Finding refuge in Thai churches

“Hi respected person.my name is A* my wife name is B*. We have one kid. We have been in Bangkok since three years. We apply asylum here. we are facing here many problem sometime we don’t have food to eat. The food which is given by one church that is really not enough for whole month we can not fulfill our needs. We really need your help we want some help from you we are persecuted Christian from Pakistan. Hope you will conceder our request and hope that you answer us soon.” — Names concealed for privacy but everything else is unedited.

The Christian organization that I volunteer at has been getting an increasing number of such pleas. No matter if you refer them to their local church or other relevant charities; they just keep on asking.

There’s been an unprecedented influx of Pakistani Christians in Thailand in the last few years. They even have their own Facebook page. Currently, Thailand has up to 10,000 Pakistani Christian asylum seekers, said Farrukh Saif Foundation, which provides assistance and support to Pakistani and South Asian Christian asylum seekers.

Many of them were forced to flee their homeland because of violence and persecution. Youngest-ever Nobel Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai gave a face and voice to what’s happening in Pakistan when she was shot in the head by the Taliban for going to school.

Life was basically hell for them in Pakistan so they flew to Thailand in the hope of applying to be a refugee and end up in the US someday. Except that Thailand has not ratified the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention regarding the status of asylum seekers and refugees, so they’re all considered illegal immigrants. (According to UNHCR an asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.)

And you won’t want to be an illegal immigrant in Thailand. You can’t work while waiting for your story to be verified and that leaves you open to being netted by the police. I know how corrupt the Thai police, so I’m not surprised to hear stories of them extorting money from the asylum seekers.

Limbo in Thailand

Thailand seems to be a magnet for people fleeing their country, maybe because it’s relatively easy to get into Thailand. It seems that they just fly to Thailand as a tourist, and then make their way to UNHCR to try to get an asylum-seeking certificate. No wonder there is such a backlog.

Here are the official figures from the UNHCR (unofficial numbers on the ground seem to be much higher):

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A senior regional public officer of UNHCR, Vivian Tan, explained the situation. “In Thailand there are about 120,000 refugees in nine camps. Then there are about 1,000 Rohingyas. For the urban refugees we have to differentiate between asylum seekers and refugees. All asylum seekers seek refugee status but not all get that. We do individual refugee determination, which is also why it takes so long even after they get registered. It is a very intensive process. You get called in for first interview. Then it is a very in-depth process, where we find out as to why did the person leave his home country.

“We have to double check to make sure that the story is correct because sometimes we hear stories that are exactly the same but from different families. It is like that somebody is feeding them these stories. We need to be conscious in the whole screening to ensure that migrants do not come in the guise of refugees.”

And screening is not an easy job. If someone says, “I’m seeking asylum because I’m a Christian and I’m persecuted for my faith”, how do you discern if that’s the truth?

In some countries, the refugee panel board tries to discover if the asylum seekers are genuine Christians by asking them about their knowledge of the New Testament or church doctrine. But sometimes, even “genuine” Christians don’t know anything about the Bible. Questions could range from what’s the name of Jesus’ grandmother to the names of Jesus’ apostles. Or how do you gauge claimants who just say they’ve “found Jesus in my heart”?

Plus head knowledge can always be learnt. A fraud network for Chinese asylum seekers in New York coaches applicants who are not Christians on the tenets of the faith before their immigration interviews.

Pakistani Christians in Thai churches

Churches in Thailand have been feeding and sheltering strangers in their midst for many years. Local churches have been working with stateless people in the hill tribes as well as refugees from Myanmar while international churches were often a safe place for asylum-seekers from Africa.

My personal experience with these stateless people, Burmese refugees and African asylum-seekers has always been positive. They were stoic, willing to work hard, and more importantly, they were not always trying to tell you their sob story and asking you for money. Not so with the South Asian Christians I’ve met so far in church.

I go to a Baptist church in Bangkok and, bless them, they are really sweet and caring people who want to help anyone in need. About two years back, they took in a Pakistani Christian refugee, who’s since now made his way to the US. But it’s a small community, word got around, and now there are 15-20 Pakistanis in church.

The church welcomes them, makes them feel as at home as possible, and meet their needs as much as its stretched finances could. But here’s the context: Christianity makes up just 1% of the population in Thailand (and that includes both Protestants and Roman Catholics). So the majority of churches in Thailand do not have a lot of money. As for this Baptist church, it’s about 200 to 300-strong but there are another 10 daughter churches under its wing, and they all have outreach activities to the community. Basically, the pie is pretty much fixed but more fingers are dipping into it.

Despite the church’s generosity and goodwill to them, the Pakistanis still complain that it’s not enough. This is what riled me into writing this post.

As mentioned, I volunteer at a Christian organization and we held a conference at the church. One of the asylum seekers, let’s call him F, came to the conference and he very quickly attached himself to the regional director of the organization, unloading his whole sob story to him.

After the conference, F wrote a long email to the regional director, saying that no one is helping him and he doesn’t even have money to buy his daughter a Christmas present.

But that is not true, I know for a fact that the church does give him some financial help. And the church has been trying to come up with various odd jobs for the asylum seekers so that they can have some income, but only one of them took it up.

If I have nowhere to go and I’m relying on handouts, I’ll be grateful for everything that I receive. I probably wouldn’t be complaining to other people that the church is not giving me enough.

To put it bluntly, in a totally calculative way, the church has absolutely nothing to gain from helping the asylum seekers. There is negative ROI. Helping them will not bring the gospel to more Thais (in fact it eats into the budget). Helping them is not likely to strengthen the church. Eventually, when the asylum seekers get their papers, they fly off to a happy life in the US (most people in Thailand can only dream of having a better life in the US).

But the church continues to help them, kudos to them. Whenever there’s pork for lunch after the service, the church will even cook something else for the Pakistanis because they don’t eat pork. My first question was, they’re Christians, not Muslims nor Jews, so why can’t they eat pork?

Moreover, most of the Pakistanis don’t understand English. The worship service is in Thai, translated into English and Mandarin. I’m not sure how much they get from the sermon. And the follow-up question from that is, if faith is so important to them, why don’t they attend Urdu Church in Hands of God, a church that is not only close to where they stay but also in a language they can understand?

I’ve seen firsthand how they are very attuned to people who might be able to help them and latch onto them. So they keep going back to the same individuals to ask for money. Thais are not very good at saying no, so they end up giving. One Thai eventually got so annoyed that he stopped coming to church because he got tired of being a walking ATM.

I know that like in all things there are asylum seekers who are nice and some who are annoying. And I know this sounds totally uncharitable but some of them (the not-nice ones) remind me of the beggar children I met in Cambodia. Those children were very aggressive, demanding for money and kept on insisting and insisting that we gave them money. But if you make the mistake of giving them some money, the entire neighbourhood of children will descend upon you and it’ll be impossible to extricate yourself.

I like helping people, but I don’t like to be coerced into helping people, especially those who expect and assume that others have to help them. One Sunday after service, I was getting into my car to drive home when one of them walked to my car and was about to get into it while telling me where she stayed, fully expecting me to drive her home. I’ve never even spoken to her. It’s as though she just walked out to the carpark and went to whichever car was about to leave. Because I’m cold and heartless (and it was in the opposite direction), I said no. She refused to budge until I said no a few times.

And then I feel bad for being so calloused. And then I get angry at being made to feel bad.

The fact is, yes, the Pakistani Christians have sad stories to tell but they’re not the most heart-wrenching. What about the Rohingya who are sold as slaves? What about the stateless people who can’t even leave their village because they don’t have papers?

Eventually the Pakistanis will leave for greener pastures and their tough time in Bangkok will be a thing of the past. But for the Rohingya, Burmese refugees or the stateless people, life continues as an unending nightmare.

So forgive me if I feel no compunction to give in to your strident demands for money. I’d much rather give to the voiceless, the oppressed who truly need help.

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Kudos to all the working mummies out there!

It’s Mothers’ Day today. Depending on where you live, it’d be a different date. In any case, today we’re celebrating the American day for being nice to your mother once in a year.

I have great respect for working mums. I know many of you would rather be SAHMs (stay at home mums) but for whatever reason, you’re juggling both work and your kid/s.

The dream scenario, for me at least, is if I have a husband who’s rich enough to support me and the kids while I stay at home and nurture my offspring with creative experiences. Plus he should also be rich enough so that we have a maid or two to do all the household chores, including washing up after I prepare fun and nutritious Jamie Oliver-inspired meals in my Martha Stewart kitchen. This remains a pipe dream for me, and many others.

A few weeks ago, a mummy friend sent me the O&M video on Mums and Maids and asked my opinion from a journalistic perspective.

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My response: It’s not journalism. It’s an ad/campaign that seeks to provoke.

And provoke it did. As I watched it, I felt my hackles raising even though I’m not a mum. I felt offended on behalf of all the mummies that are trying to do the best they can.

1. Where are the men?

As I watched, I was thinking that they’d got a really good representation of mothers, in terms of age and ethnicity/nationality. When the video ended, I was like where are the men? So you spend two minutes showing how mothers make a fool of themselves because they don’t know what their child’s favourite subject is and you allow the men to walk away. Are fathers exempt from having to bond with their kids too? The feminist in me roared: I bet it was a man who signed off on the creative.

“We focused the creative strategy on tapping into modern parents’ fear of missing out. By showing how parents are losing out on their relationship with their children by always requiring their domestic worker to be around, we reposition their day off as an opportunity to enhance family bonding,” said Eugene Cheong, chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather Asia Pacific.

Well, I was right about it being a man to sign off on the creative.

Now, the last time I checked, the term parents includes mothers and fathers. Fine, some modern families may have two mothers or two fathers, but we’re splitting hairs. The fact is the glaring omission of fathers in this unfortunate video reflects how our society’s perspectives on gender roles and equality haven’t progressed much from the Ice Age. Women are still expected to stay home and keep house while men bring back the bacon. Except that nowadays women bring back the bacon (or leg of ham) AND keep house at the same time. A little encouragement would be good.

Shame on you O&M for a creative that vilifies working mums (as though they don’t feel guilty enough). Shame on you O&M for perpetuating gender inequality by expecting mums to know all about their children while dads get away scot-free.

But I know you won’t feel ashamed because by your standards, this ad was a freaking success, having gone viral and making you really in/famous. If Amos Yee is in trouble for “wounding the feelings” of Christians, I think you should too, for wounding the feelings of women and mummies.

2. What’s the messaging, bro?

According to the logic of this video, if I give my maid a day off, I’ll be able to spend more time with my kid so that I know if she has a boyfriend (even though she’s only four!) Hello, kids don’t tell parents stuff, especially stuff that they think they might get into trouble for.

Unless I was the only troubled teen when growing up, I sure didn’t voluntarily spill out all my deep dark secrets to my parents. Like how I didn’t tell them I went to see Little Mermaid in the cinema on my first-ever date when I was 14. Except that my mum’s friend saw me in the cinema AND spilled the beans. I’ve never forgiven that kaypoh for getting my budding romance nipped. Heck, I’m 38 now and I still practise “selective speaking” with my parents.

Again, I’m not sure how capitalizing on mummy guilt will get domestic helpers their day off.

3. Fake or real

The third thing that bugged me was did the mums know how their answers were going to be used? In short, did they know they were being set up to be sitting ducks? Or were they actually actresses following a script?

Transient Workers Count Too put out a statement on its FB page:

“O&M also told us that the families portrayed in the film had participated in the film because they wanted to do their part to advocate for domestic workers’ rights.”

Yeah right. For O&M’s sake, I hope they didn’t misrepresent the purpose/style of the video when getting these mummies to do this film. In fact, there was one mum who said briefly in the video that she assumed that her face was going to be blurred out.

Whatever this video tries to portray or to achieve, I just want to wish all mummies a Happy Mothers’ Day. And for all the working mummies out there, you’re just plain awesome!

Enslaved

I’m on my way to making the single most expensive purchase in my life – a HDB flat. And it’d be the one thing that I’d spend the rest of my life paying off. Come to think of it, it takes 18 years to raise a kid before booting him/her out of the house (if you’re angmoh). But it’s going to take me 25 years to eventually own the flat, by which time it might not be worth much, given that the flat is just three years younger than me. We’d actually grow old together, how sweet is that!

As a single, I can go on and on about how the government is not being fair to us in its housing policies and believe me, I have some pretty strong opinions on it. But I’ve come to the point where, ok, that’s the way things work in Singapore, it’s my fault for being single, so can’t blame no one else but me.

But there’s one grant which I really wished the government had opened up to singles – the housing grant for living near parents. Currently this is only available to married couples. To be honest, I’m only living in one of the most expensive districts in Singapore because my parents are there. And the reason I want to live near my parents is so that I can be close enough when they need me. And singles are increasingly taking up the bulk of caring for parents in their old age. So why shut them out of a grant that is meant to foster that inter-dependency?

I suppose the government could always retort that if I’m that serious about looking after my parents, then I should buy a resale flat and stay with them. They do give grants for that. Who cares about personal space?

In any case, grant or no grant, the HDB First Appointment is now over. Time to start thinking about renovation.

Here’s my floor plan for the fun of it!

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