The narrow streets of the commercial part of Mae La Refugee Camp are filled with children. Today, there is no school (for those who go to school, since not all of them are that lucky) so the kids are considering how they will spend their day. Full of expectation, they look at So Eike (10), who’s clearly the leader of the group. They hope he will come up with a brilliant idea.
The children in Mae La Refugee Camp don’t have any toys, but So Eike encourages them to go find empty plastic bottles. With the results of their scavenger hunt through the refuse dump, So Eike creates a game of skittles. Since the children have no little ball to throw at the bottles, they use their shoe. It’s good for half an hour of some laughter and fun.
The parents pop their heads out of the bamboo shelter houses to check what’s going on. Some of them have a little shop, but most of the adults are jobless and bored. As a Karen refugee from Myanmar, they don’t have the right to work. Many parents are depressed and don’t have the energy to spend time with their children.
Meanwhile, the game of skittles has made room for a wild game of football (with a broken ball), but the parents don’t agree. The little street is too narrow to play football, so they tell the children to move to the football field.
So Eike looks disappointed. There’s no shade on the football field, which means they have to wait until the heat becomes bearable. But by then the football field will have already been taken over by hundreds of children, since there’s only one football field for 40,000 refugees.
"We have no place to play," he sighs. "We play around the house or around the nearby temple, but that’s far from ideal. And we have no toys."
Rehabilitation and play
Most of the children in the refugee camp don’t even know what toys look like, but So Eike does. He gets the chance to play with balls, puzzles and clay or to try out the little trampoline when he goes to the Handicap International rehabilitation centre . Three years ago, So Eike got a disease which made his muscles weak and stiff.
"It became almost impossible for me to walk, I was in pain all the time and I couldn’t play with my friends anymore … I couldn’t catch up with them," he says.
Twice a week, So Eike and his father visit the rehabilitation centre. A serious effort, but one that definitely pays off. Step-by-step, the boy learnt how to walk again. The mornings at the centre are So Eike’s favourite moments of the week. He has got to know many children in the centre and is always happy to see them and to play together.
On the run from war
His father is his biggest supporter, although spending so much time in the centre doesn’t come without consequences. "I should be at work now," he sighs silently while he watches So Eike do his exercises.
The family relies on food aid, but tries to gain some extra money. "My wife makes snacks based on sticky rice, and I try to sell them. The little extras are most welcome."
The family fled war in Myanmar ten years ago, when So Eike was only a baby. His brother and sisters were born in the camp. Although some refugees are considering going back home, father Ah Li wants to stay in the camp.
"Here we feel safe and we have a home at least. It’s not safe in Myanmar yet, I don’t want to put my family in danger," he says firmly. Although he still dreams of doing his old job again, as a fisherman.