Mae La Refugee Camp

Last week we visited Mae La refugee camp. For the last two months we've been teaching photography to Karen refugees and have heard stories about Mae La. Still, the experience of actually going there was shocking and intense. Around 40,000 people live in the Mae La refugee camp. It is surrounded by barbed wire, check points and armed guards. The refugees are not allowed to leave. The first things we noticed was that there were so many children. Many Karen refugees are born and raised in the camps. We've met Karen people in thier twenties who lived thier whole lives in refugee camps.

We've met many people with homemade tattoos similar to the those on this man's arms. Some of the tattoos are in English and others are in Karen script. There are tattoos for protection, decoration and solidarity.

Mae La is the largest of 13 refugee camps on the Thai Burma border. All together the camps house about 150,000 refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expects that about 27,000 people will leave the camps in 2008 and 22,000 in 2009. Many of these refugees will be resettled in the states. For more info about Karen refugees resetteling in New York check out our friend Karen Zraick's beautiful website: From Burma to New York.

We happened to arrive at Mae La for the new year water festival. This festival is celebrated in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia during April, the hottest time of year. Here people pour water on the Buddha and on each other as a way of showing respect.

A group of musicians played traditional songs while people took turns pouring water on the Buddha. Most of the dancers were community elders.

Water Festival inside Mae La Camp.

Several of these women are wearing traditional Karen clothes.

We only visited a small section of Mae La camp. The whole camp is about a square mile and is divided up into three sections (A, B & C). Its huge. There are something like 26 schools, 5 community libraries, 24 Christian churches, 5 Muslim mosques and 4 Buddhist monasteries inside the camp.

Most of the people living inside Mae La are not allowed to leave the camp except under special conditions. To earn money some people sneak out of the camp to find work. Others have money sent to them from relatives who've resettled. A few refugees find jobs inside the camp at small shops like the one in this photo. There are also some jobs funded by foreign aid organizations like teaching positions, nursing and weaving.

This kid followed us around the camp. I didn't realize he wanted me to take his photo until right before we left.

Many of the children had shaved heads because of lice.

Food scarcity and access to clean water are major problems in the refugee camp. An aid organization called the Thailand Burma Border Consortium supplies rice, beans, fish paste and chillies among other things. Our friends told us they don't supply any meat or vegetables. The recent problems with rice production have dramatically impacted the refugee camp. Refugees at Mae La used to get 15 kilos of rice per month. This month it went down to 12 kilos and there are rumor that it will soon go down to 8 kilos.

One of the photographers in the Unseen Mae La project talked a lot about religious freedom inside the refugee camp. He explained that in Burma there is no religious freedom, at least not for the Karen people. However in the refugee camp people respect each other's diverse religions. The predominant religion in Burma is Buddhism. Muslims and Christians face widespread discrimination. The Burmese Junta has used the support of the Buddhist monastic order as a source of legitimacy. However last fall we saw the monks of Burma bravely rise up against the Junta.

Most of the camp is surrounded by barbed wire. If people want to leave, even for just a few hours, they have to apply for a series of permits.