By Erika Berg
For Northwest Asian Weekly
In September 2007, the world’s attention was riveted by video footage of never-ending columns of saffron-robed monks streaming through the streets of Burma. Overnight, the government had removed all fuel subsidies, spiking food prices. Moved by the people’s despair, tens of thousands of Buddhist monks took to the streets in protest, chanting the Metta Sutta, a prayer of loving kindness.
One week later, machine-gun toting soldiers swarmed the streets. Foreign news crews were banned. The Internet was shut down. Dusk-to-dawn curfews were enforced. Gatherings of more than five people were prohibited.
Monasteries were raided. Monks vanished. Just like before Burma’s monk-led “Saffron Revolution,” police cracked down on anyone who dared to challenge the government’s authority.
Four years after gasping aloud at an image of bloodstained monks’ robes draped from the rafters of a deserted monastery, my partner, 10-year-old daughter, and I found ourselves in Mae Sot, Thailand, the main gateway for refugees from Burma.
Volunteering with refugee youth in Seattle, I had seen how the emotions conveyed and evoked by a narrative image, or “visual story,” could open hearts and build bridges of understanding. Inspired by the power of an indelible image, we had journeyed to the border town of Mae Sot to facilitate a series of visual storytelling workshops with refugee youth.
As refugees, the youth had fled ethnic, religious, or political persecution. They had lost their families, homes, and homeland.
When we said we needed their help, they were visibly intrigued. Living in refugee camps, an orphanage, a shelter for child-trafficking survivors, boarding houses, and a city dump, their eyes sparkled — as if it had never occurred to them that their stories mattered.
Our oldest workshop participant was 23; the youngest was 3. Depending on their age, we asked the youths to paint their answers to two or three of these questions: Why were you forced to flee Burma? What did your journey to safety look like? What is/was it like to live in exile? What do you miss most about your homeland? What does freedom look like to you? What is your dream for the future?
Some of the youths’ stories clenched my heart: the torching of villages, killing of parents, abduction of siblings by soldiers conscripting new recruits. Others were joyful, recalling life before one child’s family in Burma was torn apart or scattered by civil war. Still, other stories were hopeful, colorful visions of one day returning to Burma as doctors and teachers to help rebuild their beloved country.
Listening to the youth share the stories behind their paintings, hearing the inner voice revealed and gradually emboldened by each vision, was the most humbling part of our month along the Thai–Burma border. We felt privileged that the youth entrusted their stories — 597 fluttering heartbeats — to our care. The closer one looks, the more powerful, more urgent, their messages.
Since 2007, ethnic minorities from Burma have comprised Washington’s fastest growing refugee community. (end)
To learn more, “Like” our Facebook page, “Stand Up for Human Rights and Democracy in Burma.” Look into volunteering with the Coalition for Refugees from Burma: www.allburmarefugees.org. Consider becoming a foster parent to a refugee youth with the Refugee and Immigrant Children’s Program, www.refugeechildren.net. Nothing could make the youth in our workshops happier than to learn that their “voices and visions” moved people to act on Aung San Suu Kyi’s plea: “Please use your liberty to promote ours.”
Erika Berg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.