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The summer of 2007 was the first time I visited Ruili City, a dusty port town located in a tight corner on the China-Burma border in Yunnan province. At the time, Ruili was China’s dirty little secret. Colloquially referred to as the ‘Las Vegas of China,’ it was the primary point of entry for drug and human trafficking and HIV/AIDS into the country. I was asked to help assess how creating art could engage youth in the area and deter them from high-risk activities that were obliterating the once-rich ethnic minority cultures of the region.
Just a few hundred meters along the fence from customs and immigration, we discovered a community of homeless youth from Burma. Most of the youth had been displaced by outbreaks of conflict in Burma’s northern Kachin State. Before fleeing Burma, they had witnessed the murder of family members and friends by the junta. We sat down by the fence and started drawing. The youth quickly joined us and we handed out paper and pencils. We watched as they began to draw enthusiastically, chatting amongst themselves. After each drawing was completed, the youth would come and tell us what it meant. These young people—forced to flee their homes, living on the streets, surviving by hustling, stealing, and selling scraps, and begging—for that moment, were just kids. Albeit, kids with incredibly powerful and heartbreaking stories.
That simple drawing exercise would manifest into a project that would compel me to spend the next four years living and working in southwestern China. That project would evolve into the Songzha Art Project, an NGO that works throughout the region and in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps in Burma.
When I was first introduced to Erika Berg’s visual storytelling workshops with refugee youth, I was ecstatic that (unbeknownst to one another’s efforts) we had embarked on such similar projects with the same mission: to give voice to these remarkable youth, forcibly displaced by violent conflict in their native land. Remarkable, because despite all odds and inhumane conditions, they had retained their brightness, humor, and creativity. What they needed—and still need—is an opportunity to be heard, an opportunity denied most displaced youth, who are marginalized further by a society indifferent to their harsh realities. The visual storytelling workshops address this need directly, by empowering refugee youths through a process of reflection and self-discovery to value their personal narratives and gain the confidence to share them.
Since 2010, over 1,200 ethnic minority youth have participated in over 40 visual storytelling workshops in refugee camps and urban slums in border areas of Thailand, India, and Bangladesh, as well as in refugee communities in the United States and Canada, all on Erika’s family’s shoestring budget. The project has been a tremendous labor of love, which recently led to the publication—with the help of a Kickstarter fundraising campaign—of Forced to Flee: Visual Stories by Refugee Youth from Burma. This deeply personal, yet powerful new book is designed to engage the reader on multiple levels, weaving together visual stories by refugee, asylee, migrant, and stateless youth with those of former political prisoners. This contextualization is of great importance at a time when the world celebrates the establishment of a quasi-civilian government and “democratization” of Burma.
As democratic reforms open Burma up to new foreign investment, the resource-rich lands occupied by ethnic minority groups, which is already contested terrain, will likely fall prey to increased land-grabbing and other forms of predatory development. The ultimate casualty of this uneven development and on-going violent conflict will be Burma’s rich cultural diversity. Without the participation of all ethnic minorities in the democratic process, the future of Burma remains gravely uncertain. Forced to Flee is a reminder that under no circumstance can democracy thrive if concentrated effort is not being directed at ensuring the safety, health, education, and cultural vitality of the next generation.
While democratic reforms brighten the country’s future, they have done little to nothing to address the humanitarian crises manifest in the borderlands. Addressing the continued displacement, marginalization, and oppression of Burma’s diverse ethnic minorities is absolutely essential to the future of the country. Forced to Flee lends gravity to this situation by spotlighting the unconscionable human costs. By concluding with a “Ways to Help” appendix, the book equips us with options to help young refugees and other forcibly displaced youth fulfill their dreams of a more just, inclusive, and peaceful Burma.
To learn more about the project or order a copy of Forced to Flee: Visual Stories by Refugee Youth from Burma, please visitwww.burmavisionsforpeace.org, 100 percent of the royalties on the sale of the book will be donated to peace-building efforts in Burma.
Sidd Joag is a visual artist, ethnographer, and cultural activist and works with freeDimensional as a program development consultant.[Images courtesy of Erika Berg]
Sidd Joag is a visual artist, journalist and producer working on issues closely related to social inequality and human rights, and the managing editor at ArtsEverywhere.