A guard tower at a refugee camp A child crying at the refugee camp A woman holding a baby A man playing the qeej A woman and child sitting on the ground at a refugee camp A woman with a basketful of bananas on her back Fleeing a fire at a Hmong refugee camp An elderly Hmong woman at a refugee camp A woman holding a story cloth A man weaving a basket at a  Hmong refugee camp

Location | Themes | Reflections | How We Did It

Sue Bassett on Refugee Camps

Martha | Maggie | Jeremy | Nico | Dylan | Pakou | Pao | Mariah | Cristina | Jenny | Izzy S. | Sara K. | Nate | Erika | Benjamin | Abigail | Sarah M. | Gabby

Laos and Thailand have mountainous lowlands with roads made of dust and dirt where people called Highlanders, mountain people or mountain men, live.

Not many people in Laos or Thailand have enough money to buy horses, but if they do they will travel by horse. If not, they will travel by foot.

In the Vietnam War, the Americans wanted to get the Hmong, Laos and Thai because they were the strongest and toughest fighters the American Army could find. This was due to the fact that all the people of Laos and Thailand worked in fields, built houses and many other activities of muscle-straining work that made them unbelievably tough.

Hmong and Thai homes are made out of very long grasses and some wood. Some houses had big, long slippery metal posts that held these houses up. This is because the people did not want rodents like rats, mice and squirrels to get into their houses and eat the entire food supplies that the people worked so vigorously to get.

It is very hard to be a refugee. On your way to the camps, for instance, you had to go a very long distance without having any food or drink and you’d think that would be enough but they also had to cross the large Mekong River without knowing how to swim or hardly knowing how to steer a boat.

Most people lived in the highlands of Laos. This is why people call them “Highlanders.” Thai call them mountain tribes, but it’s more polite to call them highlanders or by their tribe names if you know it.

The Hmong were happy right where they were, but the communists weren’t. They wanted that land so they drove the Hmong out! They planted land mines so if you stepped on them trying to escape you would die (or at least lose a limb). Many attempted to flee but only those lucky enough made it to the Mekong River. Once you were there, you had to cross the raging river! Most couldn’t swim so they stuck bamboo under their arms and tried to float across.

Once you crossed the Mekong River you were pretty much safe from the soldiers, but something still attacked the people who came over. You couldn’t see it – no, but you could sure feel it. It was … germs. Disease killed off many! Nurses and doctors were needed any time you could get them. Many were starved. Many injured. Whatever happened, they were never the same again.

As you will find out, refugee camps like Ban Num Yao weren’t the best place to live.

First of all, it wasn’t sanitary. The bathrooms were squat plates. The waste would go to the well, and if you drank that water - I don’t want to think about it! Another problem was that you could get sick easily. People got measles, malnutrition, tuberculosis, paralysis, burns. They even came with bullet holes and missing limbs. Some had skin diseases, some even polio. There were mosquito nets but still some got Malaria. With only 20 nurses and doctors, this is tough. Family members slept on the floor next to the patient’s bed. Shamans were sometimes called in to help.

You built your own house. The UNHCR provided materials and you built. Sometimes all your hard work was destroyed by fire. You take everything you can carry. And then, start over. Just like the Hmong have been doing for so many years.

Sue showed us slides of people who were sick or hurt in the hospital in Thailand she worked in. She showed us people who had been shot, people low on nutrition, people with measles, and people with bad burns. All these people had survived leaving home, pets, animals food and shelter behind. They crossed the raging Mekong, when some didn’t know how to swim, despite wounds and sickness. Some went through sometimes painful treatment at a hospital they weren’t familiar with. Some people refused to go to the hospital, as in Laos there weren’t any hospitals, because Hmong asked spirits to come back, or go away.

Whenever the UNHCR trucks drove into the refugee camps, refugees would crowd around, waiting for their share of the supplies that they knew were in the trucks.

Sometimes you would see a wreath outside a door or a plastic bag on the end of a long metal pole on a roof. The wreath meant that there was a problem in the house, and the plastic bag on a pole was the sign of toy-maker. So there were different signs for different things.

Mosquitoes were a big problem. Sure, their bites itched, but they carried diseases, like malaria, sometimes a killer. So they put mosquito nets around the beds so the patients wouldn’t get those diseases.

Sue Bassett and her son lived in Laos and Thailand for many years. She speaks of the people not as “Oh how poor they are; I need to help them”, but as very resourceful, smart, kind, generous people. (I’m sure they thought the same of her.)

Some of the things Sue showed about the hill tribes, or “highlanders” as she called them, were these. The roads between villages, if any, were dirt and had all sorts of holes and ditches. You couldn’t exactly get by with a Ferrari up in the mountains. Since the villagers couldn’t afford cars their main transportation device was horses. In one picture, there were many horses lined up by a big building. Their owners were at market. Instead of leather saddles, like horses here use, they had wooden saddles. Goods could be attached to them with rope.

The children in the tribes often didn’t have a school and their parents were busy, so they had to be independent and find things to do. Sometimes they played traditional games, such as tublub, and the Hmong version of jacks, but depending on where they lived, they sometimes adapted new games. For example, in one slide there were a group of boys on a footbridge over a stream, waiting for things to come down the river from villages upstream. Sometimes they would find firewood or old flip-flops. The kids also made toys, but that was mostly in the camps.

The refugee camp that Sue went to was called Ban Nam Yao. That means “Village of the Wide River.” When people first entered the camp, they were sent to a big building that was a big gathering place as well as a school. Then the UNHCR would bring truckloads of bamboo and thatch, and people would build their own houses. It took a long time, sometimes up to one month.

Sue Bassett’s job at the refugee camp was a nurse, so that is what many of the photos show. There were maybe five or so foreign doctors from Europe and America. They also had women from the refugee camp who learned how to read and cook and would help as nurses’ aides.
–Sarah M.

When people got to the refugee camps they got a doctor’s appointment. A lot of people had problems. Then they got supplies to build a house. For the toilet it was just a hole in the ground. When it rains the poop and pee would sometimes wash down into the wells. When people would drink the water from the wells they would get sick.

Babies who were born in the camps are citizens of Thailand and can go wherever they want in Thailand, but the rest of the family can’t.

Any baby that was under weight would go to a special feeding center. Sometimes the mom was malnourished and she couldn’t feed the baby so they had to provide milk. They had a hospital that had some electricity.

Some people had shot wounds. Some lost limbs because of standing on land mines. They made artificial legs that were wooden. Some people lost both arms and both legs. Some children would play with the wheelchairs. They also had shamans to keep tradition alive.

In the camps women could adopt babies. The boys played basketball or more popular, soccer.

It was hard to watch. When people were leaving they were sticking their hands out the window and crying.