By Dominique Cordes, volunteer, originally published in Enfants du Mekong’s magazine 170.
Eight-year-old Peusowa, a member of the Karen people from Burma, was living in a refugee camp in Thailand. Father Joseph Quintard was the manager of the program supported by Children of the Mekong. He also translated the correspondence. In 1999, I started sponsoring Peusowa. I wrote to her frequently, but only brief postcards, so that the priest did not have too much to translate. A succession of shiny, colourful little cards arrived each month, to the delight of the children confined to the camp. They used to pin these pictures, sent from the other side of the world, onto a small piece of cloth. Peusowa began to learn about France and its animals, flowers, landscapes and churches, the sea, fruit and much more. One day, I sent her a postcard of Alsace, showing a stork. “If we’d seen that bird here, we’d have eaten it”, she wrote to me.
For several years, we shared both anxiety and affection. I was often afraid for her, because of the dangers inside the camp and the many surprise attacks. Access to the camps was controlled but Father Joseph did what was necessary so that we could meet our friends. The first time I went, I asked him, “What can I bring for them?”. “They’ve got nothing”, he replied. “Nothing, what do you mean?” – “Nothing means just that, nothing”. We were soon to understand the reality behind that meaningless expression.
Each year we went back and during our visits, we met other families who benefited from sponsorship. Each fared much better as the years went by. Peusowa’s young friends accompanied me when I visited the camp’s school. We found ourselves alongside people with injuries, children who were disabled or handicapped and had no aids or equipment. Everywhere we looked we saw suffering. Father Joseph explained things to us calmly, being as matter-of-fact as he could, and encouraged each person: he had been living among these people for nearly 40 years. He gave the refugees the moral support and the protection that they needed so much.
The years went by and this family showed a remarkable ability to endure. They were eager to learn and fiercely determined. No-one wanted to disappoint us! This sponsorship created a tremendous bond – at first, I thought that I was just sponsoring one little girl, but I found myself becoming attached to her whole family. We got to know one another better and better, the differences between us, what we felt. Each time I visited, I felt that I was genuinely welcome! I really wished that one day it would be their turn to visit my home. People used to talk about it to give them hope, but without really believing it would happen. It was mainly to give them fresh heart…
“You must go for it!”
That day, we sat down as usual on a mat on the ground. The whole family was there, and they had some important news for us. The English teacher, a Karen woman from the camp’s school, was also present and she sat next to me. The family had chosen her to interpret from the Karen language into English.
“They want to leave the camp. They can now apply to emigrate to the United States. They would like to know what you think about it.” Isaure, the young overseas volunteer, waits for our reactions. But no-one says anything. People glance at one another. A look of surprise flashes across the face of Louis, my husband. He has comforted me so many times when I was worried about them! “You’ll see, one day they’ll be free and they’ll go back to Burma!”
Isaure says to me: “It’s your response they’re waiting for, they insist that they really want to know what you think.” She has some fears. She wouldn’t want them to fail. She knows that here, Children of the Mekong looks after them and that each program manager does his or her best. They are given support and guidance. But over there? Everyone imagines the psychological and cultural shock, the feeling of being uprooted.
I love them so much, I know they are so brave and so capable that I have faith in them. They are willing to adapt, and they can do it. Sponsorship has given them a new start in life. Their enthusiasm is irrepressible. We know them really well now. Still they wait for my reply. And so, after a moment’s silence that seems very long, I turn to the English teacher, who interprets my rather incoherent words, “Freedom… The children are young. You must go for it!”
(to be continued)