Lighting a Spark for Burmese Refugees
Story by Alita Rickards. Photographs by Alita Rickards, Dawn Monette and Kevin Strong.
Seeking to escape the ravages of what some consider as one of the longest running civil wars in history, approximately 160,000 Burmese refugees live along the Thai-Burma border. Many have lived in camps since 1984 after the government launched an offensive attack, forcing 10,000 Karen refugees into Thailand.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, their situation is one of the “most protracted in the world,” resulting in “many social, psychological and protection concerns.” Refugees are restricted to nine closed camps (those found outside the camps are at risk of arrest and deportation) and have no legal rights to employment.
Though the April 1, 2012 elections that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy win 43 of 45 seats have brought newfound hope, people are living in a state of limbo. Many families have members who were political prisoners and could face charges or harassment if they returned to Burma. They have lost their homes and jobs, and often have no identification documents.
While basic needs such as food and shelter are met in the camps, there is little in the way of entertainment or play for the children. But for the past seven years, a group of circus performers has come from around the world to perform shows at the refugee camps once a year. Volunteering with Spark!Circus, a non-profit organization, the clowns, dancers, fire spinners, cortortionists and jugglers perform and teach workshops for the children, providing much-needed comic relief.
In January 2012, writer Alita Rickards took seven weeks off from her life and ran away to join the circus.
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The director and ringmaster of Spark!Circus, Andrea Russell, became involved in fundraising and volunteer work after the tsunami that devastated Thailand in 2004. It was there that the Canadian performer saw how creative play could help children recover from trauma and build skills.
“There's obviously a hierarchy of needs: shelter, food, safety,” Russell said, “but I would argue that play is also a need.”
Decades of child development research by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the and National Research Council have demonstrated that play—a need that is often neglected in the refugee camps—is required in children’s learning environments to facilitate mental and physical growth. “It enables people to build strategies to solve problems, to set goals and steps to achieve them,” explains Russell.
After performing in the communities, Spark! also donates kits of the tools and toys used in the workshops to each community they visit. “Imagination is everything and these kids have it,” said Russell. “They just sometimes need people to show them how to use it.” Photo by Alita Rickards.
Performers traveled from as far away as Australia, Finland and India to a coconut grove near a beach on Koh Phangan island in the south of Thailand. For two weeks, the grove became a meeting hall and rehearsal stage. There, we learned how to do group acts, set up the fire kit and turn our routines into a smoothly running show.
Before departing for the refugee camps, we also held fundraising performances at the bigger resorts on Koh Phangan and Koh Samui, did face-painting and hosted auctions. We raised an additional 200,000 baht (6,550 USD) to supplement the money each of the circus volunteers had raised (between 250 and 2000 USD each). Photo by Alita Rickards.
From the islands we took a ferry and then an overnight train to Bangkok, where we shopped for toy-making tools and supplies—including 1.7 km of tubing that we used to make hula hoops. After a nine-hour bus ride, we arrived in Maesot, the border town in the north of Thailand that would serve as our camp. This is where we began organizing the costumes, set up toy-making areas and started taping the first of hundreds of hula hoops.
We traveled daily from Maesot to the various schools, shelters, orphanages, and refugee camps where we held our shows and workshops. In six weeks, we only had two or three full days off—but as volunteer juggler Dawn Monette said, “Orphans don't get days off.” Photo by Dawn Monette.
Our primary means of transportation were traditional Thai truck-taxis called song-thaews. Between the sound equipment, workshop props and donation kits, it was cramped, though we managed to make do by strapping the hula-hoops to the roof. Photo by Alita Rickards.
It’s an anticipated event and when the Spark! troupe rolls in, the news spreads like wildfire through the communities, with children running to greet the performers. Photo by Alita Rickards.
Six hours drive south of Mae Sot is the Nu Po refugee camp, where the fences aren’t to keep people in. “It's the lucky ones who get into the camps,” said one former political prisoner. “You get a meal, you can get papers.”
Refugees often wait years to get official status and a UN registration number. Without identification the refugees have few rights. Many former political prisoners are sent here when they escape across the border into Thailand. Of the 15,000 residents of the camp, 84% are Karen. Monks who fled Burma during the Saffron Revolution in 2007 also reside here. Photo by Kevin Strong.
Many of the places the circus visited, such as Future Light, were privately operated to provide food, shelter and care for children whose families could not get into refugee camps.
The distinction that Future Light is a shelter, not an orphanage, is an important one. Some parents sneak across the border from Burma once a year to visit their children, while other children are brought to the shelter after being dropped off with the monks. Photo by Alita Rickards.
In Thailand, as throughout Southeast Asia, Buddhist monks operate not only as spiritual guides but also form a social security network providing education and sometimes even food and shelter to those in need.
Young monks at the Prahita temple school acted as both guardians and teachers, and the children in the audience were strikingly calm and well-behaved. We performed inside the temple itself, which meant cutting the contortionist act from the show to avoid breaking the taboo of pointing feet at the Buddha.
Near the end of the day, younger monks participated in a few of the workshops. Though dancing is prohibited, it seemed that hula hooping was fine. Photo by Alita Rickards.
Though we got a lot of smiles during our show outside the Mae Tao Clinic, it was also one of the more difficult places to visit.
Established in 1989 by Dr. Cynthia Maung, the hospital provides healthcare to the Burmese refugee population, migrant workers and their families. The clinic has departments for maternity and reproductive health, surgery, HIV/AIDS and prosthetics, but the buildings are basic wooden structures around a dirt courtyard, with only basic amenities. Because of the conditions of the camps, simple illnesses such as flu, pink eye or colds spread rapidly leading to complications. While antibiotics can help these illnesses, malnutrition and problems arising from unclean drinking water are harder to treat.
Amputations are one of the most common procedures at the clinic. Newer mines used in the military conflict in Burma are small and intended to maim rather than kill. Although both local and foreign volunteer medical professionals provided top-notch surgery, often no anesthetic is used because they lack an anesthesiologist.
"One man just looked down and watched his abdomen being cut open for a hernia operation," said a volunteer nurse, who asked to not be named. "It was unlike anything I had ever experienced." Photo by Alita Rickards.
Fire spinner Thomas Reich uses ropes attached to hand straps to create a massive amount of heat and light for a very dramatic effect. Photo by Kevin Strong.
A group act with LED hula-hoops created amazing patterns of tracers in the darkness that elicited gasps from both children and adults alike. Though adjusting the settings on a camera enhances the effect, they are also stunning to the naked eye.
At one show a group of girls in the front started chanting “beautiful!” to this act. I later found it was one of the only English words they knew. They traced the pattern the hoops had made in the air and repeated the word with huge smiles on their faces. Photo by Kevin Strong.
The youngest member of the troupe was 8-year-old Jenna Strong from Nanaimo, Canada, who dances and performs LED hula hoop. Her entire family came on the often arduous journey—fellow fire and LED performer, mom Karina Strong; her 3-year-old brother Kadin; and father, photographer Kevin Strong.
Jenna not only wowed the crowd with her hoop skills, but was also an invaluable ambassador for the team. She reached out to even the shyest children and showed them that this was something they, too, could do.
“I keep making new friends wherever we go,” she said. Photo by Kevin Strong.
About the Author: Alita Rickards is a Canadian freelance writer and performer based in Taiwan. She contributes weekly to The Taipei Times as a features reporter and travels extensively throughout Asia, where she has been living for over a decade. Photo by Dawn Monette.