Ji Ju Ga Ba Sai, I stuttered. Thank you in Kachin is a mouthful. Ring Du was sitting in the modern and clean apartment in the outskirts of London. He had black, wavy hair that almost went down to his shoulders and a smile that went all over his face.
Sarah and I were having brunch with a group of Kachin refugees who had moved to the UK some years ago. Their English was impressive; they did jobs that provided for them and their families. They wore trendy clothes and had a microwave oven in their kitchen.
I wanted to hear their stories. They all had one. Ring Du settled for his job story. “I work at a five star restaurant,” he smiled. I was impressed. “Were you a chef before you moved to the UK?” “No, not at all. I had never cooked before,” he said. “But I went to the restaurant and told them I had. And they gave me the job. For the first two weeks I had no idea what I was supposed to do, but luckily, another guy helped me out. My boss would say: ‘Make some mayonnaise.’ My friend would whisper the directions to me from behind the wall where he was standing. After two weeks of this I knew pretty much anything.”
His friends nodded in agreement. “He is the most amazing cook,” they said. “He can cook everything now. Next time you come we will have him cook for you.”
We had a good laugh and continued our talk about how to help the Kachin in Burma. “We want to help our people,” they said. “We are here and have a safe life and freedom. We can use it to help our people in Burma.”
There are thousands of Kachin in hiding, on the run from the Burma Army soldiers right now. They have done nothing wrong, but are being punished because their leaders said no to becoming border guards for the Burma Army. They did not want to be guards whose job it would be to suppress their own people. So now the whole nation is on the run, practically.
“We have always tried to make peace,” said Haeng Htu. “We don’t want to die.” “Everybody says we need to have a dialogue with the government, and we have tried that. But the result? The military attack us when we don’t do what they want us to do.”
As I was sitting on the nice sofa in the nice apartment, listening to and watching the men and women in front of me I was touched by their lives, their determination, their attitudes and courage.
Getting to where they were now had not come easily. Compared to their countrymen and women they were rich and free. Yet, they lived in the lower income part of the city, their view was a barbwire fence and a military base. Unlike me they had had to fight every step of the way, from a poor region of a poor and oppressed nation, to a refugee camp or as illegal immigrants at first. In India or Malaysia. Then they had come to the UK, a foreign and strange country with a language, culture, climate, food and customs so unlike their own. They did not tell us this, but it goes without saying that as immigrants they had been looked down upon, accused of crimes they had not committed, (they had not been accused f it personally, but immigrants are often put into one pot—the immigrant pot. If you come from Somalia or Burma doesn’t matter much if you are an immigrant. If one of you commit a crime, you are all guilty) discriminated and put down. They had had to learn to navigate in a huge city, on trains, on buses and even by driving on their own. They had had to figure out how to file their taxes, how to get medical assistance if needed, where to pay their electricity bill and how to get money out of an ATM machine.
But here they were sitting, smiling. Encouraging us to eat a lot. Telling us that they want to do something to help. “They have nothing. We need to help them,” they agreed again. They had not come to this country for themselves only. Theirs was the responsibility to feed the ones who right now are starving.
I left the meeting feeling challenged and happy. Again I had been encouraged by refugees.
PS. Did you like these two amazing pictures? They were taken by Steve who went to visit the Kachin in Burma. These children are on the run from the army too. Too sad to be true? I agree.