Christmas on the dump, Thailand
As you know, we’ve been staying in a town on the Thai-Burma border for the past couple of weeks. We’ve been visiting a charity that rescues children from trafficking; as there is a huge population of displaced, impoverished and minority peoples in this area, trafficking is unfortunately a very big problem.
The charity we visited run several projects in the surrounding area, including an outreach on the nearby dump. On the dump is a slum village of Burmese refugees, forced into the area by a lack of work in their home country; their only other option was akin to slave labour in factories. It is unbelievable to think that living on a rubbish dump is better than their situation before, but this is the reality. (What, by the way, has happened to humanity? Have we always been like this? Help me out here.)
Mum and I visited the dump one morning with the outreach project leader and a local pastor’s wife who speaks Burmese. The charity has been building relationship with the village and their chief for almost a decade, and is welcomed in weekly. We met the chief’s son, a shy, sweet 21-year-old, as well as most of the village women who gathered together.
The dump itself was staggering. A gargantuan pile of plastic and trash, diseased-looking dogs scratching themselves and roaming about beneath shacks of wood and corrugated iron and dirty plastic sheets. We saw kids wandering around barefoot amongst the filth- as a Mum I can’t adequately articulate how unnatural it is to stop yourself from running to pick up these kids and carry them out of the way of the junk and dirt.
There is something interesting that happens when you travel to places like this. It’s usual to hear people talking about how they want to ‘make an impact’ on the world- quite nobly, in most cases. The thing is- and it’s an uncomfortable but necessary lesson to swallow- often the thing that ends up being most impacted, is ourselves. It is utterly humbling and somewhat terrifying to realise that your desire to help is, without a kind of supernatural aid, almost futile.
We think we know what people need, us from the west. We think that kids need shoes, and school. We think that impoverished people need clinics and then all will be well. But when we visited India, the kids kicked off their shoes because they simply didn’t want to wear them after being barefoot for so long, or their addict parents sold their shoes for alcohol. School has little to no place in a culture where children take on the family business and start training before they are adults, or where they are the sole carer for their family of six siblings.
Here at the dump people don’t visit the clinic, because they are scared or because they want people to simply come with tablets and magically make them better. The more we know, the more we realise that we haven’t got a clue about what people really need.
We had brought some first-aid supplies with us, as we were told that often the residents’ feet get cut up and injured while they are picking through the rubbish on the dump. One little boy came forward with some old scratches on his legs; really, it was too late to do anything effective but we applied iodine and gave him a plaster. Two women said they had headaches; we didn’t have painkillers with us so we told them to drink plenty of water and gave them rehydration sachets as it was super hot. They weren’t impressed; people want you to fix things, now, and that’s just not how life works. A man with a heavily infected ear wanted us to fix it; we told him, as everyone else had, that he needed to go to the clinic, but he said he wouldn’t go. A man with cataracts wanted us to fix his eye. An unmedicated lady with schizophrenia was there. What do you do?
Travel is a wonderful thing, and meeting new people, and understanding others’ situations, and trying to help, is all good too. But sometimes the sheer size of the suffering and the futility of what we can do just creates a knot in my stomach. It’s a bittersweet thing, this life.
There were joyful moments, too. The outreach workers led some games with the women; pictionary and charades. They hadn’t played anything like it before and within minutes we were all in stitches, making silly faces and laughing at our terrible attempts to draw flowers, and sharing bottles of Coke that the outreach brings as their weekly treat.
I hope that one day, we figure out how to focus our compassion and pain to best use it. For now, travelling to places like this with our kids and showing them that others come before ourselves is the best we can do.
“Your greatest contribution to the world might not be something you do,
but someone you raise.”