Say the words ‘Asylum Seeker’, and you’re likely to get a reaction. Whether it’s provocative disdain, alarmist fear, sympathetic sadness, or perhaps, worst of all, a kind of blank numbness … the label is one that conjures up many things to many people. But the problem, the ‘group’ is so big, the situation so complex, spanning multiple countries, cultures, religions, ages and races, that it’s almost impossible to get your head around what it actually must be like to have that label hanging over you; what it must be like when it’s your story. Today, I’m grateful to say, I had that opportunity.
“Nothing is more important than your life”
I meet Sara*, 30, at a centre for Urban Asylum Seekers in suburban Bangkok. She greets me with a warm smile and a firm handshake just as she is about to start her morning routine running a playgroup for spirited 3-6 year olds. In this concrete corner of the complex, mini tables and chairs overflow with brightly coloured, second hand plastic toys of all shapes and sizes. Plastic fruit, cups and saucers, building blocks and duplo – the kinds of things that are great for role play and developing young children’s fine motor skills.
In amongst the noisy chatter and chaos of children at play, Sara sits with a small boy, pointing to the letters of the alphabet on a pop up game. As he recites each back to her, Sara praises him. A moment later, a little girl interrupts, asking Sara to sip from a pretend cup of tea, “Mmmm, that tastes good” Sara coos. The little girl smiles broadly and offers her another.
A teacher by trade with over ten years experience, Sara is in her element here. She has just the right mixture of patience and authority but above all a clear, distinct kindness. It’s lovely to watch.
“I just love teaching … its my passion ..” she says.
Chatting to Sara later it’s hard to reconcile this image of her here with the children against the violence she suffered back in her home country of Pakistan. The huge gnarled scar on her arm bears some testament, but even still its difficult to truly digest what she has been through and for what precisely. With respect to Sara’s personal safety and that of her family, I cannot disclose the details here, but let’s just say it’s a harrowing and frightening tale which left her fighting for her life and fearing for her children’s. “Nothing is more important than your life,” reasons Sara. So within two months of the incident, she and her husband sold all their worldly possessions, left their secure employment, said goodbye to family and came with their two young children to Bangkok with the hope of becoming officially recognised by the UNHCR.
Though Thailand offers an interim solution, the system and the process here is infinitely more difficult and complex than Sara and her husband could have ever imagined. “I feel like I’ve lived my whole life in the last nine months” she says, the strain apparent on her face when she talks me through what the next few years are likely to hold for her.
It goes something like this.
“My dream is to one day live in a big house. A place where my children can play and laugh and make noise.
Thailand is not a member of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol so it acts more like a host country, which the UNHCR uses to process claims before moving people on to permanent resettlement elsewhere. Unlike those who flee from neighbouring countries like Myanmar, and who are housed in special camps on the border, Urban Asylum Seekers and Refugees must fend for themselves and in most cases for up to five or even six years. They are not allowed to legally work but they must support themselves fully for as long as the process takes. There are no guarantees and the threat of deportation hangs over them daily as, according to Thai Law, they are considered ‘illegals’.
I try to imagine what this must be like, especially with children. The long, interminable wait, the need to keep the rent paid, put food on the table, have your kids educated, to keep your relationship intact, to stay positive and keep your head together while in the back of your mind there’s always a nagging worry of being sent home to your country of origin. A place that you’ve escaped in fear and a place where your life is most likely in danger if you return.
At the moment Sara and her family live in a small apartment, about 2.5 metres wide. She shares the single bed with her two boys, while her husband sleeps on the floor.
“My dream is to one day live in a big house. A place where my children can play and laugh and make noise. At the moment we are in a very small room and the walls are thin. I am always telling my boys to be quiet so as not to upset the neighbours. But they are boys and it is very difficult. They just want to have fun.”
Stage 3 – Relocation – is the holy grail. But that brings with it around another year long wait while visas are processed. Then, finally, once you are ready to leave the Kingdom of Thailand as an official UNHCR endorsed and certified Refugee, you have to spend around 10 days in jail and pay a considerable fine for overstaying your original entry visa. Yep. That’s jail. And a fine. With your kids temporarily incarcerated too if you have them.
Sara tells me that her and her husband’s savings are likely to only last another few months. Arriving just nine months ago, they still have years and years of waiting ahead of them, again with no guarantees and without the ability to work and support themselves, despite their professional qualifications. The ideal scenario would be to find a ‘donor’ or ‘sponsor’, a wealthy individual who might be able to help them, but with so many hundreds of others all looking for the same thing, the odds are limited and the competition fierce. Small grass roots organisations can provide some support – basic medical, legal advice, the odd hot lunch – but the roof over one’s head is down to the individual and their resourcefulness.
By way of example, Sara shows me some decorative ribbons which she is has been invited to make by someone at the centre. Used to accompany the flower garlands on Buddhist shrines, Sara has been offered 5 baht (15 cents) for every 100 ribbon stars she makes. The process takes, her all up about 9-10 hours, which she does over a few evenings once her children are in bed. When I ask her if its worth it, Sara’s shoulders sink a little. “Not really,” she says. “But 5 baht is a lot to me right now, so for that reason I will do it”.
We are like beggars here. We live hand to mouth.
Joseph*, 48, has also come to Bangkok from Pakistan and is here with his wife, 7 children and 63 year old mother. In Lahore he was a successful real estate agent and property developer but again he left all that after a spate of violence and threats due to his Christian beliefs. Everywhere he goes, Joseph carries with him a crumpled plastic folder filled with his credentials. Business registration papers, a tax certificate, his company’s Christmas card to clients, personal and business references.
“Joseph is an honest, dedicated and committed to his business and his clients,” reads one. “We wish him luck with his future endeavours”.
Joseph implores me to look at each of them, as if these worn out bits of paper validate him somehow; proof, if you like, of what he once was. It strikes me that Joseph will likely never let this beat up folder go.
When I ask Joseph if he misses the opportunity to work and having his business, he starts to cry.
“I miss my business very much. I was a self-made man. To work hard for me was no problem. I built it up over many years. We are like beggars here. We live hand to mouth. My daughters used to go to a very good school and now, I don’t know what their future holds. I worry for them and I want so much for them. But I do not know what will happen.“.
As we talk, one of Joseph’s daughters skips past. Bright eyed and brimming with confidence, Barika*,12, has just finished her Thai language lessons for the day. With the backing of the UNHCR and the Thai Education Department, children of Asylum Seekers and Refugees can attend Thai government schools – but only if they first pass the entrance exam which is in the very hard to master Thai language. If they do not pass the exam, then they cannot attend school and their education is thwarted.
“Tell Miss Ruth, how good you are with English”, Joseph says. Barika straightens her back and breaks into a pitch perfect speech on citizenship. I am not sure where the speech is from and if Barika wrote it herself once upon a time, but its clear she has learnt it verbatim and recited it, upon request, many times over.
Joseph smiles warmly at this daughter, looking like he’s just had a little hit of oxygen.
When I ask Barika what she wants to do when she grows up, she says she wants to be a pilot. She’s a happy girl, still hopeful, excited, and full of potential but perhaps most significantly, you can see she’s been given the encouragement to dream big. You can only hope she gets the opportunity to fulfil all that lies inside her.
Later, when classes finish, Sara complains of the pain in her arm. Beneath her scar is a metal rod, inserted only as a temporary fixture while her bones repaired after the injuries she received back home. The rod now needs to be removed but removal requires surgery, something that Sara cannot afford obviously without any funded healthcare. So for now, the rod – and the pain – must stay for as long as it takes for her and her family to be relocated to another country. A wait she must endure and be patient while it lasts.
Despite all the obstacles and the hardship though, Sara is an impressive woman. She is strong, determined, smart and resourceful. She looks constantly for opportunities to help her family and seems to be building a catalogue of options that can help her survive week to week. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” she says, and it’s clear she lives by this mantra.
* All names have been changed for the purposes of this piece and for the safety and security of the individuals.