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.

What not to wear while on a bike and in the rain

The sky was ominously dark this morning. But the optimistic (a la foolish) part of me thought I could make the 4km to the office on the motorcycle before it started bucketing down. The hope was short-lived.

I got to the office dripping despite having a raincoat. And that was when I realised that all the little blue drops of water on the floor were from me. Or my dress to be precise. My sky-blue dress from Mumbai was bleeding. Onto the floor, my knees, my fingers. Not sure I want to know what colour my knickers are now.

Oh and I’m trying to find a chair that I can sit on without staining it too badly.

Silly Furby Fad

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The only thing that’s been cropping up on my FB newsfeed from Thai people for the last two months is Furbies – where to get them, how to get them, oh-i-got-one, oh-it’s-so-cute.  And once they’ve got one, they post photos and videos of it constantly on FB, just like mums with their newborn babies. Furby talking, Furby sleeping, Furby dancing…

Furbies look like Mogwai from Gremlins. They speak Furbish and you can teach them how to go from baby babble to English, as they can mimic you. Furbies were really popular in 1998, I remember playing with them as a kid. So basically the Thais are just like 15 years late to the game. Watching the Furby craze take over the country is like seeing the resurgence of Tamagotchi (your electronic pet chicken in your pocket) from the nineties or the big hairdos from the eighties.

Now, I’m extremely tolerant of kids haranguing for a Furby. After all they are kids and should be forgiven as they know not what they are are doing. But grown women behaving like kids going on and on about Furbies are beyond my limited comprehension. In Thailand, a Furby is going for THB 3700 (USD 123) to THB 4200 (USD 140). Now since I measure everything against a bowl of noodles on the street which is THB 35, the cheapest Furby costs more than 100 bowls of noodles. In short, Furby costs more than three months of lunch.

The unfathomable demand for Furbies has led to a $250,000 scam and the Science Ministry warning parents of the negative impacts of the toy.

Looking at the grown women obsessing over the big-eyed Furby, I can conclude only one thing – their womb is talking. Perhaps their maternal clock is ticking and they don’t have a kid of their own, that’s why they’re so gaga over a toy that behaves like a baby. Except that the Furby can turn itself off after one minute of inactivity, which I’m sure real mothers would be quite thankful for!

“Diagnosed” with Osteopenia

Fragile label

Every year, courtesy of my company, I get a free medical check-up. Considering that we don’t get any bonuses – no, not even the 13th month bonus – a free check-up is better than nothing, I suppose. Typically these check-ups cover the basic items – blood test, urine test, EKG (cuz I’m old enough), eye exams (which I routinely have problems with), a physical and chest X-ray.

This year, the hospital they got to do the check-up was notable for two things. The two guys in charge of drawing blood were so bad at it that it hurt big-time and we’re all still severely bruised many days after. The second thing was the hospital provided a bone mineral density (BMD) test using the Alara Metriscan. This was certainly new.

I put my left hand on the platform and the machine was supposed to measure my BMD from three fingers. As the technician started pressing buttons, I protested as I saw her keying in “Caucasian”. “But I’m not Caucasian, you should be choosing Asian,” I told her very politely, thinking that perhaps she had trouble understanding the English machine. “We always set it to Caucasian,” she replied with finality.

After a few minutes, the results were ready. She wrote it on a photocopied form. T-score = -1.65. Normal is zero and a T-score of -2.5 or worse is considered osteoporosis. She continued to scrawl in Thai: กระดูกบาง or thin bones. I suddenly felt fragile like Samuel Jackson’s Mr. Glass in the movie Unbreakable. But most of all I was puzzled because milk and cheese are part of my regular diet.

Turning to Google, it turns out that “thin bones” is known as osteopenia. According to WebMD a.k.a. my 24-hour doctor, “Bones naturally become thinner as people grow older because … existing bone cells are reabsorbed by the body faster than new bone is made. As this occurs, the bones lose minerals, heaviness (mass), and structure, making them weaker and increasing their risk of breaking. All people begin losing bone mass after they reach peak BMD at about 30 years of age.”

Things that increase the risk of osteopenia include:

  • Being white (Caucasian) or, to a lesser degree, being Asian – See, I was correct in telling the technician to put me as Asian.
  • A family history of osteoporosis – Grandma might be a culprit
  • Being thin – hah, can certainly strike this off!
  • Long-term use of corticosteroids, such as prednisone or hydrocortisone for inflammatory conditions, or anticonvulsants, such as carbamazepine (Tegretol), phenytoin (Dilantin), or gabapentin (Neurontin) for pain or seizures – don’t know any of these
  • Eating disorders or diseases that affect the absorption of nutrients from food – my only eating disorder is eating too much and having an uncontrolled sweet tooth
  • Being inactive or bedridden for a long period of time – I sort of like exercising
  • Smoking – never
  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol – allergic to it
  • Having a diet low in calcium or Vitamin D – love dairy, love the sun even more

It’s really baffling. I honestly don’t have any of the risk factors perhaps except for the genes. So I’m left with a few options:

1. Get a second opinion from a more reputable hospital (one that doesn’t try to stab you with a blunt needle). Apparently, a proper BMD test will take the readings from your arm and/or your hip. But it’s not gonna be cheap – $150.

2. Do the ostrich and ignore it. After all, how can they measure the BMD in my entire body from just three fingers? Plus I type so much and play the piano, so the bone density in my fingers must be definitely screwed up. And, more importantly, many consumer websites are saying that osteopenia was “invented” by pharmaceutical companies who want to push their calcium pills. Apparently, they are also the ones providing these small portable machines to measure BMD, at least in the U.S.

Being the enlightened or should it be foolhardy consumer, I shan’t fall for such tricks. Besides I now have the perfect excuse to eat more ice-cream – I need the calcium!

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How not to do draw blood: Look at the bruising we’re still nursing more than five days after the medical check-up.

An Unequal Music – Vikram Seth

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To sustain my new year resolution to read more books this year, I have to find a source of books. Now Bangkok is not the best place to be looking for English books. Bookshops tend to stock only the mass-market thrillers. You could get a more eclectic selection at Kinokuniya but it’d cost you an arm and a leg, plus the additional books would take up more space in my little apartment. Unlike in Singapore where the libraries are veritable troves of information, the very small and very few libraries in Bangkok have a rather sad collection of English books. Alternatively I could buy e-books and read them on my iPad, but it gets heavy after a while.

So thanks to another friend who’s working overseas and has been surviving by borrowing books from other expat friends, I came up with the brilliant idea of borrowing books from my Aussie boss! I told him that I’ve always preferred the classic authors (or in his words, dead people) as I find most contemporary writers to be too self-serving in their writing. Just think of Eat, Pray, Love – that was one book I had to put down after five pages (and I usually try to finish a book once I’ve started it no matter how bad it is) because I was about to puke from the author’s navel-gazing me-me-me writing. Compare that to Ernest Hemingway who sketches a picture and dissects a situation with the most economical and incisive of words.

So he’s taken upon himself the mission of introducing me to good writers who are still alive. An Unequal Music was the first book from his library. He said he chose it because I love and play music. Plus it’s set in England, so what’s not to like?

I looked at the name and I wrinkled my nose at him. We have an Indian colleague who writes in the most convoluted “Inglish” ever. You can cut down his writing to half the original length to no discernible loss of meaning. But nonetheless, I gave it a try.

The beautiful story’s about quartets, fugue and lots of Bach. It’s about a man and a woman finding and losing each other, and finding and losing each other again through a deep love for the music they both share. It made me realise that the Bach I was forced to play for piano exams had stories of love and loss behind them. I used to hate fugues with a vengeance because Bach seemed to have composed them to be played by two people instead of two hands controlled by a single brain. But Vikram Seth made the fugues seem so romantic and mysterious that I actually ferreted out my Bach music and played them again.

All in all, a poignantly evocative read that leaves you with a wistfulness akin to the sun setting on a particularly good day.

OB Markers – My Straits Times Story

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This was my first book of 2013, and the first book to start off my new year resolution to read more. Sad to say, it was very tough going because the writing was repetitive and long-winded. Which was a surprise, since one would expect the editing to be a lot tighter given that it’s a book about the newsroom. There were typos from the first page, and the convoluted sentences were difficult to follow.

In fact, it sounds like an old grandfather recounting war stories – which is exactly what the book is about. And once you’ve resigned yourself to this idea, you can be quite forgiving when the book rambles on and on.

Read the book not for its style but its content. Cheong Yip Seng basically survived to tell of his time in Straits Times. Forty years is a long time, especially with a government that is always so edgy and jumpy with the press. There are lots of juicy tidbits that would entertain those who are not in the newsroom, while for those who were, the book helps to confirm in hindsight what had happened.

Given that there are rumours that the powers-that-be have handled down their imperial edict against any reprint of the book, OB Markers is certainly worth buying and keeping.

“Dust you are and to dust you shall return”

Today is Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent – a little-known fact here, even among Christians.

I’m not surprised. I grew up in an Anglican church, and I was never interested in church calendars or church festivals. Liturgy is boring and fetters the spontaneous move of God, I used to think. Liturgy is the reason people stop going to church because no one understands why we have to stand, sit, and kneel so many times in two hours, I used to argue. I disdained liturgy and all the trappings that went with it — men in long white house-dresses is so medieval age (or so gay, as my more cynical friends would say).

It was a wise teacher whom I got to know during a stint in the UK nine years ago who pointed out that every Christian denomination has a “liturgy” even if they don’t call it that. From the strictest Presbyterian to the most free-flowing Charismatic, every church has an order of service which is followed faithfully every week. The Anglicans have the Book of Common Prayer which is a collection of prayers to be used for different days or occasions. I used to be able to mind-numbingly rattle off the most often-used prayers while I thought of what I should have for lunch after service.

It was in UK that I realised that perhaps the problem didn’t lie with the prayer but with the person praying (and/or leading) it. If we recite it as we do a boring history text, then the words are devoid of meaning to us. But if we read it and mean what we say, then it comes alive.

Here’s an example. Every church takes an offering every Sunday. And after every offering, someone says a prayer which usually goes along the line of thanking God for His provision and that the offering be used for His kingdom. Having heard so many of these prayers over the years, and I may be biased, but I still find the Anglican offertory prayer the most beautiful. “Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour, and the majesty, for everything in heaven and on earth is Yours. All things come from You, and of Your own do we give You.” Pre-prepared words, yes, but how does one improve upon them?

That was my awakening to church liturgy in a nutshell and a digression from the main topic.

So, Ash Wednesday got its name from the practice of believers getting ashes put on their forehead as a reminder of their mortality and as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ash is from the burning of Palm Sunday crosses from the year before. Some churches still do it, others don’t. I didn’t get an ashy forehead at the church this evening.

"For all false judgements, for uncharitable thoughts towards our neighbours and for our prejudice and contempt towards those who differ from us." -- oops....

“For all false judgements, for uncharitable thoughts towards our neighbours and for our prejudice and contempt towards those who differ from us.” — oops….

Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, which is a 40-day period during which believers prepare themselves to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s also a time of spiritual stock-taking, perhaps we’ve squeezed God out of our busy lives without realising it.

Some people fast or give up something during Lent to remember the hardships Jesus went through on the Cross. Traditionally, people would give up meat or rich delicacies. But in moving with the times, some of my friends are giving up Facebook for Lent, which I think might be more difficult than not eating meat!

A cup a day keeps me happy all the way

A cup a day keeps me happy all day!

I’m giving up chocolate for Lent. Chocolate to me is what coffee is to caffeine addicts. I eat chocolate when I’m happy, I eat chocolate when I’m sad. I eat chocolate everyday, more regularly than my vitamins.

Some people ask me why Christians need to torture themselves by giving up something for Lent? Is it to make God love us more? Do we get extra brownie points in heaven for doing so? Perhaps it’s not about giving up something but more about doing something for Lent.

So each time I say “No” to chocolate, it’s a reminder of what I should do this Lent — to be more loving, more gracious and less ballistic over idiot drivers. It reminds me in that split second to think of someone else other than myself. But just to make sure I keep my hands off chocolate, I’m going to keep my stash under lock, stock and barrel until Easter.

Holy God, our lives are laid open before you:
rescue us from the chaos of sin
and through the death of your Son
bring us healing and make us whole
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen