THE INSPIRING COMMUNITIES OF KAYAN REGION
Photos courtesy of Carey Scheer
Sitting at a family-run shop front in Seebu (Kayan Region, Myanmar) across the street from the family who was sharing their home with me, I sat down to meet with U Law Rai, the Prime Minister of the Kayan Ethnic Group. He shared with me the importance of the Kayan refugees in Thailand having the opportunity to return to their region of origin, the Kayan Region, and live an abundant life here. For what seemed like the thousandth time that day, I breathed in my surroundings and imagined what their lives would look and feel like. Undoubtedly, I was surrounded by raw natural beauty and resources, inspiring work ethics and strong communities where people, family and relationships are valued.
I pushed further and posed questions regarding the preparedness of the region, the political leaders, the infrastructure and the people making up these communities. What was in place to support the repatriation of these people, en masse or slowly over time? What resources would be available to them and what skills would be valuable?
As is often the case with politicians, one doesn’t always get the straightest of answers, however one thing was made clear; land is ready and waiting to be handed over to Kayan refugees upon return, land to cultivate and build homes on. That, and the certain value of people returning with entrepreneurial skills.
Yesterday I returned from Burma/Myanmar. It was an unforgettable experience that will inform my every thought and decision for years to come in many regards.
I spent a lot of time on lengthy bus rides, but it was all worth it to spend a few weeks in the village of Seebu in the Kayan Region. Here I visited the family, friends and colleagues of a good friend and the founder of Ways of Change’s partner organization, the Kayan Community Development Services (KCDS).
The community in Seebu not only welcomed me into their homes, fed me endless plates of food, taught me their language, hiked with me to their highest mountain, invited me to more than one wedding, taught me how to spin organic cotton and played their instruments and sang their hearts out for me, but also taught me community development from a truly grassroots and Co-Creative perspective.
Have I lived with families in remote mountain villages before? Yes. What made these weeks so much more enriching? Engaging in these experiences with the backdrop of purpose. I was not only there to have fun, learn a new culture and language, eat delicious food and meet a friend’s family. I was there to experience where the refugees I work with have come from, where they are potentially repatriating to and what their experiences may be like.
I felt honored because my feeling of presence with purpose was mirrored by the sense of belonging this community afforded me. They thanked me for Ways of Change working with the Kayan people. They had a welcome party in order to showcase their traditional music. They arranged meetings with local political leaders and myself because they believe that the work we are doing at Ways of Change is important, meaningful and noteworthy to these individuals insofar as contributing to the change which they are currently working towards in Burma/Myanmar and the Kayan Region. They invited me to sit-in on and learn from community meetings where they allowed for my participation and enquiries.
The Kayan Region is vast and full of organic scenery, endless mountainous landscapes, fresh water and fertile soil. Community, strong connections and an intense work ethic are at the heart of one’s life here. I have not a doubt in my mind that the repatriation of what may be a few Kayan refugees or tens of thousands of Kayan refugees will be logistically, a massive on-taking by all of those involved and affected. I am similarly certain that eventuating the change that this community has communicated as necessary for the future of their people must come from within.
I could see with such clarity, the importance of Ways of Change’s commitment to working with refugees to build on their skills prior to repatriation to this region in order to share their skills with their own communities and in their own language, in order to eventuate the change desired by these communities. Ways of Change’s pledge to working towards the development of “skilled agents of change” was being confirmed as quintessential before my wide-open eyes.
Living in this border region and visiting these communities in Burma/Myanmar, never, has the imminence and the importance of this work been clearer. On the Thailand side, I constantly here the whispers of a potential push for repatriation from the Royal Thai Government. Now, I have had a glimpse into the additional context of the pull on the Burma/Myanmar side.
As discussed in previous blogs, a huge motivating factor for the work that Ways of Change does, is our belief that refugees will have an extensive reach in the future, partly due to repatriation.
While for some refugees repatriation will be a personal decision involving a long-awaited reunion with family and friends to a place they call home, for many the notion of return to a country they fled for reasons of fear and persecution is not one that sits well. Refugees, advocates and organizations in the region, have expressed concern regarding premature forced-returns.
I feel the provocative energy from within this vortex; Burma/Myanmar and the people who have fled and are currently located around the world are facing an imminent turning point. With the 2011 ceasefire agreement in Burma/Myanmar and the opening of its borders for trade and tourism, there exists much uncertainty regarding the future for remaining in Thailand as well as the reality of safe returns.
While Ways of Change does not have political sway regarding this matter, we know our energy can be best placed in facilitating the generation of skills identified by the people we work with as vital in preparation for any future movements as well as their current situation.
Pa poobra ma pa poo way. (We are all brothers and sisters.)