Up to now, I’ve always thought I didn’t like traveling. I’d like to amend that statement by saying I don’t like traveling for the sake of travel. Now, living in a different place, with a reason other than sight-seeing for being there? Much more up my alley.
A bit more background, since whenever I tell people I’m in Thailand for the summer their reaction is “Whoa! … What are you doing there?” I’m part of the Dartmouth chapter of an organization called GlobeMed, a global health club that it creates long-lasting partnerships between a college chapter and a grassroots NGO of a different country, and aims to keep the needs of the partner organization at the center of the partnership. During the school year, we remain in communication with our partner, helping them raise funds, and every summer GlobeMed at Dartmouth sends a group of students to learn more and help out on-site however we can.
Our partner organization is the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, or KWAT for short. It was founded by four Kachin women who saw the need to support Kachin refugees of Burma, and especially women. KWAT’s main office is located in Chiang Mai, but they also have multiple health clinics and other offices closer to and inside Burma.
Our goal in coming here is to help however they believe we are most helpful, and to take this opportunity to learn as much as we can. And what an opportunity to do so! On our first day of work, we read through a stack of reports written by KWAT documenting personal accounts of atrocities committed in the war, accounts of rapes, kidnappings, shootings, and appalling failed justice. The Burmese civil war is not highly publicized, at least not in the media I’ve seen. I was shocked to hear how long it had been going on, and the amount of people displaced from their homes, especially ethnic minorities, who have been especially marginalized.
I’ve been happy to be a part of this, and to help them with what they do. Mostly, we help them with English or design related things. We’ve designed and edited a brochure and a map (putting my fave class knowledge to use), and various other documents, and are also teaching them English. And dare I say, I’ve been the one learning the most from this English class.
The KWAT staff are all women, and all passionate about political issues and women’s empowerment. For our English classes with them, we have been reading articles and watching videos we find related to maternal health and human rights. I’ve learned that it’s one thing to read articles like these in a classroom setting (shout-out to Dartmouth for letting me major in “starry-eyed millennial wants to save the world”), but an even better experience reading them alongside these women, learning with them and also from them.
One of our English class days, we watched a video on barriers to maternal health access and discussed afterwards. It was like hearing the buzzwords I sprinkle generously into my class papers come to life. The staff members talked about their experiences with the lack of adequate healthcare facilities for childbirth, (KWAT runs multiple health clinics in Burma and Thailand). They talked about the long distances women had to travel to reach a clinic and the lack of resources from low prioritization of healthcare in government spending. They talked about poverty and the difficulty in getting adequate nutrition and access to health services in IDP camps, and how that contributed to unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions. They talked about how reproductive health was a bit of a taboo topic and how many people were too “shy” to ask for help, or ask questions when KWAT held workshops on reproductive health, and were excited when I taught them the word “stigmatization.”
Even though I had learned about all these issues from the safety of Fairchild building, armed with my McLaughlin snack bar breakfast on my desk, it struck me to hear about them nearly firsthand. It felt like a revelation to see the concepts I had learned about in class, the interplay between political, economic, social factors that affected the lives of individuals, at play in the lives of the Kachin refugees and migrants that KWAT works with directly. In fact, as we were talking, I kept thinking to myself “Wow, I could write a geography paper about this!” (Don’t worry, I haven’t. This soapbox blog post will just have to do.)If there’s anything I’ve learned from my classes, it’s that “it’s complicated.” So many issues surround us in the media and our own lives that I don’t want to add yet another political or preachy voice to anyone’s Facebook feed. I merely add the excited rantings of a 21-year-old getting to learn more about issues she’s passionate about. Issues which I don’t claim to know the solutions to, or who should get involved, or even my own future role in. But I do know my current role… I can make a map.