by Jay Milbrandt (JD/MBA '08),
Do you ever start doing something, then in the midst of your actions, ask yourself why exactly you decided to do this? I had one of these moments yesterday: After my 20 hour plane flight, I rented a car and drove it to Burma. On my drive through Northern Thailand’s beautiful rice fields and mountains, I had about five hours to reflect on why I decided this was a good idea. I wasn’t sure. Every time I went for my blinkers and accidentally turned the windshield wipers on, I questioned my good judgment even more—it was a trial by fire trying to navigate Thailand’s crazy streets while reversing lanes in my head (Thai’s drive on the right [read: wrong] side of the road). Yet, around 5:00 a.m., I successfully arrived unscathed at Mae Sai, the Thai-Burma border town.
In the morning, I crossed into Burma on my search for Faifah. Crossing the border is always a strange experience—like stepping into a different time and place. Everything is different: the buildings, the people, their expressions. It’s just one small river that separates these two worlds. I also noticed things I hadn’t seen before since I had read more about the area and I knew what to look for. For instance, the drug problem here is rampant among children—most of them sniff glue to take away the edge from the day. Just as I crossed the border, there were two young boys—maybe 10 or younger—huffing from a plastic bag under their shirt. Many other kids were carrying these small plastic bags around, and right out in the open.
Grabbed a motorcycle driver, I left town for a rural village outside of Tachilek. Faifah was supposed to be out here at an orphanage. The road was rough and winding—the motorcycle could hardly make it up most of the hills. We came to a stop and I stepped off. “Pii Jay!!!” a voice yelled from the hill above. Faifah came running down the hill and gave me a hug. “Pii Jay, I missed you!” she said in the few English words that she knows. She grabbed my arm and showed me around the orphanage. (Note: “Pii” is a Thai prefix used when referring to someone older than you.)
Reunited with Faifah!
It was wonderful to see her. She was happy and looked very healthy. She found her way to what appears to be a great environment. The orphanage is run by a Baptist pastor and his wife. They’ve taken in approximately 52 children—though I only saw about 12 there today. They have no support from any outside organizations, but the pastor also does plumbing and heating work to help them get by.
We brought a bag of Faifah’s things from Chiang Mai—she couldn’t bring anything with her when she was arrested and deported. In these items were the Christmas presents I mailed to her. We laughed together as I gave them to her and told her it was Christmas. Then Faifah had me sit down for the lunch she prepared. She brought a bowl of fried crabs and put them on the table in front of me. Now, these are local Burma crabs, but this part of Burma is nowhere near an ocean. I just tried not to think about it and ate anyway. I watched in amazement as Faifah would eat the entire thing—shell, claw, and all!
After lunch, Faifah and I sat down for an interview on videotape. I wanted to ask her about her story and she was willing to share. It filled in a lot of gaps about what happened last year, most of which is too difficult for me to think about, much less share here. I just want to explain briefly how Faifah ended up at the orphanage. When she was deported back to Burma, she was left out on the street. She wound up outside of town at this cement structure used for ceremonies when someone passes away. The homeless also use the structure as a makeshift shelter. Faifah stayed there and many horrible things happened to her during the time. The structure sits just alongside a pathway leading to the orphanage. The pastor’s wife noticed Faifah and took her into their home.
The pastor and his wife are working on Faifah’s Myanmar ID. They obtained her birth certificate from the hospital, but the Immigration ID is more challenging. Faifah’s entire family undocumented as far as they can retrace, making it almost impossible to create a paper trail. I don’t understand why she can't get an ID, especially considering that she has a birth certificate now, but things just don’t flow very well in the government. From the pastor’s perspective, it was probably a 50/50 chance. The ID would be very helpful though, it would help her get a legitimate job, cross back and forth to Thailand, and possible travel outside of Thailand. I’m going to look for a Christian lawyer in Burma that might be able to help (Advocates International estimates there are 500 in the country).
At the end of the day, I’m really happy that I made the trek to see Faifah. I think it means more to her than we can realize. Everyone else in her life her has given up on her: her mother and father, her family, all services in Chiang Mai, and even her own country. To have someone come and see her—just to see her and show her that they care about her—I don’t think it’s something she’s experienced in her entire life.
I mentioned that I brought all of Faifah’s possessions to her. It was maybe half a garbage bag—a couple blankets and some clothes. Half the items were things I had given to her: her blanket, which she said she used every night, a small backpack, a photo frame with photos of us, and all the photos that I mailed to her from the United States.
For Faifah and others like her, there are a lot of problems and few solutions. I struggle with knowing that the law doesn’t extend to those who need it. Though I wish there legal solutions, sometimes simply showing up matters more.