I recently returned to Washington DC from northern Thailand, where I coordinated and led our first Donor Inspiration Tour. During the buildup to the trip I was consumed by logistics, including everything from making hotel reservations and food arrangements to finding bug spray and rain ponchos for all our participants.  It took awhile for me to realize that, just like the rest of the participants on our pilot tour, this was my first time ever seeing ERI’s local work in the Mekong Region. I had no idea how much I personally would be impacted by finally meeting my colleagues who work tirelessly to improve the lives of all those in the Mekong Region, and by being exposed to the challenges they face.

The adventure started with a scenic drive through the beautiful rolling mountains of Northern Thailand, to the Thai/Burma border town of Mae Sot. Mae Sot is home to hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrants and refugees, many of them displaced or evicted from their homes to make way for international development projects, or chased away by violent military conflicts inside Burma.

In Mae Sot, our group first met with the incredible Dr. Cynthia Maung, an ethnic Karen who fled Burma in 1989 and established the Mae Tao medical clinic, which treats more than 75,000 undocumented refugees and migrants from Burma every year, many whom would have nowhere else to go for basic medical care.  We met with some of the patients, and had one particularly poignant conversation with a smiling farmer who had lost his leg to a land mine just two days prior.

Humbled and honored after our morning at Dr. Cynthia’s clinic, the group’s next destination was the Mae La refugee camp, the biggest of its kind in all of Thailand. As we approached the gates, our local guides warned us that we may not be able to enter the camp because of security concerns. What kind of concerns?  The details weren’t exactly clear to me, but the gist is that the UN and Thai military have been locking down access to the camps in order to curb a cruel form of identity theft that has been running rampant in the camps:  refugees’ names are being sold to wealthy Burmese people to help them illegally cross the border into Thailand.

Luckily, the guards granted us entry and we passed through the gates of the camp and quickly into the local Jury’s House Orphanage, where we met with a group of about 40 Karen orphans living in the refugee camp.  They greeted us with a beautiful rendition of “Halleluiah,” which sent chills down my spine as I considered how difficult their young lives had already been.  Parentless and without any sure sign that they will ever make it out of the camps, the kids’ infectious joy and laughter quickly spread amongst us and helped fuel a very fun hour of chatting and games.  We taught the kids “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and one member of our group bravely sang her version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” We even played a game of Twister, which turns out to have international appeal.

An orphanage in Mae La

After our somewhat tolling day learning about the challenges in the border region, we found inspiration in the afternoon at the brand new Health and EarthRights Training Program (HEART). Modeled after the EarthRights School Burma (ERSB), the HEART School gives people from Burma, living in the border region, access to advanced education in health, environmental and human rights.  Some of ERI’s very own alumni joined us at the school and then for a nice dinner at a local restaurant, where we all dined and shared stories of the alumni’s grassroots work to strengthen earth rights in their local communities.

One of our donors’ heartfelt toasts summed up the day well: “After an amazing day, I am feeling so full:  my belly is full of delicious food; my mind is full of new knowledge and information; my heart is full of appreciation and love.”

Tomorrow I’ll post again, about the second half of our trip. [Update: Part 2]