International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Sarah Wayne Callies: Cycles

Actress and IRC Voice Sarah Wayne Callies recently visited refugee camps on Thailand's border with Myanmar, also known as Burma. One of them was the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp’s Site One, where the International Rescue Committee assists Burmese refugees who have fled conflict and economic hardship at home.

I wrote last time about cycles of violence: Depression, alcoholism, domestic violence and rape form one of the negative cycles that threaten to undermine the community at Ban Mai Nai Soi.  And since people seek refuge in this camp because they are fleeing violence, any nascent sense of hope and safety is easily undermined when they feel threatened or are violated.  Fear can quickly lead to despair and defeatism that quicken the negative cycles.  I heard stories of mothers who, desperate to calm babies whose cries are shattering their frayed nerves, pacify them with a spoonful of the same bootleg rice wine that is the scourge of some of the male population.  It’s dangerous for the babies, of course, and evidence of the mothers’ despair.  And the cycles continue ever downward from there.  
 
These are the aspects of camp life it hurts to look at.  But there are cycles of healing, too.  One of the most moving I encountered had to do with food production.  
 
Food rations including rice, lentils, cooking oil, eggs and nutritional mash are distributed to all residents in Site One.  (Additional eggs and beans are given to pregnant and nursing mothers and growing children.)  But think about living on that for years on end; it’s a diet of entirely beige food.  In the developed world, our school children are encouraged to “eat the rainbow,” to partake of fruits and vegetables of every color in order to satisfy their nutritional needs.  There are no rainbows in the rations at Ban Mai Nai Soi. 
 
There is, however, fertile soil.  And every available patch of land I saw was being put to use growing food.  The dense landscape of bamboo bungalows is studded with papaya and banana trees.  These trees produce vital nutrients —vitamin C and potassium among them—that help supplement the camp rations with fresh, living nutrition.  Beyond the nutritional value, however, is the inestimable boon of giving the refugees an opportunity to provide for themselves.  For the majority of Ban Mai Nai Soi’s 14,000 residents who do not earn a monthly stipend from the IRC or other organizations for working in the camp, food production is a way of tangibly contributing to their families’ survival. The sense of pride in that contribution is a powerful antidote to the depression and hopelessness that drive people to alcohol and violence.  It is the first step in an upward cycle of health and sustainability, both physically and emotionally.  
 
The garden at the Gender-based Violence shelter is full of squash, beans, tomatoes, basil and a smattering fruits I could not identify.  Not only does this garden provide food security to the women who work its soil; it provides evidence that they can make essential contributions to their families’ welfare.  Since self-hatred is often a side effect of domestic and sexual abuse, this garden is a vital component in short-circuiting one of the camp’s negative cycles.  Moreover, the garden gives women skills they can pass on to their children, engendering a positive cycle of self-empowerment in the camp.  
 
A Burmese refugee working in a small vegetable garden in the Tham Hin camp, Thailand.
A Burmese refugee working in a small vegetable garden in the Tham Hin camp, Thailand. (Photo: Peter Biro/IRC)
 
Bear in mind that many of the Myanmar refugees fled scorched-earth tactics at home that left their villages and crops destroyed. Restoring traditional farming practices is also an affirmation of their right to safely cultivate the land, and can help repair decades of defeatism and fear.  So growing food can be an act of healing, empowerment and activism as well as a means of accessing vital nutrition.  
 
It gets better.  The food production’s upward cycle can continue through resettlement for refugees who are granted asylum in the United States.  The IRC has had tremendous success with a program called New Roots, which provides community garden spaces for refugees new to the country.  As in Ban Mai Nai Soi, these gardens provide an immediate means of independence to the resettled population: Even before they have a job they can obtain their own food, and for people unused to shopping in American supermarkets (where cassava, an African staple, is rarely available, for instance), growing their own crops provides continuity to ease the culture shock of a new homeland.  Some of the community gardens have been certified to sell produce at local farmers markets, increasing the refugees’ positive visibility in their new towns and providing a much-needed source of income.  
 
Some day these New Roots gardens might even become a source of vital education for American kids.  At a time when food prices are rising and food security is an ever-increasing concern, many refugee families come to the United States knowing how to grow their own food.  Most Americans don’t know how to do that anymore.  Imagine if we were able to apprentice our kids to the refugees so that they could learn to provide their own food in backyard gardens?  The sense of independence, achievement and community that could impart to our children would continue the positive cycle initiated thousands of miles overseas.  
 
From the seed of a refugee camp’s healing could grow a solution for a generation of Americans seeking empowerment in their own food security.  From the refugees who seek shelter on our shores could come a greater sense of safety and achievement for all within our borders.  So far it’s just an idea—but perhaps one worth growing.  
 
 

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