The team of Westerners came to the border to make an awareness video; which really means “we want to pry the sob stories out of any poor person who is willing to talk”. That is easier said than done in an Asian context where sad events bring lose of face or shame to the one it happened to. And, as with any culture, it’s better to earn the right to these stories only after a friendship is built. This team was lucky that there were already long-term local workers who had done this. They got to record what the others had waited many months to hear.
More than six months earlier another all-white team of Christian Western do-gooders came to the border to dig in the rainy mud. We thought we were helping dig a foundation for a new shelter to house those in need. We found out later our measurements were off and it had to be re-dug by locals. One of those white girls stayed on for a year. She saw the slow process as cement formed the base and wooden poles were lashed together to make the frame. Split bamboo “boards” stood side by side to create ventilated walls. Finally the dried-leaf thatch roof was put on. The shelter was finished but who would live there?
They were sisters from Burma. They each came with their families to seek hopeful freedom, work and enough income to feed the hungry mouths of their children. Each sister had five kids. I’d heard rumors of what happened to the husbands but the story was never clear, not until the day the others dug the story out with their camera lens in place.
We sat in the two-story bamboo shelter that these two ladies and their ten kids now called home. The cement floor felt a little more comfortable knowing I had dug under it; part of my sweat rested below. They were always such cheerful ladies and their kids were such loves. As illegal immigrants the kids didn’t even have money to go to the internationally funded migrant schools until now. When all the kids got backpacks, they wanted to display the cool super hero designs on the front along with their smiling faces. I tried to remember this picture while the moms relived the horror story.
Sayama tried to interpret and articulate in English what they said. Each lady took her turn to speak while the other sister faltered or choked on her tears: We came for work. The Thai bosses can be good or okay or awful. You take your chances. Our husbands worked in the fields. They worked long hours for low pay but it was better than starving in Burma or getting beat by the Burmese soldiers. But we weren’t so lucky. This boss was a bad man. He hated people from Burma and found reason to find fault with our husbands. One day they did not come home at night. They didn’t come the next day either. We soon found out what happened. They were tied to old tires and…burned. Were they killed first and then their bodies burned to destroy the evidence? Or were they burned alive? The Thai police won’t do anything about it because they were just illegal workers who weren’t supposed to be here anyway. No justice is held for the wanderer.
The phrase came back to my mind as I held her tear-drenched hand in my own salty fingers. “When you see black rubber smoke on the border, another person from Burma is being burned.” Such a hideous picture and it must be an exaggeration…but here was a woman telling me the name of her husband who suffered such a fate. I wanted to puke. A bamboo shelter for these women and their kids could never give back the husbands and fathers. It just wasn’t enough. And yet here God tells me in his ancient book that this is the fast he desires. It seems such a small way of rectifying the wrong, of bringing a bit of His justice into this broken world.
I try to sort it out – one mom in a new country of stingy wealth and two moms in a host country that would rather not have them there. Wealth is wasted on the rich. The more we have, the less we want to give away to those in need. My heart screams – give me a shovel. I want to start digging another foundation for a new shelter! Fire can destroy but it can also burn away the impurities. And He promises to bring beauty for ashes.