International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Sarah Wayne Callies: Floods

Sarah Wayne Callies in ThailandActress and IRC Voice Sarah Wayne Callies recently visited Thai camps on the border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, where the International Rescue Committee assists Karenni and other Burmese refugees who have fled conflict and economic hardship at home.

I sat with him during lunch my second day in camp: He works with the IRC in the Karenni Health Department, a refugee trained to assist other refugees.  He earns a small stipend from his work, but I imagine the value of his job far exceeds its financial remuneration.  Like so many people living in Ban Mai Nai Soi, he has called the camp home for fifteen years. During that time his only opportunity to stimulate his mind and provide for his family has been his work with the IRC.  Jobs with the IRC are coveted for this reason, and competition to fill them is stiff.  
His participation in the camp workforce is also a part of why things in Ban Mai Nai Soi work as well as they do.  In a community with minimal litter and infectious disease, globally recognized legal aid and women’s empowerment programs, and exciting solutions for food security, the refugees themselves are working enormously hard for their own communal benefit.  They participate actively and passionately by proposing and implementing solutions for improving their own conditions.  
One of the challenges of relief work is that solutions proposed by well-meaning outsiders with the best intentions often fail to meet the needs and nuances of a refugee population who, after all, know best what those needs are.  One of the strengths of the IRC and Ban Mai Nai Soi has been their ability to tap the intellectual capital of the refugees for the betterment of the entire camp.  It gives the refugee workers more than a sense of achievement.  It prepares people whose entire adult lives have been circumscribed by confinement a chance to experience a workplace, job training and financial responsibility—vital skills for those who choose relocation to another country.  
So we sat together for lunch, Nerl Son and I, in a bamboo and leaf-thatch cabana set into a steep valley thick with other huts and studded with banana and papaya trees.  The hot, dusty air ambled under the table as we spoke of his future—in a month he will relocate to Boston.  He asks me what it’s like there.  I look out of the window at the mountainside above us thick with bamboo and banyan, so lush, so green.  What do I say to him?  
I remember coming to Boston for the first time from my home in Honolulu and seeing an alien city, grey and cold and moving too fast for me.  How much more foreign to a man who will never have set foot on an airplane until the day he leaves Thailand for Massachusetts?  A man who has never tasted a hot dog, never owned a refrigerator or shoes with laces, never seen snow?  I wrack my brain for something hopeful to say that will make him less nervous about his new home.  
“There’s a river there,” I offer.  I am thinking of the six natural springs that flow into a network of waterways that provide drinking water to the camp here: Rivers are familiar ground.  
He considers a moment, nods.  I babble on about how I love Boston, how he may want to learn about baseball. I even mention Click and Clack like a total idiot.  He looks thoughtful as he asks me, “When does the river flood?”
This is a very good question—around Ban Mai Nai Soi, it happens so often that buildings are elevated on stilts.  Flood season comes every year and people plan for it, so it makes sense that he’d start planning his new life in Boston around when the river will flood.  But it’s also precisely this question that, for some reason, brought home to me most fully the magnitude of his upcoming transition.  He doesn’t even know the questions to ask about his new home—how could he?  It’s understandable, but it must also be terrifying.  You could tell from the look on his face that the crazy white lady assuring him the Charles River would never flood must not know very much about rivers.  
There’s nothing he can do about how hard it’s going to be for him in Boston.  But we can.  Even those of us who don’t have a penny to give right now can reach out to offer help.  Resettlement offices all over the United States welcome refugees from around the world and help them make precisely this transition.  They are always desperate for volunteers to help refugees learn the subway system, navigate the grocery store, read their mail.  An hour a week at someone’s apartment drinking tea and gesturing across language barriers—just so they know they are not alone—can make an enormous difference.  
As for me and my family: My daughter has loved getting to know another culture through the refugee family we volunteer with.  It’s been good for my soul to be reminded how blessed I am to live in my native land.  And I have to believe it’s not bad for the country to invest in our future by welcoming the nation’s newest citizens in a manner befitting future Americans.  
My friend’s getting on a plane in four weeks with no idea how challenging it may be when he gets off.  Anyone willing to make it easier?

To Help

The IRC’s 22 U.S. offices rely on volunteers to support their work helping refugees adjust to a new life in America. For more information or to volunteer, please contact an IRC office in your area.
1 comment


Thank you for your dedication

Thank you for your dedication to a wonderful cause. Also thank you for capturing the depth of the issues - your writing shows a uncommon grasp of the Third World socio-political context, unusual sensitivity to the complexities of donor aid, and the mind-bending challenges of relocation. Not to mention that your writing is superb - clear, concise and powerful. Thank you for all you do, Sincerely, Neal