All things come to an end. Today I will leave Mae Sai – this northern Thai border town I have called home for the last 15 months. This border town surrounded by beautiful lush mountains and vibrant green rice fields. This border town filled with bar girls, street vendors, markets, Buddhist temples, and residents who are Thai, Burmese, Shan, and Akha. Where police check-points, border patrol and immigration officials are commonplace – where hundreds of Burmese migrants cross daily into Thailand to do work. This border town defined by a blue walking bridge that separates two countries – one ruled by military force for the last 60 years, one rumored to have never been occupied. One that produces a large quantity of the world’s opium. One that is home to a King revered like a deity. One that has clean roads, hospitals and schools. And one that remains on the Top 10 List of most impoverished countries in the world ranking number 3 in international corruption according to the Corruption Perceptions Index.
I came to work in anti-trafficking. I thought I knew a lot. In reality, I knew very little. I thought I could empower others. I thought I could lift them up, show them other avenues are possible. I left the comforts of the west for something I considered bigger than myself. Because I had the privilege to do so. It didn’t matter where people were from. I didn’t care about borders and nationalities and the white savior industrial complex – I still don’t, I suppose. I cared about humanity – the human race to which we all belong and our common humanity. I cared about people being forced against their will to do exploitative work where others reap the profit. I cared about children being subjugated and abused. I cared to learn about human trafficking on the ground from locals and help in any way I could. What I found was an international industry of exploitation – a grueling machine seemingly too large to grind to a halt. What I also found were small players with caring hearts, dedicated to the fight for human rights. I found empathy and compassion. I found human flaw and imperfection. I found joyous faces and eagerness. I found laughter and the biggest smiles. My scope was broadened. My worldview was challenged. My heart was broken over and over – by both joys and sorrows.
In the end I don’t know if I helped anyone as much as I could have or wanted to. I couldn’t give stateless individuals ID cards to allow them freedom of mobility and reduce their risk of exploitation. I couldn’t fly them to the countries they dream of visiting. I couldn’t pay their tuition to universities. I couldn’t give them opportunities to thrive in jobs they dream of having. And in the end, I can leave and they must stay. I leave hoping that my small efforts had some slight impact. That the small efforts of all of us have slight impacts that once conflated equal something much larger than ourselves. In the end, it is what it is. We do what we can and we move forward. We cross paths with many people along the way and hopefully something transpires within that. My only regret is that I couldn’t do more. That I couldn’t build schools or pay for these incredibly bright young women to go to college. That I couldn’t distribute passports and fistfuls of cash to all the stateless people who lack mobility and opportunity. That I couldn’t change a system of inequality and exploitation for these people who have taught me so much and changed my life in ways I never imagined. I wish each and every one of you the best of luck on your journey through this life – Tan, Key, Tip, Top, Inkaew, Khawn Mai, Mabina, Peh, Nui, Nuan, Diamond, Tone, Tony, Raam, Rome, Peh, Tim, Pam, Cheer, Arm, Christiano, Pinky, Blackjack, Cristiano. Never give up on your dreams even if they seem impossible. Nothing is impossible with enough determination. And no one said you had to play by the rules! Each and every one of you have taken residence in my heart. And I carry you with me. N