Our first contact with the Karens happened right after the tsunami of 2004. A day after the waves devastated the coast of Phuket and Phangnga provinces, we arrived with a truckload of supplies, basic essentials and a team of volunteers ready to provide necessary physical, emotional and spiritual comfort to the suffering and needy.
We found our second village school not far from the sanctuary, which had about 120 children. After songs and games with them, we were able to distribute sweaters, track suits and other warm clothes to the kids for their families.
Besides our visits to the affected villages, relief centers and hospitals, we also found communities of desperate Karens – unattended to by official government care groups whose main concern was helping Thais and Western foreigners—who had to find and live in any shelter or deserted remains of buildings left standing after the tsunami. Many had no water, no supplies, just having to survive on anything they could scavenge from the hill vegetation or around the devastated villages.
Many were hiding out in the rubber plantations & hills, for fear of arrest and deportation, their legal papers, like all the things they once owned, now gone. Some who knew of the plight of these displaced people helped relocate many to the village of Ban Nam Khem, where they are able to then rent rooms or squat uninhabited property. These shacks were hardly livable but they provided a roof over their heads, that is until the rains came.
"There's nowhere else to go," mourned one Burmese squatter, as she told us of the sleepless nights and difficult times when rain would just pour in from the roof and open sides of their dilapidated shelter.
Shelter was one of their major needs. So were jobs, food, and fans, rice cookers and now with a new initiative to build a school, they needed school materials as well. Within one day of our appeals on behalf of these displaced people, we were pleasantly surprised as to how many promptly responded, giving generous donations to enable us to purchase needed supplies.
One such displaced person is Matthu, a tiny lady who had lost two children to the tsunami, an 8-month-old baby and a 12-year-old daughter. Her husband, who had worked as a fisherman for nine years, lost his job as his employer died in the tsunami.
Despite Matthu’s circumstances, she has helped others and even shared her shelter, asking nothing in return. Speaking with this diminutive Mon lady, we discovered her single request was a gas cooker on which she could cook and sell a little food to support her family. We provided this for her, along with a fan to ease the plight of her remaining family members.
As the time came for us to return to Bangkok, Matthu pleaded that we not forget her and her people.