This morning I awoke to the sun shining into my room, the roosters crowing, annnd a dog fight… a pretty normal wake up call around here. I rolled out of bed and I was immediately greeted by our cats Michi and Abu, loudly demanding to be fed. As I headed out of our building to make my morning coffee, our dog Bumble started wagging her tail and came up to meet me. The sun was shining and the birds chirping and, coffee in hand, I headed down the dirt road for a morning walk. As I passed the lush green rice fields, staring out at the majestic mountains ahead, I felt total bliss. I walked past three karenni women and nodded to greet them, in return I received three heart warming smiles. Some mornings I am too tired or too busy to catch the beauty of it all, but this morning in particular reminded me of how special this place really is.
Over the past four months I have become very familiar with the small community of Dokita. I have grown to understand customs, such as nodding in respect to people in passing instead of waving or saying hello. I can now go for a walk without being flustered by the motorbikes coming in every direction and I can recognize the dark red stains in the soil as betel nut. I have had the opportunity to meet many incredible human beings and I have learnt about Karenni history, traditions, and festivals. As time has passed, my relationships with the people surrounding me have also grown. With this growth have come many conversations and a better understanding of the lives of these individuals and the situation in their home, Karenni State. These conversations have made me realize the resiliency of the people with whom I am working with, but they have also shed a light on my positionality in this community and the privilege that I was simply born into.
In the Western world, we hear this saying all the time “if you try hard enough, anything is possible.” This is a saying that I was told regularly growing up, especially in school. Living and working in a community where getting an education is inaccessible to the majority, has made me realize that there is a lot more to it than simply hard work. This is a saying that is true for someone like me, a white Canadian born into a loving family with two working parents. My skin colour as well as my access to quality education, to healthcare, and to a Canadian passport have made numerous opportunities accessible for me that simply are not an option for others. Everything that I have achieved throughout my life and every opportunity that I have had has been, in some way, linked to my privilege.
My students’ childhoods and paths to education are much different than my own. The majority of them were born and have spent their whole lives in Refugee Camp 1, a 70ha area of land temporarily housing around 9000 individuals. Their parents fled active conflict before they were born. According to law, they are not permitted to leave camp, leaving the people with very few opportunities to make an income for their families. Many of them are stateless meaning they have neither Thai nor Myanmar citizenship. On top of that, the majority of them are not classified as refugees and don’t have a birth certificate. The Karenni people have suffered countless human rights abuses and inequalities and are the victims of the longest civil war in history.
Despite these many barriers, the Karenni people that I have met are incredibly welcoming, resilient, and determined. It is because of these qualities that they have managed to set up post secondary schools on the Thai-Burma border like the Karenni Social Development Center. These schools are run by and for refugees and are a vital asset to providing education to the Karenni Youth. The students attending these schools are able to learn about human rights, democracy, the environment, international law, community management, and English. They will now be able to use their knowledge and education to be leaders and educators in their community and to continue to fight for the rights of Karenni people.
It is sometimes hard to realize the privileged lives we live until we come face to face with individuals who have to fight everyday for their rights and freedoms. This experience has given me a new perspective on the privilege that I have. It has made me realize the layers of privilege that exist throughout the world and within my own country. Yes, I feel discomfort and guilt when I think about my privilege, but this is a reality check that we all need to have. This realization has brought forth many questions that I will continue to consider for some time to come: How will I be an ally for those who are less privileged? How will I advocate for their rights? How can I help without causing more harm than good?
To finish off, here is a quote my coworker shared with me:
“To run or walk into a strong headwind is to understand the power of nature. You set your jaw in a squared grimace, your eyes are slits against the wind, and you breathe with a fierce determination. And still you make so little progress. To walk or run with that same wind at your back is to float, to sail effortlessly, expending virtually no energy. You do not feel the wind; it feels you. You do not feel how it pushes you along; you feel only the effortlessness of your movements. You feel like you could go on forever. Only when you turn around and face that wind do you realize it’s strength. Being white, or male, or heterosexual in this culture is like running with the wind at your back.” (Kimmel, 2002)
Kimmel, M. (2002, Nov/Dec). Toward a Pedagogy of the Oppressor. Tikkun Magazine.