Sarah Wayne Callies: Witness to a refugee’s journey
February 22, 2012 by Sara Wayne Callies
|IRC Voice Sarah Wayne Callies with IRC Casework Coordinator Julie Hannah (right) talking to a Vietnamese family bound for the United States. Photo: Peter Biro/IRC|
Actress and IRC Voice Sarah Wayne Callies is in Thailand this week visiting camps on the border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, where the International Rescue Committee assists Burmese refugees who have fled conflict and economic hardship at home. Check back over the next few days for her personal notes and stories from the field.
I arrived in Bangkok yesterday after nearly two days of travel.
Right before I left home my husband suggested that I lay in provisions—they don’t feed you these days when you fly. So I ran across the street to buy a sandwich in a little cafe. The store serves both French and Vietnamese food and prayer flags hang from the door. It’s a family operation: Kids are reading in the corner while mom makes food and dad runs the register.
As I paid for my food dad noticed my bag, a gift from a Burmese refugee family I work with in Atlanta:
"I like your bag. Where is it from?"
"A friend gave it to me. I think it’s from Thailand."
"I lived in Thailand for a while."
"Really? I’ll be there tomorrow."
"I’m going to the refugee camps in Thailand. Write about them, try to bring some awareness."
The man stopped and looked at me.
"I lived in those camps."
"You were a refugee?"
"We are from Vietnam – we were boat people. We waited in Thailand to come to the U.S."
Dad said he barely remembers Thailand. “I was her age,” he said, pointing to his daughter reading a book nearby next to her brother. His daughter looked about my daughter’s age—probably coming on 5.
We were staring at one another now. What was there to say? “Congratulations,” I said. “Thank you,” dad replied. He looked around his cafe. “Life’s been good to us here.”
I took in the place again—it now looked less like a sandwich shop and more like a monument to possibility. We smiled at each other and I left.
The sandwich, by the way, was delicious.
My journey from home to Bangkok then took me across an ocean and the International Date Line. Three movies, four TV shows, half a novel and a long nap later, here I am. We leave tomorrow for the camps at the Myanmar border (another two flights). But today we visit the IRC offices here to meet with staff members who facilitate resettlement of refugees.
I meet the crew, ask a million questions, and then they have a surprise for me: A group of refugees have been approved for resettlement by the U.S. government and I have been asked to give them their acceptance letters. Years of waiting and hoping have culminated in the promise of a new home and I get to give them the good news.
Fleetingly I wonder if I’m wearing waterproof mascara.
“Are they from Myanmar?” I ask.
“Vietnam,” I am told.
The refugees fled religious persecution in Vietnam and sought refuge in Thailand, where they lived illegally as urban refugees. They cannot legally work or send their children to school. And since there are no refugee camps in the city, they run the risk of arrest and detention.
The first family troops in to the conference room: mom and dad and two sons who are maybe 6 and 11. The older son understands some English, but the IRC provides a translator for the rest of the family. We sit across from one another with their caseworker.
I don’t remember exactly what was said; my eyes were on the family and I hope I never forget their faces. Relief and gratitude mingled in a kind of glow. The parents immediately looked a generation younger, knowing their children will grow up in a safety they themselves have never known.
"Do you have any family in the United States?"
"An uncle. He lives in North Carolina. He runs a restaurant."
I have never been more grateful for waterproof mascara.
Sometimes life is almost too symmetrical to believe. This family will be resettled in North Carolina to join family members already there. They will, in all likelihood, work in the family restaurant. The little boy across the table from me, the only one who is unsure of the enormity of the news they just received, will barely remember Thailand. His life will be defined by the United States; his English will be fluent; he may inherit the family restaurant and his own children may munch their sandwiches over books at a table in the corner.
I push the resettlement acceptance letter across the table to the family.
"Congratulations. I hope it’s good for you there."