Driving up the winding roads, occasionally breaking to avoid hitting a group of cows, the lush green hills rose majestically around us. After chatting the whole way, we had fallen silent for the last 30 minutes of the ride, as we anticipated what we were to experience. We were heading to the Umpiem refugee camp close to the Thai/Myanmar border, where the humanitarian organisation Humanity and Inclusion (HI) runs the programme Growing Together, funded by the IKEA Foundation.
The camp hosts around 15,000 people, mainly of the Karen tribe, who have been driven out of Myanmar due to years of violence and conflict. The camp was set up over 30 years ago, which means many people have never set foot outside it. They have been there since they were born—and it is their whole world.
Almost half of the camp’s population is children. Some go to schools here, run by NGOs and the refugees themselves, but many are from families who can not afford to pay the school fee. In school or not, the future of the children in Umpiem is currently quite bleak. Without the possibility to safely return to Myanmar, they have a difficult path ahead. This is why the Growing Together programme is so important, as it gives them a chance to play, learn and develop the strength and resilience they will need to face future challenges. The programme also includes rehabilitation for disabilities caused by mines, which are a frequent occurrence on the border between the two countries, and mine risk education.
Walking through the camp we saw schools, makeshift shops, nurseries and parents’ clubs. When we arrived it was late morning, and lesson time for the children. Curious, smiling faces peaked out through the school buildings to get a look at us as we walked past in our raincoats.
The terrain in the camp is tough and a dangerous place to play in, especially during rainy season from May to October when it gets muddy and slippery. HI organises Parents’ and Kids’ Clubs on a weekly basis, and on the first day we were invited to meet some parents and care-givers. We were welcomed by many smiles and a great enthusiasm! They were eager to get ideas on how to be creative with their kids. Divided into groups we were tasked to organise a puppet theatre, making our own characters and props out of socks, paper, yarn and buttons. We then performed the play to the groups on HI’s small, pre-made theatre stage. There was laughter and cheering all around!
The level of creativity was no less in the Kids’ Club. Starting out a bit shy and reserved (both us and the kids!), they were transformed into curious and inventive participants in our origami session. After folding frogs, cats and hearts it was clear, however, that the favourite thing to make and play with was the good old paper plane!
We also made maracas out of paper cups with sweets inside and the children decorated these with drawings and stickers. One boy drew chinook helicopters on his maracas (the military ones with two propellers) and I realised that this was probably something he had seen as a child growing up…it made me sad. But the joy these kids experienced during our activity was clear. However difficult their situation and however unsure their future, I hope this joy made a tiny difference this particular afternoon!
The Kids’ Club is especially important to children whose parents cannot afford to send them to school. This was the case for the children we met.
The situation for the people in the Umpiem camp is difficult to say the least, and our contribution is incredibly small. But in this case every gesture matters, as altogether they make a big change. This is HI’s work, every day. Humbled and very touched by our experience we left the camp with a whole lot of emotions, but most of all we remembered the smiles and kindness that we were met with by so many. Let’s make sure that children get the right to play also in the future, despite these challenging circumstances!