Refugee Experiences

On Refugee Experiences

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Sue Bassett on Refugee Camps

Sue Bassett came into our class today to talk about people called “highlanders.” Highlanders are people who live high up in the mountains of Thailand and Laos. There are many Sue mentioned like Mien, Akha, Hmong, Yao, etc. All these people have different styles of living, each as unique as the next. One of the different things was that babies wear nothing; toddlers wear just a shirt, kids wear pants and a shirt and adults wear pants/skirt and a shirt. People sleep in big beds with many people in them. They don’t use mattresses. They use bamboo. Sue said it gets comfy after a while. One of the highlander villages was so high up in the mountains that it took twelve kilometers to reach. There are three seasons: cold, dry/hot, and wet. All of these seasons can be enjoyable including the hot/dry season. The main reason Sue was at our classroom was to talk about the refugee camps and refugees. The difference between an immigrant and a refugee is refugees are forced to leave their homelands and immigrants have a choice to leave. She worked as a nurse at a refugee camp called Ban Nam Yao.


Sue Bassett, a good friend of Mr. Wagler’s, took a trip to a Thailand Refugee Camp. She met Akha, Thin, Lisu, Mien, and Hmong people and worked with most of them. Sue worked in a clinic, medicating people who had been shot, people with measles, people with health problems, people with bad burns, people with lost body parts, people who did not have enough nutrition, people with skin problems or diseases, and lots more. Sue and other doctors and nurses brought shamans and Hmong elders over to help them. Some people who needed medical care however, refused to go to hospitals, perhaps thinking that it was only a place for people so sick they might die. Or, perhaps, they wanted to use the old spirit–contact way. Who knows?

The Thai people provided the refugees with building supplies: bamboo, grasses, straw, thatching, and more. In summer, the refugees used screens and blankets to keep out malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Usually, there was only 1 table. The people would eat in this order: Elders, men, women, then children. Beds were made of bamboo slats. You got used to the bumpiness after a few nights. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees provided food, machinery and building supplies.

There were also signs-flags, signs, wreaths, etc. that people used. For instance, a white thing on the roof meant that you could trade for toys there. Toys were made of stuff found lying around: Bottles, lost flip-flops (shoes often worn by Hmong people), wood, pens, and other things. A wreath of leaves and branches on a wall meant that there was something like a disease inside, and the mother and child(ren) couldn’t go out.


In all the seasons, the highlanders use houses to store their food. The houses are on stilts and on the four corners of the house, there are metal poles so rodents can’t get in to poop and/or eat their food. (The metal poles are there because they are slippery to animals other than humans.)


Akha is a type of mountain person. Thin is another type, and so is Lisu, and of course, Hmong. Mountain people use gourds to collect water. The roofs of houses are made of grass and the walls are made of bamboo. In each house there is a bed, a table and a kitchen in the corner. There are nets over the beds to block mosquitoes from biting people when they are asleep. If you saw a pole with a bag on it stuck in the ground by a house that meant that people were selling toys that they made. Kids play with chickens, geckos and chameleons. Hmong mountains don’t have very good roads so the villages are hard to get to. Animals run free in the villages.

Because of war, people had to cross the Mekong River. The Mekong River was a fast running, deep river with “licensed to kill” killing guards on the other border. Practically none of the people could swim when they crossed the Mekong River separating Laos from Thailand. Elders had to cross as well as strong men. When they got across they became refugees. In the camp people were provide with thatched roof covering and long sticks of bamboo.

Lots of people had health problems. Most refugees didn’t have very many vegetables and fruits. Lots of kids had malnutrition. That means that they had a bloated stomach with teeny arms, legs and feet. A way of Hmong traditional healing is using an animal’s horn to bring the blood cells up to the skin, and doctors have found that it actually works. Lots of people also lost legs and arms because of left over land mines, and got sick because of that.


Today a woman named Sue Bassett came into my class and showed us slides and talked about Thai refugee camps and the people that live in the hills. Sue used to work in a refugee camp as a nurse in the 1980’s.

In the hills, there is lots of grass and there are dirt roads that are easy to get stuck in when it is the rainy season. In a village, most of the houses are made out of bamboo and thatched grass roofs. There are dogs, pigs, roosters, and chickens all over in villages.

Most of the people in the villages had a field to farm on. There was always work going on in the villages. They would also have a rice pounder that would be done by having a long piece of wood with a big stick coming out of the wood that would hit the rice. There was a corn grinder that would be done by putting corn between two stone flat plates. They would move and crush the corn. The women were sewing a lot.

When America gave up the war and came home, the Communists killed everybody they found in the mountain villages. So the Hmong and other people had to run away to Thailand. But to get to Thailand they had to cross the Mekong River. They couldn’t swim, so they had to go across by holding on to bamboo. Once they got to Thailand (if they made it) they had to go to refugee camps.

When they entered, they would be registered and given supplies to build a house. There wasn’t much food, so a lot of people got sick. The refugee camps had lots of people in them. Sometimes if there would be a fire, there was nothing anyone could do. So they had to get away from the fire.

By what Sue showed us and talked to us about I think I understand villages better, and how hard and confusing it was for them.


Laos and Thailand have a lot of low lands. Both lands have high mountains and a lot of mountains. Lots of Sue Bassett’s pictures showed Akha or Hmong women carrying their babies or feeding them. I think Lisu is Hmong green because she is wearing Hmong green traditional clothes. An Akha woman was using a dry empty pumpkin cut in half to get water and she was carrying a basket on her back. She was also wearing a traditional Akha hat that has lots of designs and coins on the hat. There were a lot of houses being built or rebuilt. They were made out of bamboo and straw. There was a picture of a little boy holding a kind of fruit; I think it may be a pineapple. A lot of Hmong women do a lot of needlework each day because in the refugee camps it’s very boring. There are lots of cages for animals. There was a rice pounder and also a corn grinder in the pictures. Lots of families were really farming to get food. There were lots of fences around gardens because lots of animals are mostly outside. Now many houses have electricity and phones. Two Hmong men were blacksmiths and I think they were making tools like knives. Mostly people need wood for fire, not electricity. A lot of women do different needlework with wax. Some pictures showed the bathrooms back then, which was in the ground. A man was making a qeej and two other men played the qeej in different places. There was a dry and wet season. Kids played in the rain. A woman sold vegetables at a market. Another woman was carrying a basket filled with bananas. Two pictures showed the Mekong River in the south side. Two men were smoking a bamboo pipe. Lots of women were getting glasses from the nurses. There was a hospital called Tom Dooley Hospital that let refugees in to make the refugees healthy and safe. Lots of refugees got shot by the communists. Some people even lost their legs or arms or some other body parts. When Sue Bassett first came to the refugee camps, lots of people looked at her as foreign. She only learned Thai words because she was in the refugee camps.


Cher Peng Her: Refugee Camps

Imagine: you are Hmong and you just got away from the Pathet (communist) Lao. You travel through the Laotian jungles, your belongings and those of your family on your back. You are often getting shot at by Pathet Lao patrols. You reach the Mekong River and find it heavily guarded. You are able to get across unharmed.

You stay at a Thai Hmong house. Meaning no harm, they give you directions to the Ban Vinai refugee camp. At the gates, you are forced to hand over everything you have hauled through the jungle. They then let you in. They tell you to go find a place to sleep. Maybe you get to a place where you can get under the blankets they gave you. This is what it was like in Ban Vinai’s early stages.


Some of the houses are traditional (bamboo, mud, etc.) and some are not traditional (tin roof and wood walls). Most houses are not traditional. Every house has a concrete well.


In 1975 roughly 50,000 people were crammed into the small space of Ban Vinai. Sometimes there wasn’t enough food to go around… for one day they give a family a bag of rice and hog 3 bags for themselves. Or a rat bites through a bag and the rice goes on the dirty floor then the Thai officials sweep up all that and put it back in the bag so all of the rice that they get is unhealthy. At Ban Vinai people would normally get a bucket full of water a day.


Many people died of starvation, sometimes dehydration, sickness, and lack of medicine. There were hospitals, but they weren’t very clean, and things like needles were often shared.


The school in camp is not like our schools because it has different style. Peng said that first grade means something else. It means someone who needs to know abc, 123. And there are only 5 grades in the refugee camp. So refugee school is very different from our school.


The kids had a better time than the adults because they didn’t have to worry about where they would end up living.


Soccer was the dominant activity. Since many had no job at camp, soccer was a great time-killer. The field was so used, no grass grew there.


The soccer games were played like so: two teams come and play, one wins, the team that lost leaves the field, the next challengers come and it starts again. They played from 8 a.m to dusk. But for kids not old enough to play, it was a drag. You had nothing to do all day, every day, until some kids invented some games like jacks except with a rock and sticks, or jump rope, except with a long chain of rubber bands.

Kids had some other games like kow tow, which is kicking a ball like volleyball, also tublub, which is a game where there is a board and you spin big tops on and try to knock the other person’s top off. For the kids it was a lot of fun if you didn’t go to school, because you had lots and lots of free time.


Because no one had jobs and the Hmong people had little or no money whatsoever they sometimes snuck out. There was a metal fence with barbed wire on it to prevent this and later a 3-ft. deep ditch to prevent this.


The women didn’t have much to do… Later on the women got materials from the JVC… to make Paj Ntaub [story cloths] and a new style was created. Instead of just symbols and shapes they sewed people and buildings and scenes of villages and the refugee camps onto the quilts.

–Sarah M.

The camps had a unique form of government. First, there were the refugees (of course). Each family had someone to represent them to the officials (usually the father). Each apartment had a leader. He would go to the section leader to get rations and report “misconduct.” Then there’s the section leader. He is in charge of all the apartments in his section and also has permission to go directly to the government. Then there’s the president of the camp. He’s in charge and settles almost everything. But what the Thai government says, goes.


Peng was one of the lucky ones because he left the refugee camps early. He got to because his father was a teacher and the Hmong wanted to send the smarter people to America first to see if they would survive because if they didn’t, they figured no one else would be able to.


Even today, there are still two refugee camps in Thailand, but one is being shut down. In the 1990s, the refugees couldn’t come to America so some refugees went back to Laos.


Quite a few Hmong people we have seen haven’t wanted to talk about the camps. Too painful. “There was no freedom” Mr. Her said. That is why so many people wanted to first escape Laos, and then escape Ban Vinai. Remember, Being Hmong means Being Free.

–Sarah M.