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Rustic Pathways’ Life on the Margin Program Exposes Students to the Everyday Lives of Refugees in Thailand
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Rustic Pathways’ Life on the Margin Program Exposes Students to the Everyday Lives of Refugees in Thailand

The ride from the Rustic Pathways Hill Tribe Service Base in Mae Sariang to Mae Ra Mo Refugee Camp is a twisting, bumping journey, made even rockier during rainy season downpours. When this year’s Life on the Margin group made the trek, their 4×4 trucks sloshed through tire-deep mud, so deep that Program Leaders had to physically get out and push the vehicles at certain points.

Located in northwestern Thailand along the Thai-Myanmar border, Mae Ra Mo Refugee Camp is home to roughly 10,000 inhabitants, originally from nearby Karen State in Myanmar. Although refugee camps are temporary establishments by definition, Mae Ra Mo has been around for more than 20 years, and feels more like an established community than an ephemeral solution. Modest wooden homes and structures, propped up by stilts, dot the river, and kids play outside school classrooms.This camp the only home they know.

Mae Ra Mo is comprised of—and run by— Karen refugees from neighboring Myanmar, who remain at the center of one of the longest-running civil wars and ethnic conflicts in the world.

Learning And Giving Back

Once at Mae Ra Mo, Rustic Life on the Margin students dove into their educational and service projects. These activities included planting papaya and banana trees to provide much-needed food to the junior college students, who don’t receive lunch at school. Rustic students also interviewed community leaders and conversed with their junior college peers. Each project gave students a better understanding of the Karen people, and the everyday ramifications of the conflict.

“Being there changed my life,” said Anica Zulch, of Lafayette, California. “It put everything into perspective.”

She and her Rustic group recognized this opportunity for what is was: a rare and privileged glimpse into another community, thousands of miles from their own homes.

They were particularly struck by their day spent with the junior college students, where they shared stories and anecdotes and their ways of life with teenagers in the camp.

“We got to meet so many students our age, so we weren’t teaching, we were just communicating,” Anica said. “And we weren’t coming in just to give them our culture, but it was an exchange, and we got to learn from them, and hear their stories, and have them ask us questions.”

Anica and her peers learned about their new friends’ professional goals, and their desires to one day return to a peaceful Karen state.

Disconnecting to Connect

Because of the camp’s remote location, there’s no cell phone or internet service, which encourages Rustic students to engage more thoroughly with the topics at hand.

They’re “almost forced to be in tune with their immediate environment and each other, which is great, because it allows for more meaningful discussions and interviews” said Nic Win, one of Life on the Margin’s Program Leaders.

This policy also facilitates relationship-building among the Rustic group. Nic described the intensive bonding and friendships that he saw form on his trip: “I’m confident to say it’s almost like nothing I’ve seen in other experiential learning programs.”

A Perspective From Both Worlds

For Ner Wah, a local Rustic Pathways Program Leader who also led the group, this journey to Mae Ra Mo was not only an excursion for the students, but was also a homecoming of sorts. For eight years, from ages 14 to 22, Ner Wa stayed in this same refugee camp, living and attending class because at home in his native Karen State, the education was underfunded and mediocre—and political climate too unsafe—to continue his studies.

It was actually on a similar trip in 2010—as the student leader at Mae Ra Mo’s student dormitory—when Ner Wa first met Rustic Pathways staff and students, and was offered a job upon completion of his studies.

Now, several years later, he still works for Rustic and offers a unique perspective to students as someone who knows the two worlds within the camp’s walls and as one of the few who left. He understands the struggle of fleeing his family home in Myanmar when military troops stormed his village and of building a life at the camp.

Ner Wah points to Life on the Margin as an important way to bridge the gap between the international media’s representation of refugees, and the actual situation on the ground.

“We hope students come to the refugee camp…and know about the refugee people’s lives,” he said. Rather than just seeing what’s on the news, “we change their minds.”

After this experience, it’s impossible for Rustic students to see Karen refugees as just another nightly news story; they are friends, they are students, and they are leaders.

Taking Lessons Back Home

Life on the Margin is one of Rustic’s most immersive and intensive programs, meant to inspire educational and personal growth while challenging students with these complex discussions about marginalized groups in Thailand and Myanmar.

“This program has a progression to it,” Program Leader Nic Win said.

Life on the Margin is intentionally designed to introduce students to these pertinent issues, and challenge them in different ways, week by week.

“I learned a lot about the simplicity and basics of life,” said student Katrina Wanner, of State College, California.

Many of them shared that sentiment and were particularly struck by a conversation with the Mae Ra Mo school principal, who stayed behind while the rest of his family left for a more stable life in America. He urged the Rustic students to remember their experience and the people they met.

And the message seems to have been received. The Rustic students couldn’t stop describing and analyzing this experience, their excitement and inspiration evident in their words and promises.

Rustic student Sofia Modisette, of Seattle, started college this fall, only weeks after returning from Life on the Margin.

“I want to focus on refugees [and] global health,” she said toward the end of the program. “I’m so glad I did the trip because now I’m so much more focused on what I want.”

Request a copy of our free spring break and summer catalog to learn more about Life on the Margin and other immersive Rustic Pathways service programs.

About the Author

Lauren Paley

Contributing Writer

Lauren graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with degrees in International and Area Studies and Writing, and almost immediately headed to France to teach English. She ended up staying abroad for six months longer than expected, traveling, writing and working throughout Europe and Asia. She joined Rustic in 2018 as the Global Communications Coordinator in Southeast Asia, and has also worked in travel, publishing, and media. She's (usually) based in New York, has been to 32 countries and counting, and has an intense love for Boo the Celebrity Dog.