge, has not traveled outside the United States since.  

It is so easy to be defined by our fears. Nearly ready to leave for Thailand, I can feel mine clawing at my insides. I am not afraid of malaria, showering with a bucket, or bugs. I am not worried I will be assaulted or that I won’t be able to go a week without fresh vegetables. I am, however, deeply afraid that I will be faced in the Thai/Myanmar border’s refugee camps with a need so great I will never be able to do enough to alleviate it; a need that will loom like a mountain, against which I am powerless to do anything but break myself.  

And unlike some fears that are no more than insubstantial phantoms in our neurotic minds, this fear is absolutely true, isn’t it? I will not be able, through this single visit to the refugee camps, to resolve the problems of one of the world’s oldest and largest populations of displaced peoples. I cannot reunite all the families torn asunder by decades of civil war, cannot heal all the chronically malnourished children, cannot give employment and security to the thousands of families who need it like air.

Is it this fear that keeps so many of us from reaching out to lend a hand the first place: the fear that our powerlessness will overwhelm us, the global needs consume us, leaving us unmanned? The magnitude of the need in the world is devastating to contemplate for too long. What on earth can we actually do?

The answer, of course, is hope. Every dime store psychologist will tell you that. As will every guru, messiah, prophet, and visionary.  And perhaps, every simple person with good sense. I want to believe it: There is hope. It is the reason I’m going to the camps in the first place, isn’t it? But at this moment I hear a second voice that says hope is a fool’s way to convince herself that the pain and grief and loss in the world have meaning, and that they can end.

The only sense I can make of this so far is that these two poles might be the dichotomy that makes up a refugee’s life. Hope and fear: the isostatic balance between the likely and the possible, between the horrors of the past and the dreams of the future. If this is true then it is the refugees themselves who can teach me how to engage with the world’s great, gaping needs without crumbling in the process. Ironic, isn’t it? Maybe the refugees have a good deal more of value to share with me than I do with them.  

I am going to visit the Thai/Myanmar refugee camps, then, as a student of courage and caution to learn from the population there how to navigate enormous pain and loss without capitulating to it; how to retain a vision of the future without succumbing to the past. At this precise moment in history this seems like an invaluable lesson. What a thing to discover on the eve of my departure: I am going to visit these refugees not only to bring comfort and awareness but to study grace. 


You can read all of Sarah Wayne Callies's blog posts here.

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1 comment


Great post. I am an IRC

Great post. I am an IRC volunteer who was recently fortunate enough to visit the Bhutanese refugee camps in SE Nepal. It is hard not to be overwhelmed. But we saw a lot of hope despite the challenging conditions, such as beautiful small gardens and a passion for education. People are very excited about resettlement & starting a new life. Safe travels.