Blind Karen farmer harvests dignity as well as extra income

Making a Difference, 2 July 2009

© UNHCR/T.Falise
Ka Du Lar pulls weeds from a field near Mae La Refugee Camp where he grows vegetables.

MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand, July 2 (UNHCR) Ka Du Lar is not a man to let a devastating mishap losing both his eyes and most of his left arm to shrapnel from a landmine hold him back.

Even after the 52-year-old Karen farmer came to a Thai refugee camp from his native Myanmar more than 20 years ago, he attempted to support his family by splitting bamboo for seasonal housing construction, earning the equivalent of a few US cents per kilo for his output.

But the real turning point in his life came a couple of years ago when he began learning new farming skills under a UNHCR-funded programme conducted just outside Mae La by ZOA, the Netherlands-based refugee care organization.

"I'm very happy to be able to do something productive," he said, taking a break from weeding in the rain. "It's not harder than my skills and so I'm able to do it."

Mae La, in northern Thailand, is a camp that has seen many of its original refugee inhabitants depart for the United States, Canada or Australia to begin new lives under a third-country resettlement programme for those who believe a return to their native Myanmar is not on the cards any time soon.

The ZOA project is designed to keep farming skills alive for those including 34 disabled refugees who would prefer to return home when the right moment comes.

"We were afraid they would forget their skills," said Toe Toe, ZOA's income generation manager, because refugees have no opportunity to farm in the cramped camp, and are provided with food. In addition to growing mushrooms and vegetables, the disabled refugees also raise fish, frogs, pigs, cattle and goats on 31 hectares of land leased from the Thai forestry department.

The refugees take turns working in different areas, rotating a year at a time among the vegetable garden, the pig sties, fish ponds and so on. Their produce finds customers at local markets and the farmers earn 50 baht a day, or about US$1.50 a respectable income in this remote area. They elected to take their pay home every two weeks, for a total of 1,200 baht a month.

"This project is really important because it provides 148 refugees an opportunity to work legally without going out of the closed camp and risking arrest," said Giuseppe de Vincentis, who is responsible for UNHCR's operations in Thailand. "While we continue to advocate the right for refugees to work legally and contribute to the Thai economy, this programme is an important interim step.

"It is also an excellent way to uphold the dignity of disabled refugees and allow them to contribute extra income to their families, while keeping up their skills for whatever their future holds," de Vincentis added.

Ka Du Lar was vague about where all his extra earnings go he hands the money straight over to his wife, he said with a smile. One thing he knows for sure, though, is that his family, including two hungry teenagers, has a lot more variety in its diet than the nutritious but repetitive camp rations.

"I am very glad I can work here because we eat better," he said with pride. "Any food I want to eat, I can afford. I hope this project will continue for the future."

By Kitty McKinsey
In Mae La Refugee Camp, Thailand

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