Monday, November 5, 2007

The Audacity of Hope

by Rick Olivares

The road to Damascus
The jungle trail is perilous. Even that is a treacherous understatement. To get to the refugee camps, the off-road vehicle has to be hauled up a steep incline from a winch. Then you have to slog through the quagmire of the monsoon season in the alternating heat and rain.

The camps are also beset by flashfloods, landslides, and erosion. And to exacerbate the danger, they’re a mere two klicks away from the Burmese border. Eminently within sniper range from a Chinese-made Russian Dragunov sniper rifle that fires a steel-jacketed 7.62 mm bullet that upon impact instantly turns a human body into jelly.

It’s definitely not the Hilton or the air-conditioned confines of the corporate offices of United Laboratories, but for Ben Mendoza (HS ’64 Coll ’68), the refugee camps that dot stretch across the Thailand-Burma are the best places on God’s green earth for him.

Men of his age would have found their calling and their place in the world decades ago. But it brings back a strange fulfillment, a feeling he first felt during his ACIL years back in school.

We all have our road to Damascus. In the most mysterious of ways, the Lord God communicates to us and reaches out to his wayward sons and daughters.

Ben Mendoza (HS ’64, Coll ’68) confesses his being less than devout once upon a time. He was always content to let his family stay inside for Mass while he stood outside waiting for the hour to pass by.

A long marketing career with United Laboratories and Wyeth found him working overseas mostly in Thailand and in the United States. But he was always drawn back to Thailand. “There was something more than the picture perfect beaches and the cuisine,” he says trying to put a finger to his point. “There’s an innate beauty to the country – the warmth, openness, and diversity of the people.”

While at Mass in Bangkok one Sunday – standing outside as usual – a guest priest talked about Mission Sunday where the Catholic Church was involved in helping refugees from war-torn Burma. Before he knew it, he made his way inside and listened intently to the human crisis situation that was happening a mere five hours drive from his comfortable Bangkok digs. He went home profoundly affected; the seed having been sown.

Watching television a few weeks later, he saw the same priest talking about the strife in Burma and the refugees in Thailand. Around the same time, there was an ad out in the papers looking for a Field Manager who could work in the camps and help raise the funding needed for the refugee work. And Mendoza knew he could no longer ignore the call. His children were all done with school and he had no other obligations to work and pay for. He quit his job and figured that he could put his management skills into the best use with the organization. Little did he know that his life was to undergo a radical change.

The spirit of the bayonet
There’s a frail and elderly woman looking every bit her age. Twenty years of living in the squalor of various refugee camps after fleeing the war and strife in Burma have withered her body. But surprisingly it has not affected her mind or her spirit. Not even her memories.

She pulls a refugee camp volunteer close. “Thank you for the food and shelter,” she slowly intones in her native Karen perhaps to emphasize the urgency of her message. “But give us guns so we may end this conflict once and for all.”

This is one of two haunting memories that are grafted to Mendoza’s soul. It’s a chilling statement of a blunt nature of the conflict in Burma (or Myanmar as it is now called) -- it is a long long way from being resolved.

There are two things that change the world’s geography: nature and war. While we are far removed from the disappeared land bridges and the eruptions of volcanoes like Vesuvius and Krakatoa that have defined borders and destroyed civilizations, war on the other hand is a persistent and dangerous man-made threat that has constantly rearranged boundaries even in this day and age.

The days of colonialism may be a distant memory but for many, the ramifications are still felt today. It was common then for the European powers to employ “divide and conquer” tactics by pitting minorities against one another. It allowed them to govern with a small and well-armed occupying force that tasked locals to do their bidding. And long after the last flag was hauled down from Southeast Asia, racial intolerance and age-old enmities have become a flashpoint for violence and slaughter of biblical proportions.

You would think that people would have learned from the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields in Cambodia. Yet in neighboring Burma the senseless and wanton killing goes on and has been unchecked for decades now.

Give me your tired and wretched refuse
Since the Vietnam Conflict ended, Thailand has graciously opened her borders for refugees from her war-wracked neighbors while providing military protection. Thailand’s Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR) where Mendoza serves as its Programme Director, has been working in concert with various organizations like Caritas, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, UNICEF, and the local government in providing help for the Burmese refugees.

To date, there are 150,000 refugees scattered in nine different camps along the Thai-Burma border. There are 609 program and camp staff, social workers, doctors, and teachers who work in the camps where there is no electricity and running water.

During daytime, the refugees are taught skills that they will be able to use once they return to their home country. Children are sent to school while the adults either plant indigenous crops that also serve as an additional source of food while others sew or manufacture soap and candles of which are also a light source. However, come nighttime, any illumination is put out for security reasons.

These refugees are forbidden to hold jobs in Thailand more so to leave the camp’s premises. They’re housed according to ethnic group (65% are Karen while 18% are Karenni) and have learned to co-exist through a tenuous truce. Boredom is a huge problem while hope… hope is a lofty and nebulous ideal. And these refugees are entirely dependent on external humanitarian aid.

“I’ve been here for a while but I can’t say I’m jaded,” adds Mendoza. “I look at the selflessness of the volunteers many of whom are (Bangkok) college graduates and they’re here. They’ll make more in private corporations yet somehow for them this is a more rewarding and enriching experience.”

Lifeline of Hope
It is a complex political and social issue up here in the hinterlands of the border between Thailand and Burma. The recent killings of Buddhist monks and other dissenters has sent a fresh wave of refugees and panic not just in this corner of Southeast Asia and the rest of the world but in the camps.

The second haunting image that burns in Mendoza’s soul is the image of a mother holding her child close at night. It isn’t simple one mother. There are thousands and thousands more like here. But it’s always the same scenario.

What does a mother tell her child before they fall asleep? To study well for a brighter future? How does she make them understand that when they face an uncertain tomorrow? How can she say that everything will be all right when they’re not only living on borrowed land but on borrowed time?

There are no answers for now, but for people like Ben Mendoza and the thousands who willingly give their time, effort, care, and money… that’s why they’re spread across nine camps in the jungle. They’re working to find a long-lasting solution and to give hope. Even in a place where it’s in such short supply.

The author together with some good friends met with Ben Mendoza last Sunday, October 14 at a Starbucks in Siam Paragon in Bangkok, Thailand. Despite being busy coordinating rescue efforts after a mudslide in one of the camps, Mr. Mendoza found a couple of hours to talk about the Burmese refugee situation. It is the author’s wish to spend his birthday this November in the refugee camp (he’s working on it) where he hopes to do his part in saving the world.

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