Mee Lay, 25 years old, from Myanmar
“My name is Mee Lay, I come from Burma (Myanmar). I have three siblings; I’m the youngest. I came to Nu Poe in 2012. Before that, I lived in Ban Don Yang (BDY) camp. There is no higher education [there] so I came to Nu Poe for my education.”
Mee Lay is a 25-year-old inspiring young refugee woman who spent her early years in malaria infested jungle hideouts with constant food insecurity and struggle to go to school. Despite her childhood memories including bombings and flows of wounded soldiers, the biggest challenge for Mee Lay was attaining education. Mee Lay arrived at Nu Poe refugee camp in 2012 after having lived in Ban Don Yang refugee camp in Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand, for six years. Growing up amidst armed conflict, Mee Lay and her family finally fled across the border to Thailand during a large scale Burma Army offensive in 1997, first blending into the migrant landscape before moving to Ban Don Yang refugee camp.
Mee Lay recounts the turn of events that led to her exodus from her village.
“We came to Ban Don Yang (BDY) camp because we couldn’t live in our village anymore. I don’t remember where my village or my hometown is because when we left I was very young. But some parts I remember: that I was still in the jungle, with soldiers, maybe Karen National Union (KNU), and then waiting for my family there for a while. We lived there because our village was destroyed and we weren’t left with anything, like a house or farm. We didn’t have any jobs so we left from there.”
“My father is not Karen, my father is Tavoy, Tavoy means South Burmese group. It’s a little bit strange, I always asked 'Father you’re not Karen, why are you involved in the KNU?' He said that it was a situation that turned him to getting involved with the side that is fair because he couldn’t see [stand by] and watch people [Burma Army] come and bully or do very bad things in his village. Actually, he was a simple farmer and doing farming things."
"When the Burmese military came to the village, they usually came and took materials. They asked for materials or porters, and when they wanted to eat they just took our cows and chickens. So we didn’t dare stay there anymore and we moved.”
“We often needed to move from one place to another. We needed to find an area where there is water nearby and then we could collect food. And then, if the soldiers came again we needed to move again, like this, many places. We stayed in the jungle for many years, maybe three years and then the soldiers came again, attacked that area and then we had to run again. There we had a small school, no hospital. And also we did farming work but it was not really enough and we had to be scared of everything, like landmines or enemies, so sometimes we didn’t dare to go try and find vegetables there for food."
"When we lived in the jungle and moved from place to place, the houses we built were very simple, we built them from banana leaves and then we made them with bamboo. But sometimes when the rains came it was very difficult for us because some people had roofs [made of] plastic and they could stay there but the ground was still wet. Also many insects would bite us. Many people got sick and got malaria. When I was a child I got malaria. And I still remember there was a very small hospital there and they gave us a kind of medicine, but after you drank it you felt very dizzy, yes."
"Then in 1997, there was a big attack there and then we needed to run again. I don’t remember all parts but I still remember the time that I fled—I was young—I only know that I was afraid and I heard a lot of screaming and the bombing. And then we moved to a Thai village and then also there we were not safe because we were not allowed to stay there and then we came to BDY camp. I’m not really sure how old I was, but when I fled from the area where I lived, maybe I was 5 years old. I think maybe I was only two years old when I had to leave my village.”
“I know that we needed to run many times and it affected my education. For example, when I attended standard one I couldn’t finish my standard one. It was like, if [Burma Army] soldiers attacked I needed to run and then come back and attend that standard again, and then I couldn’t ever finish."
"My brother and my sister didn’t go to school; they worked. For me, I studied. I studied but not Thai school. It was like a migrant school where I went. And then later I needed to quit school and had to work. When I was in 7th standard [in BDY] I had to stop school because my father and my mother couldn’t support me anymore and then my sister also got married and then my brother needed to work. It wasn’t enough to survive. And then my mother said you need to come and then work with us, like this."
"I was 13 years old. And I remember that the first time that I worked was in a small shop, because no one accepted me. I was 13 years old - no factory accepted me and then I worked in a small shop and then maybe I got 60 baht or 80 baht, around this, for one day."
"And then I told my mother: 'No, I won’t stay like this; I want to continue my studies.' "
"For me, getting an education is difficult. [But,] I think that education is the only thing with which I can escape from the difficulties from here, to get a better life, so I focus on education."
For Mee Lay, education was the first priority, and after years of struggle, she was finally able to access higher education in Nu Poe refugee camp.
"During my studies, I learned many things and the school also taught me many things. At first I didn’t know how to communicate with people or speak. I didn’t have confidence in myself but when I attended school here I got more confidence and more motivation. And then I dared to say what I thought because I knew more [about] human rights. It wasn’t like how in the past I didn’t dare to tell my thoughts or my feelings or my ideas. Now I can say how I feel."
In the camp she learned about issues such as human rights, advocacy, public speaking and conflict management. As part of her studies, Mee Lay was even able to go back to her homeland for the first time since she was a little girl, running peace building workshops with local communities.
"I see many ethnic groups here. Before that I’ve never seen different ethnic groups; I knew only Burmese and Karen. Here we have more: Kachin, Chin, and Kayah [Karenni]. I had never seen them before. We learned about their culture and their beliefs in the classroom and then sometimes we had debates. But I realized one thing: that debate is debate. Outside we’re friends."
"I think I’m happy living in the camp more than living outside because I have a lot of friends and I have education and I love that. But one thing that’s very difficult for me is the language because we used to speak Burmese language. Even though my mother is Karen, when I went to school I cried every day because of the language. I didn’t understand [Karen] but I tried, and then later I could understand."
"I was especially happy when we went to do the field trip [on] peace building, because this was the first time that I went back to my homeland. I was very happy that I saw things [that I had only ever seen] in the pictures that my parents [had from] the past."
"For peace building, we gave awareness workshops [on how] to stay together in a peaceful society. Then we taught them about reconciliation, conflict management, and leadership skills according to our assessment. Because we saw that we have a huge lack of people there to lead and to cooperate in society."
Mee Lay sheds light on the complications surrounding the legitimacy of the education system for those living in the camps. Despite being qualified for jobs that require more responsibility, neither government—Thai or Burmese—gives credence to Mee Lay’s education. This year Mee Lay is doing an internship as the final step of her education, but the lack of recognition of her education brings many uncertainties for her in the future.
"I feel sad about one thing; we have skills but the government [and] our host country, doesn’t recognise our skills. My belief is that it doesn’t depend on the place, it depends on the person who wants to study. Even though the place is not developed, the skills that we get qualify us. If they don’t recognise it, it appears like they don’t give us opportunities to let us show our abilities or give [us] a chance. Yes, I want to say that if they give [us] a chance, we can do [things] and then we can get developed, I’m sure."
"Some people can do graphics and they can edit—like newsletters or design—and some people have really good leadership skills or facilitation skills. Some people are persuasive and are really nice when giving awareness training because I think they are more familiar with local people. So then if they gave opportunities to us, people like us, it would be more beneficial because we know the situation and we have stayed in the camps for a long time."
"I have a small dream for me—I would like to set up a small school for children, like my own curriculum that I can draw and I would like to set up education that is qualified education. Yes, that’s my dream. I want to set up a school in my village."
Mee Lay speaks of her hopes for Burma (Myanmar) for the future.
"How can they get peace? It’s very difficult to get peace because [there are] many different groups and they have different perspectives. They also need to cooperate and change their perspectives because sometimes if we want something we need to be flexible. But now [with] the situation I don’t believe fully that [we can get] peace yet.
Peace is when individuals or people have their freedom to speak or have freedom to express their feelings or have freedom to believe their own religions. There is peace, and then [people] live together with diversity, and then cooperation. [They are] not seen as a different but as the same. Yes, I think that’s peace for me. For Burma, I want to see a democratic system that’s fair for everyone."
When prompted about some of the ethnic tensions and discrimination happening throughout Burma, Mee Lay explained some of her thoughts on discrimination.
"I’m really sad about that because there’s a lot of prejudice and stereotypes and discrimination. I would like to say not only [for the] Rohingya but every minority ethnic group, please don’t discriminate [against] each other."
"I don’t want war. It affects all people and both sides of many, many sides. I don’t really like war; it affects other families, like our family. There were thousands of families and they had to suffer. And like education, or jobs in the camps: they didn’t have anything like that. They lost everything; their hopes, their dreams, their homes. They have nothing."
"In my village before we had to flee, we had Karen and Burmese people living together, and then the Burmese army came and we all had to flee. My whole family is still in BDY camp. They are not registered with the UNHCR because they were registering in 2005 and we came in 2006."
"I have never seen my homeland or how it looks; I’ve never seen it. I just heard what they said and how it looks like, or watching from the news or something like this. I want to go back because I [have] always dreamt about it. I want to stay in my own place and have the rights of a citizen, citizen rights. Sometimes I ask myself, do I have a country?"
"Yes, I hope that my story, a simple story, is a worthy lesson or case study or something like this for the others to learn."
Photos & Story: Burma Link
Note: Only part of Mee Lay's story is shared on Voices of Refugees. To read the full story, visit: www.burmalink.org