Joe and Egger work in the kitchen. They’ve got six children in Burma. They left them all behind, the youngest one only three, to escape to Thailand to try and make enough money to support the whole family. Their entire family put in their savings to pay the people traffickers to get them across the border, from where they landed up working in a shrimp processing plant.
Joe and Egger are the lucky ones. Many Burmese illegals pay their life savings to get over the border only to be imprisoned in brothels, conscripted into chain gangs or to work slave labour for Thai employers. Burmese have no more value than a dog in Thailand, they are the non-existent slaves that power the machinery of Thai industries, and often times wind up dead as a result. In Mae Sot on the Thailand Burma border they say it takes two tyres to burn a Burmese person’s body. Truly disposable then, not just a figure of speech.
Joe is a gentle, mild-mannered man, who works like a trooper and possesses a quick intelligence and an incredible desire to learn. He is picking up Thai and English at the same time, learning the cocktails in the bar with a little reference book he painstakingly put together himself after taking notes on how each drink was made.
He loves technology, is fascinated by ipods, laptops, and DJ decks, in another life I’ve no doubt he would probably have been a graphic designer. He is a true artisan, artist and craftsman, producing beautiful functional items we never knew we needed from scraps of wood and with a lathe he made himself out of an old power drill.
He has one dress shirt, it’s blue and old, worn at the seams but always perfectly laundered, and donned for his role in evening service with pride. Here are people with self-respect. With nothing at all in the world but a tatty plastic bag containing a few clothes, but who still get up in the morning, do the best they can possibly do and keep working against the endless tide of poverty and futility that defines their existence.
This week they made the dangerous journey to the main town to send $20 to Burma to their family. They went before sunrise to avoid the police on the road, their every movement threatened with fear of arrest and deportation. When they came back they had with them a photo that had been sent to them through the Burmese underground.
In it their teenage son postures in a smart pair of jeans and a shirt. Egger’s face is lit up with pride, this is her child, this she has, this she can possess despite her status as one of the dispossessed. The little scrap of paper that has made it over borders and through many hands to reach them and give them a glimpse of one of the children they have not seen for a year, lights up their world and makes the long haul worth it.
We western children with healthcare, education, money, options, choices, the world laid at our feet, yet who loll in the doldrums of misery, self-created pain and drama have many many lessons to learn from noble souls like Joe and Egger. It humbles me to know them.