Life in Thailand for many Burmese migrants is hard, they face a new language and culture and they are discriminated against in so many ways. Many have arrived with no passport or official documents and this just makes life even harder. We are constantly hearing about the necessity of having your ‘papers’ and having them on you.
Last week we went out with two of the Marist Asia Foundation (MMR) health team and met with three Burmese people living with HIV. One has a permanent injury that means he can not walk and he also has TB, his wife is HIV positive, as is one of his two sons. The next person we visited was 8 months pregnant, she also has a 3 year old and had another child who died of AIDS. The last visit was with a woman whose husband has died of AIDS, she also has a young son. All these people live in what is best described as slums. Their homes usually consist of one room, either wooden or concrete. There is no running water inside their dwelling and no toilet facilities for them to use, but they all have electricity. Their homes were clean and tidy and all welcomed us and showed hospitality by turning on their fans!
The Marist Asia Foundation (MMR) health team check that they are up-to-date with their medication and if they are not literate they devise ways to ensure that the right meds are taken at the right time and on the right day.If the Burmese people have no documents then they cannot get medical treatment, so there are some interesting ways in which these papers are obtained, this usually results in the person being in even more debt. The papers only last one year and then the whole process starts again. As in NZ, if you are not a resident of Thailand – and most Burmese are not- then you have to pay for your treatment. The Marist Asia Foundation (MMR)is the only organisation in Ranong that assists Burmese living with HIV. If these patients return to Myanmar it is possible that they will receive free treatment, almost without exception they choose to remain here in Thailand. This says a lot about their life in Myanmar. Poverty and desperation can drive people to do all kinds of things and it has been important for Mike and I not to judge or assume things based on our comfortable Auckland lives.
In the hospitals they are not always treated kindly. In their own communities they can find themselves isolated when they develop full blown aids, often dying alone. The circumstances that resulted in both men, women and children contracting HIV are harrowing and way beyond the experience of many of us. Abuse of people and their circumstances is common place and by their nature the people of Myanmar are not assertive let alone aggressive towards others.
Work, when they can get it varies. Some are fortunate and are able to work in retail or similar but for the majority work it is in a charcoal factory or in a fishery where children as young as 12 are working long days. Men can be away from home for months at a time working on fishing boats, leaving behind their families who are struggling financially. Again, poverty can result in desperate actions being taken with very sad consequences.
It was both moving and humbling to visit with these people. The health team visits are significant to them, a highlight in their day. It means a lot that someone has bothered to visit, that someone cares enough to come and sit, listen and share in conversations. Like all of us, these people want to share the highs and lows of their day. Sadly, their highs are often our lows. We watched as these people were treated with dignity and respect. They are hungry for positive, non-judgemental human contact. Many of these people come together at the school once a month for a self-help group, they share their stories and experiences and learn more about how to care for themselves and others. An HIV/AIDS awareness programme has been developed for the students at the MMR school and we heard much about the wonderful work of Kirsten Sloane, a NZ nurse who worked in Ranong for 2 1/2 years.
This is important and significant work that the Marist fathers are involved in. It has taken vision and courage to bring it into reality. Most of the world will never know what is happening here but to the people encountering the work of the Marist Asia Foundation their world is a better place. You can find out more by going to www.maristthailand.org