I moved to Thailand for the first time 10 years ago. Newly married, newly graduated from grad school. I was going to save people (children! from sex trafficking!), but, little did I know, I was about to be in need of saving.
On the day my husband Phillip and I moved to Thailand, a state of emergency was called in Bangkok, but I didn't know what that meant. I was engrossed with American politics and this woman John McCain picked for his VP candidate. There was low level unrest and politics mentioned in the local papers, but it seemed contained. And, after all, it wasn't my country.
On October 7, 2008, I went to work at my new Bangkok office. I vaguely paid attention as people talked about some escalation that day in the weeks-long mass protests. My husband and I were staying at a guest house nearby and, after work, decided to go walk around and see part of it on our way to dinner. We were both naive, but, then again, families were out with baskets of food and there were massage stations set up. Even though they were demonstrating in the thousands, all wearing yellow, which was kind of intense, there was a band. There was free swag. It felt like a color coordinated music festival. Kids and grandmas and signs and people smiling to us, saying thank you to us for being there. Until the tear gas started, it was a real good time. We've since learned from Wikileaks and other sources that there was an attempt to force a coup. (Some of) the yellow shirt demonstrators had (allegedly) tried to provoke a police overreaction so that the military would step in to restore order and overthrow the government. And here I was singing along to John Denver or whatever, totally oblivious.
The police shot tear gas canisters into the crowd, except, wouldn't you know it, I got the wrong kind. Did you know there's different types of tear gas? I sure didn't. After the fact, they later did some forensic tests (televised, cause Thailand) and, holy cow, I'm glad I didn't get the Spanish-made kind. On the TV, the Spanish kind landed, spewed and then burst into flames. I got a Chinese-made kind that had just a tad too much RDX to make them explode.
There was a flash and an explosion ripped through my body. My ears rang. My eyes stung. I thought it was just the effects of the gas that rattled me, but, as my husband ran and grabbed my hand, he gestured down to a trail of blood. My ankle had been ripped open and my toenails were black and melted. Oh.
That day, the police used teargas, ostensibly for crowd dispersal, that killed one woman and left one man with no legs. Dozens were wounded. I was the only foreigner.
Two men, god bless them, picked me up and carried me away from the scene. I cry just thinking about them. I had come to save Thai people and they literally saved me from danger. They carried a white woman in the midst of chaos who was twice their size and seizing in shock. There was a triage tent where we took stock of ourselves. My husband was dazed but unhurt. We realized that, in addition to my right lower leg, I was missing a chunk from the back of my upper left leg as well. I was put into a van and driven for a bit. And then I was transferred to an ambulance. No idea what was happening or would happen next.
I was taken to a government hospital, stripped half naked (insult to injury), hosed down with a green garden hose (contaminants from tear gas) and given an injection. Shivering, I was wheeled into an elevator, where I promptly threw up from whatever they injected me with. You don't realize how long elevator rides are until you're riding in one with your own vomit.
They put me in the VIP room. My whole surreal hospital stay was a weird mix of Thais trying to apologize to me in the form of over the top gestures but no actual information.
I couldn't sleep from pain and shock all night; they had to wait until the morning to perform surgery cause some levels were low. The next morning, they were going to clean out my legs using only local anesthesia until I threw an absolute fit, begging them to knock me out. I just wanted to not be awake anymore. I had surgery that day and once more a week after because of infection. And then I stayed in the hospital. And stayed. And stayed.
Unhelpfully (and maybe a little unhinged like) I was obsessed with the pieces of my leg that were no longer in my leg. I would lie in bed and wonder -- where are they now? Where did they go? Are they just lying there in the gutter? Did someone come across them and recognize them as human flesh? In retrospect, this is ridiculous. But I also still wonder where those pieces of my leg went.
The Prime Minister visited me. He brought a giant basket of waxy fruit. He pretended not to speak English and had his interpreter talk to me instead. I was high as a kite and asked him how he liked his new job. On the day of my accident, he had to escape the protesters outside a cabinet meeting by climbing out a window. There were four prime ministers in Thailand in 2008; the one who visited me lasted less than two months. He never did answer my question.
A TV camera crew came and interviewed us in the hospital and set the whole thing to super sad, dramatic music. They even found footage of me in the triage tent somehow, which was super unnerving. The only politics I wanted to wade into was that I wished they would stop using that kind of tear gas on all protesters, and I said as much. Phillip and I looked just awful. We had like two changes of clothes and his hair was long and shaggy. Watching it later I thought, look at those two idiots.
Two guys in suits from the US State Department visited and, unhelpfully, asked why I didn't register at the Embassy upon my arrival a month ago. I did get them to agree to mail my ballot it for me from the embassy. That's how I voted for Barack Obama -- from my VIP hospital room in Bangkok.
HIPA is not a thing in Thai hospitals. Not for my doctors, anyway. I guess consent isn't really a thing either. My psychiatrist took my mother aside and told her not to tell me, but he had me on psychiatric drugs because it was better for me that way. Then he asked her if she knew any of the San Antonio Spurs and if she could get him a signed basketball.
An Australian lady who visited me with her guitar saw me as some sort of freedom fighter. She sang to me earnestly, with eyes closed, a song she had written about her love for the King of Thailand. She left me a propaganda DVD, which I made the mistake of watching one night when I was alone. To my horror, I realized it was footage from that night and they showed the man who lost his legs, sitting up, dazed, with nothing where his legs were but open wounds since they had just been blown off.
I spent Halloween in the hospital. It being my favorite holiday, I had to celebrate somehow. I put on butterfly wings and visited the children's ward with candy. I could barely walk, but I reverse trick or treated, knocking on doors and giving out candy to kids. I think I just succeeded in scaring the shit out of them, which is technically part of Halloween, but I much prefer the Martha Stewart version. The kids I visited got sicker and sicker, until I couldn't stand to go in the rooms anymore. I broke down in tears, reminded of the years my younger brother spent in and out of hospitals. Now I was a limping, sobbing woman passing out candy. Happy Halloween!
I should note that the Queen of Thailand paid for my hospital stay and treatment. She was a patron for those of us injured on that day. She sent ladies in waiting to visit me and they were so lovely and kind. My mom tried to contact my insurance company about my expenses, but they rejected it out of hand on account of it being "terrorism-related." A few months later, I would see King Rama IX and the Queen drive by in a motorcade, and I would cry out of gratitude.
I was released from the hospital on November 11. All told, I spent 35 days there.
My PTSD had a soundtrack. Every time I had an episode, I would curl into a ball and listen to Bon Iver to calm me down from my hyperventilating. Everywhere I went I had to have headphones because, surprisingly enough, you just never know when there will be explosions in Thailand. I first had an episode on December 5, the King of Thailand's birthday. It had been two months, and I thought I was FINE. I was religiously massaging my scars with colloidal silver and balms and creams every night, taking care of my physical body, moving on, doing FINE. But the first time I heard fireworks, I lost. my. shit. And I had no idea what was happening. It would be months before I realized or admitted to myself that what I had was PTSD.
That's another thing - even though it caused “episodes,” I very deeply resented (okay, still resent) the "D" in PTSD. Disorder? How is it disordered behavior to be afraid of the thing that tried to kill you? It seems incredibly logical to me. I think people with PTSD are just woke. We're woke to the fact that everything is trying to kill you. We see what everyone else does not -- that the very earth you stand on can turn on you, that you can't trust that it's a firework and not an IED, that you can't take for granted that a police riot line is there for your protection. We recognize where the threats come from. I think it should be PTSWTF aren't you scared of this too? You should be.
I'm not okay. Ten years ago, this was the hardest thing for me to admit to myself. My husband basically dragged me to go to therapy.
I was so embarrassed and ashamed to even have PTSD. I got to keep my legs! I didn't see combat or witness anyone get beheaded. I basically got blown up at a picnic. I should be fine. Who am I, a privileged person who had one tiny incident, who am I to absolutely fall apart at my first instance of trauma. I worked with trafficking survivors; they don't have the luxury of falling apart, of therapy. I was even ashamed to have been hurt at all -- what was I even doing there? I knew nothing about Thai politics. It wasn't a political act that got me there; it was only curiosity.
Though I was incredibly dubious, therapy helped. I went through EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing), which is good for simple trauma (not repeated or prolonged), and it totally changed me immediately. Before, the memory was me. I lived it every day. Afterwards, it was like I could take the memory out in a box and look at it, circumspect and removed from it.
It was years before I started researching trauma and PTSD. Sebastian Junger had an article in Vanity Fair that helped me a lot. He even confirmed my suspicion that PTSD is kind of good for you, or, at least, that it makes sense:
From an evolutionary perspective, it’s exactly the response you want to have when your life is in danger: you want to be vigilant, you want to react to strange noises, you want to sleep lightly and wake easily, you want to have flashbacks that remind you of the danger, and you want to be, by turns, anxious and depressed. Anxiety keeps you ready to fight, and depression keeps you from being too active and putting yourself at greater risk.
He goes on quote studies about how modern-day combat veterans are experiencing PTSD at higher rates than vets of previous wars. Even drone pilots who don’t see combat are experiencing PTSD. So what is it that gives us this debilitating superpower? Junger concluded that it’s not the severity of the trauma experienced, but the isolation and lack of social support that can determine whether or not someone will have PTSD. This was so completely and totally validating to me. And it makes sense and puts my experience into context given that, just a month for the event, I had moved to a new country, knew no one and did most of my ‘healing’ alone. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t need anyone. I was FINE.
I tell you all of this for a reason. After this, after the violence and the trauma and the healing from trauma, I was forever changed. Not just my scars, but the way I relate to other people who have survived trauma and violence. I have a new language and empathy that is real and no longer forced. I cried with a friend from Iraq about an IED she lived through, and I felt it. When I work with refugees who are coming down from the trauma of years in camps or fleeing from violence, I know a little, just a taste, of what it's like to feel shame for having lived through something. Or to hate yourself for how you reacted to it. I feel like one of the most important things I can do as someone who went through this is to help friends process trauma so they can feel supported and not isolated. You don't have to experience trauma to relate to people, of course, but I'm so grateful for my experience now. It's become a cherished part of me, in a weird way.
People can survive, be survivors of, so many things. These last few weeks have proven that survivorship is a powerful thing. I have not experienced sexual assault, but I do know how trauma changes you. I know that I blame myself for my "accident" (what I call it now, because people look at you funny when you say you got hit by a bomb) and that I even blamed myself for my reaction to it. I put off counseling because I was FINE. Perversely, shame is deep for people who are victimized by something they can't control.
Even in all this, I must acknowledge my privilege (medical care! counseling!) and the contained nature of my experience. I'm not conflating my trauma with that of sexual assault survivors or refugees. But it is still mine. I get to say what it was and what it felt like. I want that for others as well. I used to have a bombiversary -- it was very important for me to have a space to commemorate this thing that changed me so profoundly. I haven't held one for years, though. It felt silly and indulgent after awhile. Today, my 10th, I've decided, is my last bombiversary. I won't say I'm healed or that it's done with me (there was a pretty bad episode during Diwali in a Delhi hotel room in 2011 and 2017 NYE in Manila was spent under the covers). Besides, I still maintain that my PTSD kept me vigilant and helped me stay alive. I went back today to where it happened in Bangkok, for the first time since that night of the color-coordinated-music-festival-protest-police-crackdown-shit-show. It still feels like the violence was random. That there was no grand plan or design, only a crummy thing that happened to an uninformed tourist in other people's politics. What healed me was in part the surgeries and the doctors and the fruit baskets and the family and friends who messaged and sent gifts. But it was also admitting that I wasn’t fine. And that I needed others. In recognizing my need for others, I recognize that I play a part in the recovery and healing of others.
Last weekend, I went to a citizenship ceremony in Austin for some of the newest Americans. The new naturalized citizens were refugees from Bulgaria, Burma, Cameroon, China, Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, Nepal, Pakistan and Somalia. After five years, refugees are eligible to take the citizenship test and become U.S. citizens. These fourteen people had done just that. They stretched across the first aisle of the makeshift court with a judge presiding from the stage as they rasied their hands for the oath. Shining, smiling faces. Waving flags. Lifting peace signs. Me, clapping and crying in the audience. Someone asked me, do you know someone up there? Er, no. But then again, I do know them. In a way, I know all of them. I have seen how hard life is as a refugee. The waiting and waiting and waiting for resettlement. Friends trafficked from Eritrea and Congo have told their stories of smugglers, traffickers, organ harvesters, rapists, jails. I've also swam in the clear, warm waters of Cuba. I've walked the green foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal. I have tasted the natural beauty and human tragedy of many of their countries. They left behind persecution and violence and corruption, but also mothers and memories and holidays and a land that will never be theirs again. That ceremony was a happy culmination, a symbolic end to so much suffering, but also a severing of identity and family and belonging. Their quest for belonging and acceptance begins anew. They are proud to be Americans, but they are refugees. And America, right now, is not kind to refugees.
A friend recently rudely pointed out that, while I was in Thailand the last few years, I only posted on International Women's Day (so, not rudely, more like accurately). The implication being, I think, that I don't post enough and that I am weirdly attached to random activist holidays. Well, today is world refugee day, and here we are. Perversely, I wish this could be a day to simply focus on the tragedy, humanity and hope of refugees. But it's not even as simple as that any more. I DON'T EVEN GET ONE DAY TO YELL AT PEOPLE ABOUT REFUGEES. When asylum seekers are attacked, when the immigration system is being dismantled, refugees, too will suffer. Are suffering.
The steady drum beat of dehumanization goes like this... "they're not sending their best." Muslim ban. Lower the refugee quota. "Shithole countries." "The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility." Is it even possible to make that decree under international laws and conventions that the US has subscribed to? Oh wait, hold up. We left the UN Human Rights Council? My bad, never mind. Turns out we can do whatever we want. As long as what we want is to slowly chip away at the idea that some people are people. Things are, incredibly, worse than last year.
Let's talk white privilege. It's a misdemeanor to illegally cross the border the first time. A MISDEMEANOR. As a teen and as an adult doing "missions," I was taught to lie on visa applications to places like India and at border crossings to Mexico because I was allowed to break some laws as a Christian, specifically the laws of other countries. The workplace raids to arrest undocumented people haven't included punishment for businesses that employ them. I know (white) Americans who personally employ undocumented people at great personal benefit. This isn't strictly about criminality and security. Even if it was, what a weird and unproductive fixation. Undocumented people commit less crimes than Americans.
Let's talk why people leave home. Poet Warsan Shire -- "no one leaves home unless home chases you." Here are reasons that my friends left their homes: kidnapped by the Taliban, targeted by an IED outside their home in Baghdad, forced into military service and trafficked for organs and sex, their government has raped and killed and burned their villages because they don't have a right to exist. Would you commit a misdemeanor to get out of those situations? I would commit a misdemeanor for FUN.
People who seek asylum or refugees who have proven to have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group deserve to be taken seriously and be protected. They are not criminals. They are due a hearing, a process. Children being separated from parents is so ludicrously, cravenly political I won't even address it. I, unfortunately, haven become used to kids in jail. Week after week, I visited the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok and watched young children grow up behind bars. Their skin grew sallow, the light in their eyes dimmed. We need to end child detention worldwide.
I want today to be about the success of that ceremony on Saturday. About the joy on the faces of those new Americans. I want to honor the patience and sacrifice of my friends awaiting resettlement. I have to believe that there is a place in this world for them. There must be. Because if there is not a place for my friends to escape to, there is only darkness.
I woke up this morning overwhelmed by all the things. I check my email on my phone and a dozen emails remind me that it's #GivingTuesday. Ugh. There is so much to care about. Too much. I'm gived out. I go back to bed.
I eventually get up and walk five minutes down the road from my house to the Immigration Detention Center. I've gone about every week for the last two years to visit detainees. It's different now, though, cause my friend got detained four weeks ago. She's a 19 year-old Somali who loves Beyonce and Game of Thrones and is working on a screenplay. But she lives in IDC now. Her refugee status, which means the UN recognizes that she has a valid fear of persecution and should be protected by international law, does nothing for her in Thailand. They do not provide refugees protections or visas. Without them, asylum seekers and refugees are susceptible to being held in detention to wait out either resettlement to a third country through the UNHCR refugee process or self-fund and self-elect for repatriation back to their country. Some wait years. In the case of most refugees, returning to their home country is unthinkable -- both financially and politically. The Somalis I know left behind deceased family members and war and human smugglers. There's no home to go home to. For my friend, this is the possibility we have been dreading and actively trying to avoid, but now, it's how she will live out the remainder of her time in Thailand. In jail.
I can tell she is more tired than last week. They leave the lights on all night and there is no bathroom door. There are between 80 to 120 women in her room on a given day. We talk about news from the inside and the outside world. Life inside is rife with conflict and disease and three meals of rice a day. Since that's all there is, we laugh about it. When I ask if she has been in any fights, she replies, "Are you kidding? I write it all down! It's great material!" Ever the storyteller. I brought her conditioner and a watch and Oreos, and she tells me she would love a KFC sandwich next week. We run out of things to talk about after 45 minutes; I'm not sure if I'm entertaining her or if she's entertaining me. We say goodbye. I am guiltily aware that the best I feel all morning is when the gate opens and I step outside in the fresh air and sunshine, feeling both on my face as I leave that place behind.
After that, I take a moto taxi to Starbucks to meet these Afghan guys I've known for almost two years. Six men share one room in Bangkok. I used to teach them English, but mercifully for them, they are spared my "teaching" as they found a free daily class. This is the second year in a row we've gotten together when the holiday drinks come out to toast Christmas; they indulge my enthusiasm even though they don't celebrate the holiday. Like my friend in IDC, they are also awaiting the refugee resettlement process, hopeful that they can soon go to a country where they will be allowed to go to school and work and vote and love. The waiting is killer. I am only a secondary waiter, and my nerves are shot. I didn't really understand how debilitating waiting is for refugees is until living in Thailand these last few years. It's a near suspension of identity and meaning. Without legal rights, without a community that recognizes your human-ness, talents wither and potential fades. This NY Times piece on Manus Island refugees was a chilling reminder of how separate, how other refugees are made to be as they wait. Here in Thailand, the isolation is coupled with the constant fear of being thrown in detention. My Afghan friends have handled the waiting as well as can be expected -- learned English, done a few small part-time jobs (which is illegal) and even taught their language to Thai neighbors. They've tried to keep the spark of their lives going despite the harshness of their reality. I give them around $300 USD a month (some of which was been donated from my kind friends and facilitated through a local NGO) and that's what they live on in addition to other earned and donated funds.
They tell me about a UNHCR meeting recently where a representative politely explained to them that it's probably their best long-term option to return home. To Afghanistan. This signals to me that the resettlement process is a near impossibility at this point. The internationally upheld mechanisms that I so believed in, that have offered hope to so many fleeing persecution, have ground to a near halt this year. With the U.S. effectively cutting their resettlement by 75%, with millions fleeing Syria and North Africa, there are thousands and thousands of people that have been approved but will never be resettled. The system that was already at capacity now can accommodate even less people than before and there are more people than ever before applying.
I ask them what they will do now. The advice to return home weighs heavily on them, but they still hope. There's nothing else for them to do but hope. Thing is, I don't know how to help them or prepare them for the future. All the things I used to know -- resettlement will happen in 3-5 years, learn English, prepare a resume -- don't matter anymore if they can't find a country that will accept them. It's so unfair that the tyranny of war and violence in their lives has been replaced by the dull absence of belonging. Without it, what is possible? Our stupid red Starbucks cups mock me as I sit there trying to force a holiday on them they don't celebrate with drinks that, let's be honest, taste terrible.
I've been struggling for some time to answer the question What do I think is possible? I have worked for the last 10 years with trafficked and refugee people, but I don't really know what I'm hoping for anymore. The sad truth is that I don't actually think that my friend will be released from IDC. I can't promise the Afghans that they will ever be resettled. I don't think that trafficking will end in my lifetime, or in any lifetime for that matter. And yet, here I am. This is how I spent my day today. I must believe something is possible, right?
If it's not obvious by now, I'm a very conflicted hopeful person. I'm, as Jon Stewart self-identifies, an angry optimist. I believe that change is possible, I work towards it, I yearn for it, but I'm impatient as all hell. This year every. damn. day. has felt like #GivingTuesday. Resist. Persist. Give. Repeat. If there is a single person out there who isn't already giving, I encourage you to give today, give every day. If you don't know what you care about, just ask me and I will tell you.
Perhaps my refugee friends have the ability to hope because they gave up the illusion of control a long time ago. Or maybe they never had it because, as people from Afghanistan and Somalia, they were never spoon-fed it as a child. As a person of privilege, I get stuck on the unfairness of it all or the lack of durable political solutions. I've stopped hoping. I don't dare hope unless I know the outcome will be favorable. (Wow, that's the saddest, most type-A thing I've ever said). That's not even hope, that's just playing the odds. I guess the act of hope, in the same way as the act of giving, is best and purest when you expect nothing in return.
So give freely. Hope freely.
I'm going to bed. Giving Wednesday is tomorrow.
Today, on #WorldRefugeeDay, it's hard to feel hopeful. This morning I visited with a friend in the Immigration Detention Center who has been waiting there for a year for his refugee status. He's decided he's had enough and is going back to West Africa. He's not sure if the people who were after him for political differences are still around, but he's gonna try to blend in and hope for the best. Another of my friends was rejected and is going back to Congo soon, but she has no idea what she will find there. No family. No connections. She has been in detention for more than two years. Whenever I'm in IDC, the arbitrary and ridiculous nature of their incarcerations reminds me of this scene from Parks and Rec. You came to find a dignified life? Jail. You came expecting to work? Jail. Trafficked here against your will? Jail. As they wait for their cases to be processed, sometimes for years, refugees can't legally work or be formally educated. In many countries (such as Thailand) you risk imprisonment as you wait. From my ant's eye view of the refugee crisis, since the U.S. halted refugee acceptance and reduced financial contributions to the UN, the needs have grown but the hope has dimmed.
Look, the refugee process isn't perfect, but UNHCR deserves credit for the thorough investigations in sometimes failed or uncooperative states and the care they try to provide for the thousands of people applying at their offices around the world every day. The background checks and interviews understandably take time. I'm not saying the waiting could or should be shortened, though that would certainly be nice. In the meantime, as the process moves along, sponsor states and third party countries have a role to play. If the unprecedented 65.6 million forcibly displaced people continue to be denied access to travel, work and and be educated in transitional countries, the dependency that so many sponsor states worry about will only be perpetuated. Somali children in Kenya go uneducated. Syrian doctors in the EU can't practice or keep their skills current. More personally, I know six Afghan men losing years of productivity while being forced to depend on others as they await their resettlement. I continue to argue that it's in everyone's best interest to welcome, assimilate, employ, educate and befriend refugees, be it on a personal or political level.
I met Alex Betts when he was a visiting professor at UT Austin a few years ago. He argues on the world stage (and in this Guardian piece) that the current refugee camp strategy employed since the 80's "undermines autonomy and dignity. It also erodes human potential by focusing almost exclusively on people’s vulnerabilities, rather than on rebuilding their lives." While the concept of refugee connotes a neediness, "the truth is that refugees around the world lead complex and diverse economic lives. They are consumers, producers, buyers, sellers, borrowers, lenders and entrepreneurs." Many refugees I know are more capable, motivated, speak more languages than I do and have skills that are more marketable than mine (hello my B.A. in History). I wonder sometimes, in my more cynical moments, if more people don't respond more hospitably to refugees because they are competition. Refugees continue to be punished for their nationality and the accidents of disaster or violence that have befallen their countries even as their abilities and intellect are worthy of all the things I take for granted.
As more and more people are moved/smuggled/trafficked across borders, unless there are fair employment systems set up, migration will get more and more dangerous and resources will become even more competitive. Things I've read recently put this in sharp, bleak focus. If you want your guts ripped out, read these New Yorker pieces on refugee children migrating/being trafficked from Nigeria to Italy and living in "The Jungle" in France after leaving Afghanistan for the UK. The stories have haunted me for months. Or read Exit West, a prescient tale of magical realism by Mohsin Hamid, that similarly left me thinking about what is both possible and the worst case scenario in a world in which nations keep turning more and more inward. The convenient nationalism and cowardly protectionism that infects so many Western countries can only continue to weaponize patriotism and divide people for so long until they realize that they rely on the global majority/"emerging markets" to source their iPhone minerals and make and buy their products and services. Like I said, I get pretty cynical.
The political and practical realities of employing and educating refugees are certainly difficult. But, as host countries become less willing or able to resettle refugees and there are more and more people displaced every year, we have no other choice. Also, I truly believe it works. I'm just one person, and I have helped enroll kids in school, secured jobs for teens and adults and taught basic English. None of this was hard, but it did take time and effort. Two former refugee kids I worked with in Austin graduated high school this year. When I was in the States in April, I visited newly purchased homes and saw backyard gardens of formerly-refugee friends. The refugee students I have worked with here for the past year are speaking and writing in English more confidently. They actually recently welcomed three people from their country, and the authority and the tone they took as they bossed the new guys around cracked me up. They are getting the hang of things here as they prepare to be uprooted and sent somewhere else, where they will eagerly start the process of learning the customs and language and expectations of that place all over again. As I sit here on World Refugee Day, I don't have very much hope in the system, but I do have an infinite amount of faith in my refugee friends and their resourcefulness and resilience.
International Women's Day brings with it a bit of an eye roll effect -- both why do women need a day? and, inversely, oh, wow, thanks so much for our ONE day, totes grateful. One could argue, as I plan to, that the day, the label and #IWD are helpful and unhelpful, necessary but insufficient in reminding people that gender inequality is something we still have to fight against. I'm going to a IWD happy hour, so it's at the very least a good excuse for a cocktail. UN Women is hosting events and screenings in cities around the world. There's lots going on that are both marketing opportunities and pure celebrations of sisterhood.
In the same way that the day is necessary but insufficient, the labels used to define women that I work with and know often hide the truth of who they really are, the challenges they face and how bravely they meet them. As someone who lives abroad, I get to meet the women behind some of the rhetoric of International Women's Day and media headlines and awareness campaigns. These loaded terms represent friends I have and women I meet in my day-to-day work in Bangkok, which, most days, feels like the intersection of migration and the rest of the world.
REFUGEE. I recently met a Somali refugee teenager who knows exactly who she is and will tell you. She is a refugee, yes, but she really wants to be a screenwriter. She taught herself English by watching movies and now works as a translator. She is a passionate advocate for gay rights because she saw people killed in her country for mere rumors of their sexuality. Additionally, when she was growing up in Somalia, she taught herself Arabic so she could read for herself what the Quran said about women. She didn't believe that the barriers for women -- lack of access to education, to healthcare, to maternal health services -- were prescribed by her holy scriptures. Sure enough, it was her culture and not her God that limited her and even threatened her livelihood. So she left. Her confidence and her self-determination are so inspiring, I was left wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. For now, she is a refugee because it allows her to apply for services and hopefully resettlement, but one day, you will see her film and it will be brilliant.
TRAFFICKED. I visited with a woman today who was trafficked from Congo to Bangkok for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The thing that so often gets lost in the labeling of and especially religiously motivated handwringing about "trafficked" and particularly "sex trafficked" is, in the specific context of African women I've met here, the women that leave home are incredibly brave and capable. They willingly take on unthinkable debt in the form of a (sometimes) forged passport and plane ticket to a land where they don't know the language or know anyone so that they can work in (what many are told is) a restaurant to work hard to feed their families and put their kids through school. Then they get here and the work is different than they thought, but their kids still need food and school uniforms. The women I've met don't ask to be rescued, they don't want pity, they just need a job. The woman I know is facing deportation and will hopefully be back with her children soon, but she is susceptible to being trafficked again. There are simply no jobs where she is from. Her story, her struggle, is far from over.
ILLEGAL. While I know lots of people who don't have documentation or visas, I don't know anyone who is illegal. Can we just not use this word anymore to describe humans? No one person lives wholly inside or outside of legality. I paid a bribe to a policeman last week that he demanded (not turning left in a left hand lane, nothing more exciting). That makes us both illegal I think. Women who leave Central America for the U.S. or Burma for Thailand could qualify as refugees or as trafficked depending on technicalities of their migration, the particulars of their journeys. I know children born between countries, with no hope of a birth certificate or passport. They are no less human or no less 'legal' than I am by accident of my birth in a hospital in Dallas.
These labels are sometimes a necessary classification to allow women to apply for services or to rally the troops around fundraising and advocacy, but they are not inclusive. I know women who currently have refugee status who were trafficked as children. I know women who were almost trafficked while crossing a border and remain undocumented and somehow aren't eligible for any services because they walked across the border. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (my patron saint) said, "Nobody is ever a single thing." These political labels allow us to partition out gender based discrimination and violence as discrete things -- REFUGEE, TRAFFICKED, ILLEGAL -- like women or people are defined forever by something that happened to them. They also allow us to pretend that each of these happen in isolation. In reality, these are symptoms of the same disease, and some women suffer from them all at once. Women are not equal, and because they are not equal, they are not safe. Not in Somalia, not in Congo, not in Thailand, not in Texas. When women are not safe, they flee. When women are in transit, they are even less safe. Heck, when women are in the same place, they aren't guaranteed safety, but particularly women moving from place to place are vulnerable to forces that take advantage of their desperation. All of the above terms describe women on the move, women submitting themselves to or getting caught up in forces they cannot control in order to make a better life for themselves and their families. Women I know have left kids behind to send money or brought kids with them across borders or given birth along the way. They are fighters and survivors. Bangkok is just one phase of their fight for economic, political and personal justice.
As trite as International Women's Day sounds, I choose to celebrate it and intentionally reflect on the stories of brave women I know caught up in the labels and systems of oppression because of this simple fact -- women are not safe. This isn't an attempt to create hysteria (which is derived from the Greek hysterika, meaning uterus, meaning even this emotion has been unfairly gendered) or make you hide yo kids hide yo wife. Some of us women experience inexplicable privilege and relative safety. As one of these women with access to choices and privilege, I try to understand the women behind the labels and help them fight for access to education or childcare or a job, whatever they want to come next. Because the labels don't define them.
Stereotypes also marginalize male allies of women. I come from a conservative Christian culture where there are men trying to elevate the voices of women and girls above their own. I know many Muslim men who are deeply protective of the rights of their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. Men are welcome at #IWD. Men are welcome at Girls Impact the World Film Festival (I'll be there! Come!). It's also true that the binary male/female system is exclusionary and that men and boys also experience violence. But cisgender women and those that identify as female the world over experience discrimination and violence at much higher rates than men. International Women's Day isn't perfect, but it's as inclusive as you want it to be. Have a cocktail, tweet, resist, celebrate, cry, call your mom, listen to the stories of women and men around you who believe in equality or have suffered for lack of it. We can and should all be feminists, even if we can't all wear the Dior shirt (though I did ask Phillip for it for my IWD present). Happy International Women's Day. ♀