International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Sarah Wayne Callies: Mubi’s girls

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

There were no Southeast Asian authors in my women’s studies classes at Dartmouth.  In the long lists of writers, critics and activists that formed my syllabi for four years, not a single name would sound familiar in Ban Mai Nai Soi.  The stories of resistance, awareness raising and organizing were thrilling and inspiring nonetheless, and a part of me yearned to witness firsthand the first flush of the grassroots women’s movement that my mother’s generation initiated before I was born.  

Funny that I found it among the Karenni refugees.  
There is a dark side to refugee camps.  I have written thus far about what’s working at Site One, but there is also a dangerous cycle of despair, alcoholism and violence that appears to be growing.  It’s an understandable, if inexcusable, byproduct of living for decades in makeshift huts with dwindling hope of returning to Myanmar.  Bereft of homeland, without the opportunity for meaningful work, and often separated from family, more and more men in the camp turn to alcohol to cope.  
Alcohol is severely frowned upon in camp, but fermented rice “bootleg” is available if you know where to look.  This moonshine is toxic stuff that can trigger schizophrenia, domestic violence and rape.  The burden falls on women who care for sick men and bear the force of their violence.  Moreover, Karenni women are part of a culture that stigmatizes victims of sexual and domestic violence, who are often ostracized rather than nurtured through their ordeals.  
Some women in camp had enough of that, and they founded the Gender-based Violence Program to address it.  Their leader is the IRC’s Annabelle Mubi, herself a Karenni refugee.  She’s so short you could literally overlook her in a crowded room if she didn’t radiate a power and cheer that are impossible to ignore.  Her round face is set with a sense of possibility and strength that make people want to listen to her, follow her.  And her mission is to make the camp a safe place for every woman who lives there.  
It’s a huge task: Most women are abused by men who know them, know where they live — and are quick to intimidate them if they speak of the violations they've suffered.  The camp has a curfew at sunset, at which time the Thai police and outside aid workers retreat, leaving the 14,000 residents to fend for themselves.  Bathing facilities are communal, electricity is nonexistent, and many women have a long way to walk home at night.  All of this makes them easy prey.  
So Mubi and a small group of women applied for funds to build a shelter for abused and violated women.  They fashioned a small compound of bungalows for treatment, counseling and residence.  When the residence was broken into by a man intent on reclaiming his battered wife, they built a fence.  When the gate was crashed, they found men from the camp to guard it twenty-four hours a day.  When the women inside were languishing from shame and depression, they built a garden to demonstrate tangibly that victims of violence can still nurture life, provide for themselves and create beauty in the world.  Some women stay at the shelter for over a year until their homes are safe enough to return to. In the interim, the women of the Gender-based Violence Program work with their husbands, educating them about ways to manage their anger and despair without lashing out at their wives.  
It’s slow going, and Mubi and her colleagues get discouraged when things seem to get worse.  More women are coming to their shelter every month: It may be that word of their work is spreading or it may be violence toward women is growing—there’s no way to know.  Moreover, workers in the GBV program are themselves the targets of violent men who are outraged that women dare interfere with their culture, and who want to “teach them a lesson.” It’s dangerous for these women to take a stand, reach out and help others, to set a standard of women’s safety and insist it be enforced.  
But women celebrated a major victory recently. For the first time in the history of the Thai border camps (nine camps totaling nearly 140,000 residents), a woman accused her rapist in a Thai court and won the case.  At the urging of the GBV program and with the assistance of a legal aid team in the camp, the victim was able to put her rapist behind bars for nearly thirty years.  The social significance of this case cannot be overstated: To prove to women who have been voiceless and violated that they are entitled to justice is a huge step forward for women’s rights and safety in the refugee camps.  
I sat listening to Mubi and her colleagues as they briefed me on the work they do—their challenges, heartbreaks and victories— and I realized I was on the front lines of a nascent liberation movement.  Mubi and her friends will inspire a new generation of women’s studies majors; their courage, dignity, innovation and compassion will motivate not only women of their own culture but many beyond their camp and country.  
It was an honor to spend time with them and witness their work.  But every night since I have left them, I go to bed and think of how vulnerable they are in the dark with their lockless doors.  May they see the dawn in safety and strength. 

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Sarah, thank you for

Sarah, thank you for volunteering, for traveling and for sharing your experiences. I read every entry with interest. I found your writing to be compelling, honest, fresh, informed . . . I'm a retired school teacher, an IRC supporter, and a volunteer with the refugee community in Lynn, MA.

What an amazing group of

What an amazing group of women. I don't think some people can comprehend the fact that a program like this is an extremely courageous step forward, but it's also a dangerous one. In these developing countries womens liberation is not an easy task, and at times, not a welcome one. My heart goes out to all involved in this program. I pray for their safety and that with each passing day they get one step closer to their overall goal; living in a safe environment where violence and abuse is not tolerated. Sarah, you have a good heart and more importantly your effort to raise awareness on these issues is something that I am inspired by. I thought you should know that. I am not accustomed to saying this but having read all of the above, I'm touched and upset at the same time. I myself am not a stranger to being violated and abused in the family home. I was only a child when it happened but I can say that I overcame these obstacles. Today I'm studying Writing and Business at University and getting here wasn't easy. I'm almost 20 and over the years I had to understand and work through what happened to me, on my own. Reading about what you've done, Sarah, what you are doing, and seeing the awareness that you are raising has pushed me to DO something and reach out to women affected by such tragic events. I promise to be there and do whatever I can to support their cause. I think the most important thing one can do is to let these women know that they are not alone -- donate, volunteer, support them. When you go through something like this, support and hope should never be too far away. I myself have committed to some volunteer work this coming June. I've always hid from discussing this issue because it can be painful, but I feel as if it's time to show my support and help in any way I can. I just hope other people feel the same way too. Thank you for writing this, Sarah. Thank you, and God Bless.