Posts Tagged ‘ Buriram ’

How ’bout Eggs?

I mentioned in the last blog post more details on some of our Buriram projects… and then I promptly fell off the face of the planet.  A quick follow-up to that.

My Father’s House is a children’s home for abandoned children and orphans in Buriram province.  The home is led by Pastor Narin Torbprakon and his wife, Kraneung, who have a heart to help at-risk boys and girls further their education in order to increase employment options outside of prostitution.  Pastor Narin and his wife have a compelling story and emulate creativity and innovation in how they run the home and desire to move toward self-sufficiency.

I spend a fair amount of my time in Buriram learning from and partnering with Pastor Narin and his family.  He’s a key partner in putting together a replicable model of self-sufficiency agriculture and spiritual formation that can be used in other villages and, hopefully, other provinces.

Our first formal partnership was in the building of an egg-laying chicken house.  (Add it to the growing list of innovative projects he has in the works, including aquaculture, hogs, vegetables, specialty rice, frogs, meat-chickens and I’m sure I’m forgetting more.  Not to mention starting the district’s only church.)  Thanks to the financial support of so many donors, I was able to partner in up-front capital costs for the chickens and start-up feed while they covered the cost of the building and materials.  The result?  Check it out.


A group of youth from the children’s home will manage the new chicken house, developing skills and responsibility and also helping move the home toward self-sufficiency as they consume and sell eggs.

PS… because I’m an agriculture geek I have to share.  In case you’re wondering why the chicken house is built over the pond?  (I’m sure you were wondering…)  The feed boxes are situated in a way that the chicken feed that naturally drops from the boxes during feeding will fall into the fish pond below and help reduce the feed costs associated with the fish operation.  Cool, eh?   

Looking forward to reporting back after the next visit how the chickens (and kids!) are faring!

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“My older sister finished school, but I can do even better.  I want to quit school, move to the city and find a foreign husband.”

This is a common attitude among Buriram girls starting in their early teens.  Many rural youth will study until the age of 11 or 12 and drop out.  Many because they’re pregnant.  Many with plans to move to the city to find work with older siblings, relatives or friends.  Some will make it to 9th grade, but are susceptible to a similar fate as those that quit three years sooner.  Even those that finish primary school with dreams of further study face a tough future as money is short for university, jobs are hard to come by close to home and the return on the few available jobs simply can’t compete with the jobs in the city.

It rattles me to see the economic situation in Buriram, to talk to community members aware of the issues, to see the blank faces on a few young girls lacking hope for a future different than that of their mom or sisters….  And then to come back to Bangkok, head out to the bars for outreach and sit down with a new friend.  Hear her story.  Hear her say she quit school and moved to Bangkok when she was twelve.  She worked in a food shop for a few years and now is working in the same bar as her older sister.  Where from?  Buriram province.  Prakonchai, to be exact.  Funny – yet not funny at all – that Prakonchai neighbors Prang’s village and is home to my oft-frequented bus stop in Buriram.

I wrestle a lot with this picture; the urban migration patterns are obvious to the naked eye.  Bus stops in Buriram populated with men and women making their way to Bangkok for work.  The men most often in construction.  The women in small food stalls, restaurants, or often in one of Bangkok or Pattaya’s abundant entertainment establishments (read: sex tourism industry).

Packed buses leaving broken villages.  One or both parents leave kids to be raised by grandparents while they seek work in the city.  Kids grow up with little or no parenting and little motivation for education.  Abuse.  Neglect.  Poverty.  Brokenness.  This is often all they know.

Except they see that their neighbor or relative or sister or friend went to the city and sent home a wad of cash from her work there.  Another came back with a foreign boyfriend and she now has a big house and money.  She might not love him, and he might not stay around long, but at least she has money and something going on.

And now this young pre-teen girl wants to have something going on too.  She decides that’s her goal.  She’s going to go find a foreign husband.  The best way to do that is to move into the city and find a job, the location of which is a detail often omitted from stories back at home.  As my Thai counterpart tells me, “this is Thai trend, Cori.” 

Oh, how I wish Thai teenage trends were as simple as boy bands and bracelets.

What can compete with these trends?  What can break the cycle of parents going to the city for work, and daughters and sons following suit?  What can restore hope and pride in these rural villages?   These are questions too complicated for a blog post, but they’re what rattle me at night and get me up in the morning.  They’re the focus of my prayers, and an invitation for you to join in prayer as well.

On a happy note, because I would prefer to end on happy thoughts:  There are some powerful things happening in Buriram right now.  I spent a couple weeks there this month, doing some research prep and helping with a two-week community-wide music camp hosted by a local agriculture-based orphanage and church.

Teaching guitar lessons and pouring concrete for a new chicken house made my heart happy.  So did the thought of God redefining what’s trendy in Buriram.  I’ll save more on that for a later post…

Country Bumpkin

The first of a series on Buriram…

As much as I love our activities in Bangkok, the biggest area on my heart here in Thailand is the vast expanse of rice fields that make up Thailand’s rural Isaan region — a region known for it’s extreme poverty and as “home” to the vast majority of the women we meet and serve in Bangkok.  My biggest hope here is to somehow grasp the root factors leading to the migration of women from the rice fields to the red light districts and, God-willing, invest in some areas that will help break the cycle on a holistic and sustainable basis.

I admit to having many assumptions about those root factors before I came here.  Assumptions about poverty.  Assumptions about needs, resources, values, desires of communities to change and assumptions of what I might be able to do to “help.”

Some much brighter minds than mine warn of these assumptions and accompanying attitudes with respect to how to tackle poverty.  Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in the book “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself” gave me some paradigm shifting food for thought last fall which shaped my approach to Buriram:

One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich – their god-complexes- and the poverty of being of the economically poor – their feelings of inferiority and shame.

I had to chew on that one for a while, I admit.

The alternative to entering a situation with a god-complex (or the attitude that I’m less poor and therefore have come to “help” people out of their helpless state) is entering a situation with humility and the primary objective to learn.  Rather than documenting the number of ways that they could or should be better off (read: more like us), it’s seeking their unique value and worth.

Corbett and Fikkert characterize it this way: “By showing low-income people through our words, our actions, and most importantly our ears that they are people with unique gifts and abilities, we can be part of helping them to recover their sense of dignity, even as we recover from our sense of pride.”

So, I spent the last several trips trying to rid myself of my western pride, attitudes and assumptions by simply being a part of the community and not really trying to change, or do, anything.  I hoped simply to build relationships. As a result, I was able to see that there are many people in Buriram far less poor than I am in many ways and I have a great deal to learn from them.

One thing working against me… Many in the region are used to white people coming in and throwing down money to “fix things.”  Sadly, many of the nicer things in the area came as a result of an influx of foreign money, often through a foreign husband.  Sometimes those foreign husbands are still around, some visit every few years, but most are out of the picture.  I could write another blog post on this, or perhaps a thesis (which I should be working on right now instead of blogging, by the way…) but I’ll refrain for now.  I’ll simply observe that the allure of foreign wealth is a significant contributing factor to young women migrating to the city — and to the red light districts — to find a husband.

It leaves me with the uphill battle convincing the community that I’m different than the white people they’re used to; that I’m not a source of quick wealth.

I just have to convince them I’m not a foreigner at all.

Fast forward to now.  My time just hanging out and being one of the family members has paid some dividends.  When someone calls me a foreigner, the kids quickly and protectively shout back before I ever get the chance:  “mai chai farang – khao bpen khon thai leeo”.   She’s not a foreigner – she’s Thai!   It’s a running joke now; I still stick out like a sore thumb, but those words bring me great joy.

How did that happen?  Pretty sure a gracious God had something to do with it.

Some say I earned those stripes by eating (and loving) their local specialties of fermented-fish-flavored spicy food (nothing earns you more rapport with Thais than eating their food in mass quantities).  Snacking on bugs generally turns some heads; they’re not used to foreigners eating them other than for a possible photo-op. I think the scale tipped when I broke a flip flop but instead of tossing it, I fixed it with a piece of rope and kept wearing it until someone sneakily tossed them while I was asleep.  (I’m still a little bitter about that one.)

I think it’s starting to stick that, despite my white skin and my incessant questions, I’m just another Buriram sister, cousin, aunt or niece.  In many ways, more country bumpkin than they are.

Thankful for the chance to be welcomed into their community and looking forward to what this next season has in store.

Next up — putting the hand to the plow…

Commercial Break: What is “The Well”?

After getting a number of questions about what all goes on here, I decided it’s time for a brief commercial break to highlight what this “well” is actually about.

The Well consists of a small group of Christians focused on bringing change to Thailand through personal, family and social transformation.  Their “Reach, Teach, Send” strategy is based on John 4 where Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman resulted in a changed life and that one changed life resulted in a transformed community.

The organization looks for innovative ways to help women in the sex industry, or at risk of entering it, find healing and a new start.  We believe that these women, like the woman at the well, can experience personal healing and transformation as well as be powerful agents of change in their families and communities.

That all sounds great, right?  But you’re probably still wondering what we actually do.

Reach

You may have heard me talk (or write) about our nights spent in Thailand’s red light districts developing relationships with women in the sex industry.  We seek simply to build friendships and speak love and hope into their lives in the process.  If they express an interest in finding alternative income sources or further education, we try to offer ways for them to do that.

Teach

The “Teach” component is multi-faceted and ever-evolving.  The organization looks to address physical needs (by providing a place for the women to come and stay), emotional needs (crisis intervention and counseling), spiritual needs (discipleship) as well as provide opportunities for education and skill development.  Workshops on health, parenting, business/entrepreneurship, emotional healing, etc. supplement courses in English and other core subjects.  In addition to the scheduled education programs, the women are also offered the opportunity to earn income by taking part in “The Well Products” business, consisting of training in sewing, jewelry making and paper products.  A children’s center on site offers child care while the women study and work.

Jewelry party in Bangkok this last weekend featuring The Well Products

The hope is to reform the education modules in the future to move toward designing clear career paths for the women that enter The Well programs. We’re also on the lookout for ideas and partners in finding new, innovative ways to provide employment opportunities for single mothers.

Send

The Well seeks to love and disciple women as long as they need it, with the goal of equipping them to at some point go out and be leaders of their families and communities.

I’m heading out of Bangkok tonight to spend a week with one of these women that has been “sent”.  She has a story that will break your heart but a passion for hope and growth and progress for her community and country that will both humble and inspire you.  She has returned to her rural community and is investing in teaching, discipling and creating business and employment opportunities for women there.

She’s what The Well is all about.

I’m going to visit her first and foremost to learn from her.  And her neighbors.  And their neighbors… and a few others that are involved in fascinating development-minded projects in the area that have been gracious enough to let me hear their stories.

Because the economy of the region is heavily reliant on agriculture, we’re looking for ways to possibly engage in agricultural education and/or innovation that can help provide income for families in a way that would avoid the need for urban migration.  That is, we’re looking for ways to spark longer-term change in families and communities that will keep young girls or young mothers from migrating to the city (and too often the bars) for economic reasons.

But first, I’m going simply to listen and learn.   Looking forward to sharing stories after the trip!

Thoughts from the Streets

Two women crouched down on the dirty ground in their high heels, reapplying makeup based on the reflection they saw in the dirty glass shop door.  That image is burned in my brain and on my heart.

We’ve had a few heartbreaking nights of outreach lately.  Not that they aren’t always heartbreaking, but they’ve been hitting particularly hard lately.

Outreach is a generic term we use for the time we spend building and maintaining relationships with women in Bangkok’s red light districts. There are a few specific areas that are hubs of Bangkok’s sex tourism industry, either targeting foreigners or local residents, and this is where we spend a couple evenings during the week.

A few observations:

First, I’m not a particularly violent person, but outreach tends to bring out the fighter in me.  As heartbroken as I am for the women, I’m equally outraged by the men that are perpetuating the demand for this.  Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s not just the men that are to blame.  There’s plenty of blame to throw around at the system as a whole.  Knowing this doesn’t change the fact that it’s all I can do to keep my fists to myself.

Second, I get a deeper understanding of God every time I go.  I learn how fiercely He loves His children.  I see women that are hardened from abuse. Women that have left a rather uncomfortable life in the countryside for an even more uncomfortable life working in the bars. So many unique individuals with unique stories of their road there. I catch a small glimpse of what He must see when He sees His kids broken and hiding in some pretty dark places.

For some it’s a conscious choice.  University-educated, world traveled, and working a corner to make more money than she would be able to otherwise.  For some it’s not a choice at all.  They are sold into it, guilted into it, or essentially forced to make value concessions due to economic demands placed on them.

Regardless of past or current motivation for being there, I just want these women to see more than this distorted reflection of themselves.

A few women we’ve met recently left a particularly deep impression on me.  One is a 30-year-old with a college education in communications and art. She spoke English and Japanese and served as the “big sister” or protector of three other women we met on the street.  She told us she chose to go back to prostitution because she liked it.

It’s actually not uncommon for women to respond this way early on; often the stories change greatly after you’ve had a couple more conversations. Many have a history of abuse, leading them to discount their value as a human with inherent beauty and value beyond that of their body, and making it “easier” to succumb to the allure of those neon lights, attention and cash.

Regardless of her motivation, I just couldn’t help but see the natural leader in her; a fiercely protective, loyal and obviously bright woman. She was dripping with potential.  It left me both frustrated and oddly inspired – inspired to know that God is about restoration and transformation of lives, and I can only imagine what He might have up His sleeve.

The other young woman is 19 years old with a two-year-old son that she had to leave with her mother-in-law in rural Buriram while she moved in to Bangkok to work in the bars. She didn’t want to be there but said she was pressured into it and didn’t have anything better to do.  She’s been there a month.  She said she cries a lot; she misses her son and doesn’t like it there.

Another girl from Buriram.  It gets under my skin.

Such beauty.  Such potential.  No more reflections in dirty glass windows; I want them to see what God sees.  And I want to get back out to Buriram…

Dreams of Transformation

There are no simple issues here, nor are there simple answers or solutions.  I haven’t even been here two weeks and have already been floored by the complexity of the needs, the depth of the challenges facing the people of this nation, and the amount of time and energy it will take to see any sort of real, measurable progress by which we westerners measure “success”.

I’ve realized how much I have left to learn.

Thanks to Wikipedia you can quickly read statistics on the scope of Thailand’s deeply-rooted sex tourism industry.  The NY Times recently did a piece on the complex issues facing Thailand’s rural countryside, highlighting growing issues with drugs and violence facing the youth, added to a lack of economic opportunity, particularly for women.  Books are written about sex trafficking or sexual exploitation; causes spring up on Facebook; magazines are published to highlight the issues.

Each time I read a new article or see a new statistic I realize there are about a dozen underlying issues that are unimaginably more complex.  I’m overwhelmed enough just reading about it; seeing it firsthand and hearing the stories of individuals that are living it is exponentially more heartbreaking.

I just got back to Bangkok after spending a few days out in Buriram province – a province located in the Isan region which is known as Thailand’s poorest region.  Agriculture is the main economic driver there, but the area isn’t as productive as other parts of Thailand due to the socio-economic conditions and a hotter, drier climate.  It is a region from which a large number of men come to Bangkok to find work or women come to work in the bars.

Being there for a few days provided only a small taste of the countryside, but a taste that got my wheels spinning and my heart pumping nonetheless.

What did I see?

  • Beautiful scenery – bright green rice fields with some sugarcane, cassava and eucalyptus peppering the countryside. But it’s also peppered with small, rural communities that are clearly hurting.
  • Absent men – either physically absent as they’ve had to move to Bangkok to find work, or effectively absent as they’re caught in a vicious cycle of drinking, drugs and gambling.
  • Beautiful women and children – This truly is the “land of smiles” but behind many of those smiles is an environment where there is a severe lack of hope or opportunity for so many women.
  • Potential….. I saw a handful of Thai men and women with hearts and potential to invest in transformation.  Men mentoring young men.  Women popping up as leaders, willing to host educational seminars for family and neighbors.  I saw a few innovative economic ideas popping up with potential, spearheaded by a couple of motivated Thai families.

One of the current economic generators for women is silk-making.  It’s a tedious process but one that provides a unique opportunity for women to be able to stay home to care for their children, make some beautiful products and generate some income if they have some help marketing their products.  It’s not a panacea, but it’s one thing that can be (and is being) done now.

Women grow the worms, extract the silk, spin and dye it, and make gorgeous silk weavings.

Silkworms

Weaving

Despite the glimpses of potential I’m seeing, it would easy to be overwhelmed and discouraged by the challenges here.  It’s overwhelming for this western mind that wants to identify a problem, come up with a solution and fix it “yesterday.”  Or at least set up a plan where it can be solved and I can report back to donors and supporters and say “Look!  Check out your return on investment.”

But I’m afraid that might not be realistic.  It’s hard for me to comprehend just how long it might take before we see real change here in Thailand.  Waiting around for results is a hard thing for me to do, but I’m going to have to be ok with it. And I’m praying that those supporting my time here will understand and be ok with that.  Even more than that, I hope that we all will realize that it’s actually a good thing in the long term.  That this is a long term investment from which we may or may not be able to see the tangible fruit in the near term, but that this is what God meant when He told us to “preach the Gospel” and “make disciples”.  It’s to invest in transformational change, understanding that transformational change takes time.

It takes time to build relationships.  To understand cultural nuance.  To understand root causes rather than surface symptoms.  To wait for God to reveal His intention in changing people and building character, which is the only way that lasting change will happen.

That said, I’m going to have to get out of my accomplishment-oriented, results-based mindset and settle in for the long haul.  And I’m going to have to ask you not to hold your breath for riveting stories about the issues going away overnight.

However, what I do hope to be able to share is stories of the road to transformation.  The cultivation of character, and how that cultivation of character will lead to changed lives and families and, eventually, communities and countries.

What does that look like?  It’s my dream to see men invested in as leaders of strong character – regaining economic opportunity and a drive to produce and care for their family.  Women experiencing healing and restoration, along with economic opportunity that enables them to stay home and care for their families as they wish to do; not requiring them to move to the city and work in the bars in order to pay to fix a leaking roof.  Children with educational opportunities and strong male and female role models, raised as the next generation of Thai leaders that wish to invest in continued development and transformation of Thailand’s rural areas.

There are a lot of people that have been here a lot longer than me and that learned these lessons long before I did. They’ve been making this investment and dreaming this dream for a long time.  The folks at The Well and the other long-term volunteers I’m working with here are an encouragement and an inspiration and I feel privileged to be able to come alongside and learn from them.

It may be discouraging to face the depth and complexity of the issues here, but our encouragement comes from knowing it’s not up to us to fix everything.  It comes from knowing that God’s heart is all about transformation and He’s the one moving here.  We’re just along for the ride.

We just have to be ok with the fact that it could be a really long ride.

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