i’m not even sure i am meant to write this blog as so far things have conspired against me. for two days i could not get my laptop to connect to the wifi at our fabulous b&b. christoph saved me by finding a free software download to solve what was apparently a Vista problem (doh!). now i am sitting in the dark on the floor in the hallway, beside a rather spectacular horsehead lampshade (i am not making this up) that emits a tiny amount of light. the mosquitoes have honed in on my position, despite the layers of deet on my skin. problem being that while my room has electric sockets to power up my laptop, it has no wifi signal. downstairs in the common area the houseboy (sorry i cannot find a better word, that’s what he’s called) is already asleep so i can’t turn on the light to get power to a socket. hence why i’m sitting on the floor in the dark.
but the important thing is that i can finally write something! to rush through the beginning, we arrived safely late saturday night and spent sunday getting the lay of the land and then welcoming the three czech journalists who had followed us on different flights.
today was our first big day – started out with breakfast (roti aloo, delicious) and an interesting conversation with the wife of the owner of the b&b who explained to me the life coach concept of ‘management’. ‘man is a gem’ if he understands ‘ent’ – enlightenment, nature (living with not taking from), and transformation (being able to change with the times). good food for thought.
we started out with a meeting with our partner, burma centre delhi. we made some last-minute changes to our schedule and i had my second cup of masala tea for the day, then the journalists joined us for our first visit to a local organization that helps refugees, the YMCA. we visited a class of very young burmese refugee children (as well as one somali and one afghani refugee) who happily recited “a is for apple” for us, then received a visit from a doctor for an oral vaccination. the kids all jumped up with their mouths open ready to receive the drops. the facilities at the school are of course basic, but are livened up with colourful posters and brightly painted walls.
our next stop was the don bosco refugee training center, where refugees, be they officially recognized by the UNHCR or still ‘under consideration’ for refugee status (the process can take years) can come for english language and computer training. there’s also an income generation program, where refugee women and men make jewellery, do weaving, and sewing to produce products for sale in delhi, both retail in their own shops, and wholesale. for those with refugee status, the center also has a placement team to help refugees find work in factories and local businesses. health campaigns are also a big part of the center’s work, we saw dozens of posters explaining how to prevent malaria or what to do when one is a victim of sexual violence. the center employs both indians and burmese resident in delhi, all are dedicated and hardworking.
continuing the health theme, we then went to visit dr. tint swe, who is both a physician running a free medical clinic for burmese refugees in delhi, and an MP of the burmese government in exile. dr. swe left burma in 1990, narrowly avoiding arrest for his political activities thanks to the help of family and friends. after a difficult and often dangerous journey he made it to delhi and set up his clinic. he treats an average of about 70 patients every day the clinic is open. then of course he continues his work as an MP, pushing for change in burma. meeeting dr. swe was one of those moments where you realize this person exists on an entirely different plane that you can aspire to but will never reach. his optimism in the face of the depressing and at-present-unlikely-to-change situation in burma is inspiring.
just a few doors down from dr. swe we met a buddhist monk who participated in the saffron revolution in 2007 and was then forced to flee. he also had a harrowing story about escaping from burma. we talked about many things, including the upcoming elections in burma, and his biggest wish was that we say to the world that these elections are not fair and not free, and should not be recognized by any international governments. these elections are being boycotted by aung san suu kyi and the national league for democracy party, because in the party’s view, participating in the elections legitimizes the constitution that was basically passed under duress in a referendum held immediately following cyclone nargis.
the thorny issue of the elections also figured in our final meeting for the day, with two burmese journalists, one freelance and one working for the irrawady news agency, who also fled to new delhi after what they call the september uprising (saffron revolution). one has already been granted refugee status here, the other is still ‘under consideration’ after two years of waiting. she used to work as an undercover journalist in burma and shared stories about various ‘spy cameras’ and technologies used to make untraceable calls into and out of burma. in contrast to communist countries where the inhabitants often are not allowed to leave, burmese can get passports and travel abroad. but if they stay abroad and become involved in exile (political) activities, it is no longer safe for them to return. dr. swe, for example, was sentenced to 25 years in jail in abstentia. for these two journalists, the one with refugee status can no longer return to burma but the one without cannot. she lives here under a different name than the one on her passport, so that she can still come and go to burma when possible. after we peppered this couple with dozens of questions, they had one for us: what do you think we should do, vote or not vote, in the upcoming elections? a lively discussion followed among czechs, german, canadian, and burmese – but there was no clear answer.
i will end this, my first blog from delhi, on a sobering note before i go take my bedtime shot of slivovice to avoid delhi belly: a burmese blogger who blogged throughout the saffron revolution was caught and sentenced to 56 years in prison.