Clowning Around With Burmese Refugees

A Partner Post by contributor, Emma Corcoran. 

The dense, mountainous jungle on the Thai-Burmese  border serves as an inhospitable home to around 14,000 refugees. Over the last three decades, fighting between Burmese hill-tribe militias and government forces has turned the Burmese side of the border into a danger-zone of murder, rape and hunger. As a result, thousands of Burmese refugees have fled into Thailand seeking a stability they can’t find in their homeland.

The refugees are housed in nine ramshackle camps along the rugged border region or live precarious lives as undocumented migrants in towns outside the camps. Many of the children born to Burmese parents in Thailand enter the world as stateless infants, because they´re denied birth certification from either country.

Early Morning in a Thai Refugee Camp

“I think the first time I went to the camps was around eight years ago,” says Andrea Russell, speaking on the phone from her home on the Canadian west-coast.  “I just couldn’t believe how many people there were and how little awareness there was in the rest of the world about their situation.”

Andrea had been a regular visitor to Thailand since studying there at the age of 17 as an exchange-student. In 2005,  a friend who ran an informal circus took her to the Mae Sot region on the Thai-Burmese border to perform for some of the refugee children.

Eight years later, Andrea is the soft-spoken, but passionate “ringmaster” and director of Spark Circus, a nonprofit organisation which brings together circus performers from around the world to perform an annual series of concerts and workshops for the Burmese refugees in the Mae Sot area. The volunteer circus performers use music, dance, games and clowning to bring a day of levity into the lives of thousands of underprivileged children, many of whom don’t own even a single toy.

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Ladakh, India: Without Words

by Ariel Bleth

In the darkening room, as dusk drew its graying curtains, there was enough light to see the dirt smudged on the aqua walls.  The volunteer coordinator, Wongel, sat next to me and translated.  We were on rugs thrown over thin mats, with small tables in front of our crossed legs to hold the tea that could not be refused even though we were not thirsty.  My “adopted” mother, my Ama-le, seemed mostly concerned that we eat her hard biscuits and drink her sweet milk tea.  My hand trembled slightly as I held the teacup and tried to look like someone she would be pleased to have in her home for a month, someone who could do the field work that she needed to have done.  Wongel explained that she didn’t expect me to be able to do as much work as they did and that she wanted me to let her know if I had any problems at all.  Silently I questioned how this would ever happen, given my half-day Ladakhi language workshop and her apparent lack of English.  I realized that my few learned phrases, like “Jule, Kamzang-le” (hello, how are you?), wouldn’t go very far. 

I went to Ladakh, a mountainous desert region nestled high in the Indian Himalayas, to live for a month with a family and help them farm, as well as to learn what I could about their traditional Buddhist culture and the forces that shape their relationship to one another and their environment.  Our home had one main room, where we cooked, ate, and socialized.  That first night, Ama-le squatted in the corner. There were bowls of flour and water on the floor before her, and plates of shelled peas, sliced potatoes and leafy greens.  I took my same place on the mats, waiting for some indication from Ama-le as to what I should be doing.  She mixed the flour and water, lightly kneading the dough while Nono-le (Ladakhi for young brother) shuffled around the room, his arms held straight out before him like a zombie.  Three steps and he was down, crawling.  Ama-le delighted in what appeared to be her grandson’s newly acquired skill of walking.  Imitating him with a waddle and extended arms, she looked at me and laughed.

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Shifting Sands in Rajasthan, India

words + photos by Barbara Aman

We arrived late at night at the field office of the nonprofit, a crumbling cement structure with a few rooms and a few rusted bed frames with torn, flattened pads. I was here to document the progress of a multinational water-supply project in this drought-challenged desert region in India’s western Rajasthan state. No luxury hotel here.

Up before sunrise the next morning we first visited water catchment areas, where large areas were dug out a few feet down, the women wielding picks, the red dirt transported away with beat-up metal bowls by all available family members--typically grandparents and grandkids, who often worked together. The elder male stood at a distance, dressed in white--as if a maharajah from the past, leaning against his wooden cane--while the women, dressed in brightly patterned red saris, toiled behind him.

It’s the women and girls who are most affected by the water shortage here. Many in the villages spend up to five hours a day walking to and from the closest well or storage tank, carrying water in their beat-up metal pitchers. Water for drinking, cooking, washing--it falls to them to fetch it, however far away it may be. Male/female roles are strictly cast here: Whatever it takes to keep the home and family running, it’s up to the females to get it done.  At one point, Michael, my partner, had teasingly picked up one of the full water containers and placed it in my arms, and my legs almost crumpled. I could not imagine how these tiny women could carry these on their heads.

The next stop was a completed water catchment and storage area and as we drove up I could see the bright white paint job on the 12-foot round tank, jutting up about 2 feet from the ground, the lower half nestled tidily in the hard clay soil. A young woman stood atop it, quite shyly, covering her face with her tattered sheer sari while balancing her metal water jug adeptly atop her head. Her eyes seemed to bore through me, even in their shy state.

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The Philippines: New Life, New Priorities

by B.J. Stolbov


Mortgage, insurance, car, cable, gas, electric, water . . . drowning in bills, bills, and more bills . . . money going out and out . . . oh, what to do. . . .  What to do?

Two years ago, I joined the Peace Corps.  I sold or gave away most of my stuff.  (Don’t worry: stuff is replaceable.)  I took a suitcase and a backpack, a whole lot of trust and my little bit of courage, and I moved to the other side of the world.


Now, I have two suggestions for you. 

Suggestion #1: The Philippines.  I live in northern Luzon in a beautiful province called Quirino.  It is a quiet, peaceful, rural province.  The place reminds me of Northern California, only with palm trees and fresh bananas.  The people here are warm, friendly, and hospitable.  (Hospitality is THE cultural trait of the Filipinos.)  The Filipinos will invite you their homes and will treat you like family.  You will not go hungry here, we eat as often as six times a day, and the food is simple and good.  The living is relaxed and basic.

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My Life As A Clown

by Steven R. Shapiro


I just began the book ‘Life is a Trip’ by Judith Fein. What an inspiration. Stories with heart, just begging the questions: Could I write about a few of my recent experiences?  Do I really want to try?  And would anyone really care? 

My introduction to writing began with a Spiritual Writing Workshop in the Yucatan several years ago, led by none other than Judith Fein. To be honest, I hated writing.  But that trip gave me something to write about. Judie actually encouraged us and made writing fun. Is that possible? I actually began to enjoy trying to piece together my thoughts into a cohesive, semi-understandable story. And so, with that crude introduction, I continue.

photo by Stephen Poff via Flickr (common license)I have begun a mid-life journey, unexpectedly. For many years, I have taught children who struggle in school, offered workshops on learning disabilities, was even on national TV and radio, had a wife of 30+ years, raised a wonderful family, bought several homes in the suburbs. You would think I was leading a fulfilling life.  I did all the proverbial right things. Yet, I was bored, frustrated and angry.  Something was missing. I realized that I found the way Americans interact and connect shallow and I began to question who I was. What do I have to offer? What were my gifts and skills? And what do I really want to experience out of life and people? I wanted something real and authentic.

And then Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, came into my life. Originally it was just a trip, a getaway to a beach paradise. But something in me yearned to find something real. I hunted the Internet and happened to find a children’s daycare center there and a boy’s orphanage, and in-between playing volleyball, getting exceedingly drunk on the beach, wondering what I was doing at a posh Cabo resort, where people seemed like shadows passing each other, I became a clown. Just like that. I wanted to visit the daycare center and orphanage but didn’t just want to walk in and say:  “Hey kids, I’m here." So I pondered: How could I relate? How

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