Providing Hope on the Border


Libby (green shirt) takes a weaving lesson from some of her students.

It had been nearly eight hours since Libby McCarthy boarded the truck that would take her inside one of the largest refugee camps on the Thailand-Burma border. The New Zealand native, Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong graduate, and class of 2013 Middlebury student was understandably nervous as the truck approached the camp. Foreigners are sometimes not allowed to enter the refugee camps, although aid workers are almost always overlooked. Still, to guarantee safe entry, most aid workers ride in vehicles that carry food, medicine, and other supplies to the refugees.

Also on her mind at that moment was the fact that no one in the sprawling refugee camp of 29,000 people knew Libby was coming. The aid organization she was volunteering with had made arrangements to get her to the camp, but no one inside the camp—not even her future students—could know that she was coming. How would they react to her arrival?

Stepping out of the truck into the intense afternoon heat, Libby’s concerns were immediately forgotten. “Everyone was so welcoming, right from the start,” she says. “They built a room for me in a bamboo hut and had me live with a local female teacher. I knew it was going to work out.”

There are nine refugee camps along the border. They are home to more than 160,000 people from Burma who fled their homeland as a result of the world’s longest running civil war between the national army and indigenous ethnic groups. Perched on jungle-covered hills, the thousands of cramped, thatched-roofed bamboo huts house people separated from their villages, families and friends, and with no place to go.

Neither citizens of Thailand, nor can they return to Burma, many refugees have one hope—being resettled in a developed country like the United States, Canada or Australia. But for relocation to be a success, the students would need to learn English.

“No other foreigners were willing to go to Mae La Oon,” says Libby of the refugee camp she lived in for three months. “It was the most remote of all the camps and the people who had the chance to leave and relocate were not getting the English instruction they needed.” Libby was warned that life in the camp would be challenging. Amenities were basic: a squat toilet and a bucket for washing, one hour of electricity a night, and two meals a day of rice and fish paste. Clean water was not always available. Malaria was rampant.

“I wanted to do something different and push myself, but I really wanted to be helpful,” says Libby when asked why she chose to work in the camp. “Learning English for these students was make or break. They had to learn English to start a new life. I thought, ‘I can do that. I can go there and teach English.’”

Libby’s parents were less enthusiastic about her decision. “They were nervous, but also really supportive. And they knew I was going no matter what,” she says with a smile.

Most of Libby’s students were adolescents. Her classes held as many as 55 students at a time and teaching resources were limited—usually just a blackboard and a piece of chalk. One day at school she heard students screaming and ran to see a Burmese python in the bathroom. Another day, a student suddenly jumped from his chair and killed a scorpion on the floor. Needless to say, these were nothing like her classes at UWC or Middlebury.

But some of the teaching strategies her Chinese language professors at Middlebury used came in handy in her own classes. “Calling on people, that always worked. Students paid attention because they knew I might call on them,” says Libby.

To gain trust and respect from people in the camp, Libby tried to completely immerse herself in the culture. An older man helped teach her phrases in the local language, Karen. She cooked local foods, learned to weave, and helped with farming. “If you show that you are enthusiastic and trying hard, you will be embraced,” she says. “And there is nothing like it.”

After three months of hard work in the classroom, Libby’s students took their final exam. Every student passed—something that had never happened before. For some of them, this would be their first step on a journey to a new home.

The hardest part about her experience in the camp? “Leaving. Leaving was excruciating,” says Libby. “On the last night the students had a huge surprise party for me. I walked into the school and all 133 of my students were sitting in a circle wearing white party hats with personal messages written on them such as, ‘We will never forget your smiling face’ and ‘The end of happiness.’ It was so touching.”

Back in Vermont, Libby is completing her major in international studies and making plans for life after Middlebury. While at the Mae La Oon Refugee Camp, she became particularly interested in the logistics of helping thousands of people in need. She’s looking at graduate programs in development. A future in emergency relief is also an idea, or perhaps an opportunity with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“It’s not that I want to go out and save the world,” says Libby. “I just want to take all that I have learned, academically and through real-life experience, and be useful.” e