‘Hungry to Help’
Student refugee wants to improve the lives
of Burma’s forgotten children
Photo by Michael Bailey
hearing about the living conditions of Burmese refugees,
Wynn Nyane traveled to
the Thai-Burma border to document
their plight. She was especially moved by the story of
the 2-year-old child (below) who had been abandoned by
the roadside and then adopted by other refugees. “That
little child’s face grabs me,” she said.
By Matt Kelly
Wynn LeiLei Nyane is trying to find her place in the world. Born in Burma
to a Burmese father and a Malaysian mother, Nyane had to flee Burma
in the 1990s
with members of her family in the aftermath of a military coup. Eventually,
the Nyanes were granted political asylum in the United States, but
left her feeling adrift.
I belong?” Nyane asked. “ I’m not actually a Burmese
person anymore after living in America for five years. My thinking has become
too provocative. I have become very skeptical of authority. On the other hand,
am I really going to be American? I don’t know. I’m still trying
to figure everything out.”
Nyane, 24, who is graduating from the University of Virginia with a foreign
affairs degree, is sure about one thing: something must be done to help
the Burmese refugees — particularly
the children — who have had to flee oppression and persecution in their
homeland and are now amassed by the millions in official refugee camps and illegal
settlements along the border of Thailand and Burma.
are born in an official refugee camp, they have a higher likelihood that
they will get refugee status,” Nyane said. But the children born to
refugees living in unofficial settlements are stateless, because neither the
Thai nor Burma governments recognize them as citizens.
from a paper written by U.Va. student and refugee Wynn Nyane after a
six-week visit to Mae Sot,
on the Thai-Burma border, as part of an undergraduate
photo-documentary research project on Burmese refugees, sponsored by U.Va.’s
Center for Global Health.
my first week, I learnt what a difficult life the Burmese migrants
and political exiles lead in Mae Sot. The whole area
is filled with swamps,
insects, vicious dogs, motorbikes and cars flying all around, people
eating dubious food from street hawkers (I am sure it is full of bacteria).
was trying to adapt to my surrounding, but found myself trapped between
walls of suffering. … Dogs howling, house-lizards staring, ants crawling
onto my skin, and some small insects buzzing around my ears became my daily
lullaby to sleep. My whole body was aching and screaming to get a better
bed. ... Going to the bathroom is another matter: the water in the bathroom
is infested with mosquito larvas; sometimes there’s a toad waiting
and ready to jump on me while taking a shower. ... My situation was a lot
better than many exiles and migrants, and yet I felt like I was imprisoned
and going to break down any time. … The only thing that kept me
going was when I reminded myself why I was there. If you think this is
until you heard the stories of the ex-political prisoners.
They all told me their astoundingly shocking life experiences, believing
that I could retell the horrendous systematic tortures in Burmese prisons.
Every political prisoner has to go through a fourteen-day period
of continuous interrogation without food and sleep for the first
few days, but with probing
and humiliation by the Military Intelligence. A few examples of torturing
would be placing a bag over the head and punching the person until
he sees stars (M1 told me that before experiencing it himself,
he had thought you only saw stars in cartoons); using wachan-pja (flat
bamboo slat) to scrape off the skin of the shin; and standing in “Riding-bike
One of the narratives that stands out in my mind is P’s time spent
in the prisons for over eight years. He had to sleep on the cold concrete
floor only wearing a short-sleeve cotton shirt and a longyi (cotton cloth
that Burmese men ties around their waist), and the iron-shackles at the
ankles during the winter.
As the prison
is located near the mountains, the cold crisp wind howled through the
bamboo-matting wall all night
long, which makes even a strong-spirited man want to cry after
a few months.
There reached a point where I felt very uncomfortable that I had
to ask (when we became close) why they laughed and made jokes when
their unpleasant past. They told me that it is a survival skill,
which they need to continue living without being so attached to their
and the present situation of their colleagues.
I will not deny that there were many days when I was very upset by
the ex-political prisoners’ behavior (living with them is difficult).
They have been deprived of the politeness and friendliness of the Burmese
culture, and their motherland, Burma, for so long. Moreover, they have
lived with the hatred and brutality of the Burmese Military Regime. On
top of that, they are struggling to survive with fear at every corner in
a host land where they are not wanted. The more I tried to empathize with
their pain and fear, the more I became distant from the ‘outside’ world.
Finally, I realized that they did not really think I could ever really
understand their situation because the struggles in my life as a refugee
settled in the United States have been ‘nothing’ compared
to what they are forced to endure. …
Visiting factories, migrant workers’ quarters, elementary schools
(consist one room for all the grades), and plantations was as draining
as living within enclosed walls. The body odor and confined and fetid living
areas almost made me faint every time I visited different places. ... While
helping the Earth Rights group, I was upset to learn that the plantation
workers are using fertilizers that have been banned in ‘developed’ countries
because of health risks. All of the elementary schools are run illegally
by kind-hearted people from all walks of life. It is noteworthy that
all the Burmese children attending these schools have no legal status
any rights of medical care and education in Thailand although most of
them were born on Thailand soil. …
First I felt guilty, then angry that the international community
has ignored Burmese people, who are suffering so greatly because
Regime. However, until I experienced Mae Sot last summer, it
had not really affected me personally because my family had
in the United States. In Mae Sot, I had nothing with me that
I could call mine and hold onto except for a CD that my boyfriend
for me and
the emotional support from my mentors, family, and friends
Northern Hemisphere. Learning about the situation of migrant
and illegal) and political exiles from Burma was the hardest
thing I have done
in my entire life. Throughout my stay, I felt alienated from
my own people and experienced the loss of freedom and independence,
I felt fear.
However, I would not trade this experience for anything. This
has made me whole, hungry to help, and has strengthened my
dream of helping
the children at the border.
1Initials have been used instead of names for
Furthermore, these children and their families are subjected to squalid
living conditions. Their plight is all the more compelling to Nyane
knows how easily she might have been one of them.
Nyane was only 8 years old when a revolution and a military coup wracked
her country, and her home was torn apart. The military regime blacklisted
who worked for Burmese television news. Her mother returned to her
native Malaysia and found work in Singapore, where she was later
joined by Nyane’s father.
But Nyane and her sisters, the eldest of which was 18, were not permitted to
leave the country. They lived without their parents in an apartment near their
grandmother and an aunt.
In 1996, the four sisters were spirited out of Burma and reunited with
their parents in Singapore. Two years later, her father took a job
with Radio Free
Asia as a U.S. correspondent and moved his family to America, where
they were granted political asylum.
Nyane’s father, fearing for the safety of his daughters, bid Nyane and
her sisters not to get involved in Burmese politics. Nyane honored his wishes
until, working as a translator for the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville,
she befriended two Burmese families who told her about the deplorable conditions
in the border settlements. Their stories disturbed her, and her conscience would
not allow her to sit idly by and do nothing.
With the support of a scholarship from U.Va.’s Center for Global Health,
Nyane traveled to Thailand in summer 2002 to investigate, from a health perspective,
the living conditions of the refugee camps and illegal settlements and to develop
a plan (with the subsequent support of a Harrison Undergraduate Research Award)
to provide nutrition, health care and education to stateless Burmese children.
Because she is a refugee living in America on an indefinite stay,
Nyane has no passport to facilitate foreign travel, so before
she could make
had to apply for a refugee travel document. Even with the document,
Nyane said, she lived in fear.
that I wouldn’t have the protection of any government [during my
trip],” she said. “I could just disappear and nobody would even notice.”
The conditions Nyane found along the Thai-Burma border appalled
her: children with scabies, eating leaves they had foraged;
non-existent sanitation; and refugees being exploited as
cheap day labor in
took many photographs,
including one of a young child with an ancient face who
had been adopted by people who had found him abandoned by the
child’s face grabs me,” she said of the picture. “I
think I ought to be able to do something about [his situation].”
While in the camps, Nyane ran into a variety of problems.
She was not able to eat the prepared food because of
the poor sanitation,
She appealed to the United Nations Children’s Fund for books on health,
so she could teach hygiene to camp residents, but when UNICEF found that she
was staying with former political prisoners, she said, the books were not delivered.
In a culture where young people traditionally defer
to the wisdom of their elders, rather than the
around, Nyane found
to be an
impediment. Few adults seemed willing to embrace
her ideas for changing the lives of the
border children — such as feeding the children while they were at school,
as an incentive for them to come to lessons and to get them playing with other
children in a safe environment.
I have been facing is, are they going to listen?” she said. “Will
they have enough of an idea that young people can do something?”
Michael J. Smith, professor of politics at U.Va.,
has supervised Nyane on three independent studies
to know her
well. “Wynn has an extraordinary
commitment to helping these children,” he said. “She is very courageous,
traveling to the Thai-Burma border to work with refugee children. She has a remarkable
single-mindedness and a graciousness. She represents the idealistic hope for
the future that we hold for all our students. She will go far because she is
determined to make a difference in the world.”
Nyane is now applying for jobs with agencies
that focus on refugee questions, but despite
is pessimistic about
the future of Burma’s forgotten children. Even if the country’s government would
change tomorrow, she said, too many of these children have been raised without
education, nutrition, medicine or hope.
Furthermore, the refugees speak little English,
Nyane said, and that hampers efforts to
plight to the
that international attention, including
putting pressure on the Thai
boycotting companies that do business with
the Burmese military regime, would be a
catalyst for change.
to have humanity when we are dealing with refugee issues, because the refugees
have been, in a way, raped by their own government,” she said. “They
have been looted, murdered, persecuted because of their ethnicity and their beliefs,
and experiencing all these issues in their own country. People have the right
to live and enjoy life, and the Burmese people don’t, so everybody has