by GALE BAILEY
Fellow BWG member, Yvonne Ziegler, had been telling me about her concerns for the welfare of the Laos Hmong Refugees who are imprisoned in the Immigration Detention Centre in Nong Khai and whom she visits regularly. On her last trip, she had also made contact with an Australian nurse volunteer, who was fund raising to equip a new clinic at Sarnelli House Orphanage in Thabo. This sounded interesting to me as having recently been ‘up country’ (actually to Laos), I was keen to explore more places outside Bangkok so decided to accompany Yvonne on her July visit. It would also be a good opportunity to personally hand over cheques from BWG and St. George’s (wearing my two hats again) as both Groups had considered Sarnelli House (www.sarnelliorphange.org) a worthwhile project to support.
To optimise our time, we left on the first flight to Udon Thani on a Sunday so that we would be able to meet the children at Sarnelli House, and caught a minivan into Nong Khai (200 Baht each). Yvonne had pre-booked a guest house on the bank of the Mekong River, called Mut Mee (www.mutmeee.com), which is where Kate Introna, the Australian nurse, was waiting for us. After a sarnie and cuppa, we set off to Thabo which is a few km from Nong Khai. At Sarnelli, we were welcomed by the children who were being entertained by a group of volunteers from Bangkok who go up once a month to bring fresh faces and ideas at weekends, when the children are not at school. The 148 children (ages from 2 months – 17 years) are happy and healthy, and the daily cocktail of antiretroviral drugs enables the ones with HIV/AIDS to lead normal lives.
We were shown around the ‘Houses’ which were all clean and tidy. One of which was called ‘’Jan and Oscar House’’, built from money donated by a Swiss mother in memory of her two sons lost in the Tsunami. We watched the local women and helpers folding the laundry (a mammoth task) and were also shown the new clinic building which was nearing completion. This will serve the local community as part of the out reach programme (many families affected in some way by HIV – grannies taking care of grandchildren where parents have died, food, medicine etc.) and where those needing hospitalisation can receive extra care.
The whole set-up at Sarnelli is wonderful as it takes such good care of the needs of the children at all ages, plus encouraging the older ones in self-esteem as they help, and become involved with, the fish farm, rice cultivation, vegetables and pig farm. We bade farewell to the toddlers and babies in the‘House of Hope’ home as they were chasing bubbles one of the older children was blowing for them, feeling happy that such good work is being undertaken by truly dedicated people.
During our stay (2 nights, 3 days) we visited the Laos Hmong Refugees a couple of times but were only allowed to stay for a few short minutes as the police told them to tell us to leave, citing fears of the spread of H1N1 Flu virus. We took some supplies for which they were extremely grateful, but there is no easy solution to their situation.
Whilst I was in Nong Khai, I knew I had to visit the Good Shepherd Sisters or else I would suffer the wrath of Sister Louise! Also many donations have been made over the years by BCTFN (Ploenchit Fair proceeds support such projects) which have enabled them to maintain, expand and improve with the times. Our intention was to call in to say Hello and see what they had in their shop to compare with that in Bangkok, however we were greeted with delight by EVERYONE! We were shown around the sewing and work rooms but many of the ladies were out in the fields planting rice, however the hand made goods were lovely. They have established a Law Centre where local people can receive advice and also have legal documents checked before signing as it has been known for them to unwittingly sign away property!
We were then driven out to the ‘farm’ which is called the Garden of Friendship and there we saw them in the fields planting rice accompanied by some Irish volunteers who were thoroughly enjoying themselves despite being hot, wet and filthy. On this site is a clinic where those who become ill with HIV spend time to recuperate alongside new brick built houses for some of the workers and their families. They are totally functional and give the occupants much joy living in such a lovely place.
The surrounding area contained many other buildings within the Village Vocational Training Centre, the main one being the Friendship Centre where paper and cards are made but again the women were out in the fields, planting rice, however the designs we saw were really original and poignant to their lives. We especially liked the Hands of Hope cards. In a corner was a photograph Memorial Board for those who had died of HIV/AIDS and it was quite emotional to see so many lovely faces displayed there. Again with antiretroviral drugs, the majority of affected people can lead a near normal life but they have the help and support from the Good Shepherd Sisters, who also run an out reach programme for families affected by the desease.
There was so much to take in that we were quite overwhelmed with all we had seen. Besides the workrooms and Law Centre, other activities being undertaken were weaving, fish farming, mushroom farming, pottery, jewellery, fertilizer, rice growing, fruit and vegetable cultivation. Whilst they are not completely self-sufficient, the sales from all the goods and produce goes a long way to help. However with the drop in tourists, they are soon to be opening a noodle shop at the side of the main Hand Crafts shop and offices in Nong Khai.
On our return to the Convent (rather hot and sticky from the heat, rain and walking through fields) we were greeted by Sister Mary who is nearly 90, and who has been the guiding light for nearly 30 years. Whilst she might be frail in her body, her mind is extremely bright and we had a lovely chat telling her how amazed we were at everything that is being done by the team.
Yvonne and I were totally exhausted, but elated, from our trip having seen such amazing work carried out by dedicated people to help so many in the community. This report has been hard to write as there is so much more that these people do by being there and giving the poor people something in life to look forward to. It certainly restores your faith in human nature when such things are witnessed at first hand and makes you feel very humble knowing the hardships some people have to endure. I just know we will have to visit again ……..watch this space!