An Evening with Refugees: When Going Home Isn’t an Option

Thanksgiving, an American holiday fueled by family gatherings and gratitude, came and went last Thursday. Unfortunately, we were away from home this year so we couldn’t spend this occasion with our family. But this was borne of our own choice, circumstances of our own making.

In contrast, many people in this world do not have this choice. Simply put, they cannot go home. Because of their political or religious beliefs, they face persecution and the threat of injury or death if they do.

We met two such families this past weekend in Bangkok. While speaking with them and getting a glimpse of their lives, we began to comprehend what it really means to be a refugee: a life in fear, a life of prolonged uncertainty, and a life of fighting for survival.

Note: Because of the sensitive nature of this topic, I have used false names and I have attempted to provide context without unnecessarily exposing the identities of the people involved.

Yeng: Five Daughters and a Detained Husband

Down a narrow alley, we found ourselves in a one room concrete house about 200 feet square. Donated clothes, toys and various belongings were piled into the corner. We sat on the floor as Yeng held her youngest daughter — a fussing 18-month old just recovering from being sick. Yeng’s four other daughters — none older than 11 — slowly emerged with a little coaxing.

The girls were shy, but with a little effort we managed to draw a few smiles, a few words. They looked like so many little girls – laughing, curious, adorable – that we’ve met in our travels throughout Southeast Asia.

But their future, as it turns out, is much more uncertain.

refugee kids in bangok

Photo courtesy of Dwight Turner of In Search of Sanuk

Yeng, her husband, and their children are ethnic Hmong from Vietnam. They are Christian and fled because of religious persecution. Over a year ago, after crossing the border into Thailand, the family was refused official refugee status (a decision that is rarely overturned). They didn’t feel they could return home, so they remained in Thailand hoping to find a way.

The father was eventually arrested for working illegally and has been held in Bangkok’s International Detention Center (IDC) ever since. Because his wife and daughters are effectively in hiding, they cannot visit him. They haven’t seen him in almost a year. His release is unlikely and the family lives in continual fear of being caught.

For them, the threat of permanent uncertainty hangs in the air. They are stuck.

Yeng cannot work to provide for her family. The risk of being picked up while working illegally is too great. Some of their Thai neighbors help them out by providing the family with extra clothes and portions of food — when they are available. To pay for additional food and rent, Yeng’s family receives additional aid from a local church, the refugee center and an organization called In Search of Sanuk, run by Dwight Turner.

For much of our visit, Yeng was quiet. The stress of her situation ran through the lines in her face. You could literally see the concern in her eyes.

As our visit drew to a close, Dwight gave her some bags of food and some money. Amidst both the tension and the relief, Yeng broke down — she will just be able to make rent this month.

An Activist on the Run

Back home, Roshan had been a director in a human rights organization. He was active in raising awareness about issues that rubbed the government the wrong way — corruption, misdirected aid, religious freedom. He was an advocate, but he was also a lightening rod.

Last year he organized a rally that drew 25,000 people. This proved the final straw. Roshan was warned and realized he needed to do something to protect his family. With a few important papers and valuables in hand, he and his wife, daughter and mother-in-law fled to Thailand.

Photo courtesy of Dwight Turner of In Search of Sanuk

Through a meticulously cataloged binder of credentials, he recounted to us his life back home. ID cards, newspaper articles connected with his activities, and degrees all spoke of an active yet seemingly secure existence: a nice house, extended family gatherings every weekend and a respected profession and position.

These days, Roshan, his wife, mother-in-law and 18-month-old baby all live together in a one-room apartment. They’ve even had to sell their wedding jewelry to make ends meet. Upon Dwight’s asking, Roshan opened his wallet. No cash. Only business cards, notes and a few slips of paper from the pawn shop. “This is my money these days,” Roshan joked in a matter of fact.

Without a hint of self-pity, Roshan focused instead on how this has been a learning experience, about how he and his family have grown through these challenges. He is a connector within the community and helps new arrivals.

For them, the future is more hopeful, the path to resolution clearer than most. They had recently been given official refugee status by the United Nations, and now they’re playing the bureaucratic waiting game to find out where they’ll be resettled. In the meantime, Roshan remains in limbo, unable to work legally. Recent raids and arrests of other refugees from his home country means that he must remain vigilant. Although he receives a small stipend from the United Nations that covers his rent, his church and others help to make ends meet.

In spite of all that, Roshan’s mother-in-law prepared a veritable feast — including chicken curry — especially for our visit. So even as we enjoyed eating, we also felt somewhat guilty that they spent some of their precious few resources on us.

But hope, hospitality and kindness all run deeper than financial means.

How we ended up here

Last Saturday, Dwight (the founder of the organization In Search of Sanuk) invited us to join him on this week’s visits and distributions of food and money.

Both families we visited came from countries I had a personal connection with — in one case, a place we visited during this journey, in another case, a childhood home. As a result, I could imagine the land, the culture, the places from which these refugees had fled.

Most importantly, our visits illuminated for me how insufficiently the topic of refugees and human rights violations are substantively addressed in mainstream media.

Photo of Dwight and kids, courtesy of In Search of Sanuk

Because of the delicate legal situation of refugee families in Bangkok, it’s difficult to find or stumble upon families in need. Over the last few months, however, Dwight has built a network of nine refugee families that his organization supports and that he visits regularly.

While NGOs, churches and the UNHCR are able to help some refugee families, their assistance is often not sufficient to cover rent and food. That’s where Dwight and his organization come in — to help fill the financial gaps. More importantly, the emotional gaps — he is there, he is present. To families that can barely leave the house or neighborhood, to know that there’s someone outside the only walls you know – someone who cares, someone who shows up regularly, someone who is constantly asking you to call if you need help (he means it) – is priceless.

The Refugee Catch-22

One of the things struck me during these visits is how the models for sustainable community development that we often promote (e.g., microfinance) don’t apply to refugees.

Even families who have been granted official refugee status are not allowed to work while awaiting their resettlement details. For those refused refugee status, the situation is even worse. How can you give a small loan to a woman to start a business when she might be arrested if she and her children leave the house?

Without security and protection under the law, even microfinance cannot work.

In the case of refugees, what’s needed is basic humanitarian aid – money, food, clothes, medicines – to enable refugee families to survive from month to month. If the basics are provided for (a big if), one can look further to other programs such as skills training.

Regardless, many refugees may live in limbo – in between lives and in a no-man’s-land of legal status – for years on end. And for the lucky ones who are resettled, the challenges of reshaping a new life in a completely foreign land cannot be overstated.

So although Thanksgiving came and went, this past weekend reminded me to be thankful for something I had previously taken for granted: the ability to go home.


Interested in learning more about refugee issues and getting involved?

1) In Search of Sanuk and refugees in Thailand

If you are interested in learning more about the families we visited and others like them, check out the links below and connect on Twitter with @insearchofsanuk
Read: Helping the Hidden for the Holidays
Sponsor a family for a month or more (usually around $100). Information on how to donate can be found here.
Read: The Best Way to Go to Jail in Thailand
Volunteer: If you do find yourself in Bangkok, check out these volunteer opportunities.
– Check out the Bangkok Refugee Center for additional information and ways to donate or volunteer.

After spending a day with Dwight – first in the morning with Thai children from a disadvantaged community and then in the evening visiting refugee families – we can attest to his dedication, compassion, and resourcefulness.

2) Awareness and education

Spend some time online or at the library researching refugee issues to understand the reasons why people are fleeing, the process refugees must undertake to be officially recognized, the impact of international agreements, and the challenges associated with it all.

Here is something interesting I found in an overview of refugee issues that definitely makes you think about where the greatest needs are:

It is therefore a myth that the majority of refugees are located in rich countries. Most refugees have the means only to travel across the nearest border and 80% are currently to be found in the developing world. The burden of hosting refugees therefore falls largely on countries least able to cope.

3) Be Curious, Ask Questions

We don’t often think to ask — respectfully, of course — recent immigrants how they ended up in the country. If you do so, you may learn something and perhaps you’ll be in a position to help someone adjust to their new home.

If you’ve traveled, you are in an especially unique situation. You just might have knowledge of where a family is from, giving you an advantage in comprehending what cultural challenges they may be experiencing. Think of it as being a cross-cultural mentor of sorts.

4) Find Local Organizations, Volunteer, Donate

When we were in Scranton, Pennsylvania this past summer, we met a group of refugees from Bhutan who had spent the better part of 20 years in Nepal and India waiting to be resettled. A local organization in Scranton had sponsored them and volunteers were engaged, helping them learn about and build a life in the community. If Scranton, Pennsylvania features such organizations then your community may, too.

Bhutanese Refugees Settling Into Scranton
Bhutanese Refugees in Scranton, Pennsylvania

If you’re not up for being a sponsor, consider teaching English, raising money, or taking up a collection of in-kind donations.

– For more ideas on how you can help as a volunteer or in raising awareness of refugee issues, check out this post on World Refugee Day from Got Passport.

– Finally, from the International Red Cross, a list of organizations working with refugees.

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  1. says

    I can’t imagine a life as a refugee, the feeling that you do not belong or wanted anywhere, country-less… I know a Hmong girl (my husband’s stepbrother’s girlfriend…lol) whose family escaped to the US from what I’m not really sure. I’ve been curious of the details, but never really know the right way to ask. She doesn’t know much because she was born here (I think), and her parents don’t speak much English.

  2. says

    Thanks so much for this. Was also nice to have you all along and I had no idea at the time it would turn into something this eloquent and useful. I’m glad you gave people so many options to get involved because people are so poorly informed about this issue. Thanks again on behalf of all the families too.

  3. says

    Thank you for this excellent and thought provoking article. I’m currently looking into volunteer opportunities to enhance my travel plans and this seems like an excellent cause. I’ve already emailed off for more information!

    Thanks again!

  4. says

    Unfortunately, the situation is the same for asylum seekers around the world – this isn’t unique to Thailand. I highly encourage anyone who’s interested in learning more to check out the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne, Australia: They have achieved big things in changing the conditions in which asylum seekers live in Australia. Anyone wishing to make a difference in other countries would do well to follow their example. I’m sure the people there would be eager to share their experience and expertise.

    Thanks for the great article.

  5. says

    Great post guys. We met Dwight when we were in Atlanta and were so impressed with the work that he is doing. I agree with Michael. Asylum issues across the world are equally difficult. Refugees in the United States often live in substandard housing . . . and just thinking about the detention cells for illegal immigrants/those who seek asylum is scary.

  6. says

    @Jill: There is quite a large Hmong community from Laos in the United States. The reason for many of these refugees emigrating to the States is that they worked with the US government (CIA) during the Vietnam war and were under persecution when the war ended. Another sad bit of history and American influence in SE Asia.

    Yes, asking refugees about their past can be a sensitive issue. While I imagine there are some refugees who would rather try to forget the past than talk about it, I think a large group would like the opportunity to talk about it to an empathetic ear.

    @Dwight: It really means a lot that you found this piece useful. I hope it is able to get some people interested and involved in refugee issues. It’s one thing to read about something and it’s another to see it. This is where spending the time with you and the families this past weekend really had a great effect on us.

    @Natalie: So true. We have traveled in many countries where free speech is a luxury. We have been fine as travelers, but we’re always very conscious of the fact that locals could get into trouble by talking to us. Not a freedom to take lightly.

    @Sarah: Volunteer opportunities like this are a way to get grounding during long-term travel. I think it’s great that you’re already thinking ahead and looking at opportunities. Good luck!

    @Michael: Very true – the situation for asylum seekers everywhere is challenging. Thanks for bringing awareness to ASRC. One of the interested facts that I read while researching refugee issues is that 80% of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. These are countries that have incredible challenges anyway, so trying to cope with additional people really makes it incredibly difficult for everyone. And, that’s where people can end up in limbo for years and years on end.

    @Akila: Yes, having to flee one’s country and being in between worlds is something I can’t even fathom. What we saw in Bangkok is definitely not unique to Bangkok – it’s something that is likely being played out all around the world.

    @Lorna: Thanks for your kind words about this piece. We have friends who have worked with Burmese refugees along the Thai border and have stories of forever being changed. Being able to put a personal face and story on an issue that seems untouchable is really important.

  7. says

    Thank you very much for sharing these stories. I was very moved by them. Refugees don’t have it easy anywhere, not even in the US. I can’t even imagine being in a position where I can’t feed my family because if I leave the house to work I could be arrested. That is a harsh reality. Thanks for promoting awareness and education of refugee issues.

  8. says

    @Gray: Dan and I have seen people in challenging circumstances through our work with microfinance organizations. But, the lack of personal security and the high risk associated of working illegally were new realities for us. Such a difficult situation. I hope this piece helps bring more awareness to other families like these.

  9. says

    Thanks so much for posting this piece. The little I have learned in life about refugees has been heartbreaking. This seems to be an issue all over the world. Here in the US, many asylum seekers spend years in immigration detention with no access to legal help. A life in limbo like that is difficult to fathom, and I am reminded how fortunate I am. Thanks for your thought-provoking piece, and a reminder that there are ways to give back. I will be exploring them!

  10. says

    Refugees are helpless victims of injustice. Unfortunately, they’re caught in a vise between political wars and among warlords. Anywhere they go they will be facing hard times ahead and only a lucky few can make a breakthrough. They really need help and its nice to know somebody is on the rescue.

  11. says

    Thanks Audrey for such a moving piece! In the US we don’t hear much about the plight of refugees unless there is a dramatic story behind it like the flood in Pakistan. I can’t imagine the strain of not knowing where you will be tomorrow or if you will see your loved ones again. I’m very impressed by Dwight’s dedication. It makes me wonder how many refugees live in my own city.

  12. says

    @Laura: Thanks also for your thoughtful comment. Many people – including refugees – often think that the long haul is over by the time they reach the country of resettlement. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s just another time of limbo and insecurity. Can’t imagine what that must feel like.

    @Nelly: Refugees need more advocates and people bringing voice to the inconsistencies and injustices of the current system. It’s so important to know that there is someone on the outside who cares.

    @Jennifer: You are so right – like so many other issues, the only times refugee issues get awareness is when there is a crisis. Once the immediate crisis is over, no one hears about it anymore even though people might be living in compromised positions for years.

    I imagine that if you do a bit of research you might find some refugee organizations in your area that can help you answer how many refugees live in your home town.


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