Sunday, June 11, 2006

Ignorance is better?

We were in a rural area. It was a refugee camp and I was there with a delegation of United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). We were looking at issues related to persons with disability in the refugee camps and before that visit, I had already been to some other refugee camps in Africa.

The road leading to the refugee camp, left the city to meander through fields dotted with small huts. Thin and dirty children in tattered clothes occasionally stood by the roadside to look at our big UN vehicles passing.

If outside was poverty, inside the refugee camp seemed like the land of plenty. There were lot of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with lot of expatriate staff. In the health centre, their was plenty of staff and no medicines seemed to be lacking. I had a long conversation with an Australian speech therapist working with children who had speaking difficulties, asking her about the general conditions inside the camp and the different services available there.

"What about the local people living outside the camp?" I had asked. Persons outside had looked malnourished and without any services, left to fend for themself in an isolated remote area. "No, we can't provide any services to the locals", I was told. It was because of policy decision by government here. UNHCR staff and international staff were responsible only for the refugee camp and they were prohibited from having any kind of interaction with the local population.

But international NGOs could have started separate projects for the surrounding countryside, I had insisted.Isn't it terrible to pass in front of those huts everyday and see them so poor and so vulnerable? There are only funds for emergency, no one gives money for ordinary poverty, they said.

The person showing us around took us to the high school in the refugee camp. It was a wonderful place with nice uniforms, a large field where children were playing, and some committed expatriate teachers, who explained their work including the use of internet to bring the world to the refugee camp.

I was a little upset. I thought it was discriminatory with all these resources that they had in the UN, giving the world to the refugees inside the camp walls, while just outside those walls, people of the same skin colour, same language, similar facial traits could die of hunger, their children faced malnutrition, and died of usual simple illnesses like diarrohea and mealses. So perhaps, I was condescending in my interaction with the students of 12th standard. I don't remember the exact words of my question. Perhaps it was something to do with their future.

A young man sitting at the back stood up to answer me. I think that he said some thing like, "We are prisoners in this cage. This wonderful school, these wonderful teachers, our learning internet, our learning French and English, what use is it? It only serves to make us feel worse. We have no future. UNHCR can provide only school education. There is no university here and I can not go outside the walls of this camp. And, after passing 12th, all these wonderful programmes finish. Then we go back to our families in this camp, to work in the fields. For working in the field, I don't need any of this knowledge that I have got, it will only serve to remind me about the wretchedness of my life, to know how much we are missing. It is terrible to know what we could be and be forced to be nothing."

I was suddenly reminded of this episode while reading the story "Sudama's children" about poor kids in rich private schools in Delhi in the latest issue of Outlook. "There are two kinds of pain—the pain of growing up in a jhuggi with little hope of change, and the pain of adjustment in studying with well-off kids in a private school. How do we know which is worse?"

I think of that youngman's heartbreaking answer in the refugee camp and the choices he had. Yet, compared to the life of living in poverty, outside the refugee camp, where hunger and disease are likely to kill you young and at the best, you will grow up to eke out a miserable and difficult life from the fields! What would you choose if you had this choice?

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1 comment:

  1. i am amazed by the maturity in the young boy's question. as a child, i would no doubt have been attracted to the immediate material comforts of the camp and the change from my current difficult life. I am amazed that this boy had the maturity to look beyond the comforts of the camp.

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