By Millicent Borges Accardi
♦ Linette Escobar is a Portuguese-American writer based in California with roots in the Azores. Although her first home is in one of her favorite cities, San Francisco, her second home is in Thailand, near a little beach in Bang Niang that she says has “the most beautiful sunsets in the entire world.”
Her work has appeared in literary magazines including Transfer and The Santa Clara Review, and, Linette balances her days by volunteering in her local community.
Besides teaching English to immigrants and refugees in America, she also directs community public health program, including one for Russian-speakers. Between her writing career and volunteer work, the equivalent of three full time jobs, Linette somehow manages to keep returning to Thailand to volunteer with an NGO (non-governmental organization), which helps Burmese migrants.
In 2005, five months after the December tsunami in Thailand, Linette went there alone to volunteer. Without a good idea of the damage in the area, she went with a serious heart of wanting to help the people in crisis.There is much to be said for noble people on noble missions for noble reasons, but there is also something to be said for unlikely heroes, for those who like Linette discover and uncover hidden reserves of greatness merely by chance.
Not all big missions are undertaken with gravitas. Some are stumbled upon. There, she became drawn into the cause, the people and the soulful land.
Making a difference in people’s lives through education, that is the bottom line as to why Linette returns to Thailand year after year. Before the tsunami, the children of Burmese migrant workers did not attend school. Thanks to volunteers like Linette, now the Thai schools have five learning centers with over 400 kids enrolled.
In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Linette explains why she became a volunteer, what her experience was and why she keeps going back. She also reflects on her Portuguese heritage and on what it means to her and to what she does.
Q: What made you go to Thailand the first time?
A: I had always wanted to do some international volunteer work, perhaps in a refugee camp, without really thinking about how difficult that would be. After the tsunami, the scope of the tragedy was so beyond imagination that I didn't want to hear any more news about it. It was just one story I read about a young woman named Kali that actually inspired me to volunteer. Kali was 15 when she died. Her brother remembered her pointing in awe to the wave before it struck their hotel. Thinking about a teenager's exuberance and awe at the world cut short, touched me more than impossible statistics like 200,000 people died. More than that was how her family sprang into action, starting a tsunami relief foundation, even before they had recovered Kali's body. At the end of the article, it listed places to volunteer. I stuck that article in my purse and honestly forgot about it. A few months later, I found
Q: What keeps bringing you back?
A: "My kids." I don’t think you can have a more motivated group of young people than the Burmese kids who didn't go to school before the tsunami. They know they would be working if they weren't in school. They are super intelligent and turns out they are amazing poets. Also, amazing is the leader of the organization I work for — Grassroots Human Rights Education and Development. His name is Htoo Chit. He has political asylum from France because he was a student leader in Burma. He fled after the government killed hundreds of students. He teaches me so much about social justice, peace and hope in the face of a battle that seems unwinnable. I feel honored to know him. And then there are my Thai, ex-pat and Burmese friends who take care of me, make me laugh, and give my life resonance.
A: Dengue fever wasn’t fun. A motorbike accident wasn’t fun, but in both those cases, the local community took amazing care of me and made me feel incredibly loved.
Q: What’s the best?
A: So many amazing experiences… sunsets that make you glad to be alive, meeting heroic people. Maybe the best was teaching poetry the first time after the kids asked me to. They are true artists. How about this line: “Blue tastes like candy when I kiss you.” I wish I had written that! It was written by an amazing young man named Saw Saw Soe.
Q: Can you describe the classrooms?
A: When I started, I was teaching in bamboo huts. When monsoon rain started, we would huddle in the middle to not get wet and try to hear each other. More and more resources have come in and we have proper learning centers now. One day the Burmese headmaster, Mon Aung, took my hand to show me something. I was surprised because Burmese men never touch women in public. He led me to a classroom where eight computers were set up. I started to cry. I just wanted walls, who could imagine a computer lab?
Q: What are some of the ethnic conflicts between the Burmese in Thailand? Is there a history of racial or a lack of assimilation? I have zero understanding of the politics there. Can you bring me up to speed?
A: The country of Mynmmar, or Burma, has one of the most oppressive governments in the world and the people live in extreme poverty and with widespread conflicts within ethnic groups. They escape in droves to live in refugee camps along the Thai/Burma border. Some people are born in these camps. They are technically “stateless” because the Thai government does not consider them Thai. The world community has taken groups of refugees, but the camps are still there. In my area, Burmese migrants travel to work in fisheries, construction, etc. Many are undocumented. Anywhere in the world, when you have people without papers crossing borders, there is tension with the local community. They can be seen as taking local jobs or as criminals. Grassroots has done a lot of work in improving Thai-Burmese understanding in the area. In fact, we have mainstreamed hundreds of Burmese children into Thai schools. As the next generation grows up together, it will certainly improve relationships.
A: The shortest time has been three weeks. The longest six months.
Q: What is your Portuguese heritage?
A: I guess the joke is I am from a “mixed” marriage. My dad is from Cedros, Faial, in the Azores, and my mom is from Calheta, Madeira.
Q: Can you share something about how being Portuguese has come in handy in Thailand?
A: One thing I can say is that living in a small town in Thailand, where people are kind and helpful, as well as plain spoken and interested in everyone’s business, feels familiar to me. I’m not from a small town, but the Portuguese immigrant community in Hayward, California was small. Sometimes, a foreigner will be upset by something a Thai person says, perhaps about appearance, which would be too direct for Americans or British. I can usually brush it off a little easier since the Portuguese immigrant community will often speak in this way. I know there is no malice behind it. I miss the warmth of the Portuguese community now that I live in an anonymous big city. My time in Thailand always reminds me of how it felt growing up.
Q: Portuguese were once the great navigators of the world. How has this heritage helped you in your travels and has it made you want to help others or giveback?
A: I am very proud to be Portuguese, and it definitely informs who I am and what I do. However, I feel I almost had to fight against being Portuguese to travel the world. I don’t have a good understanding of Portuguese history, but as far as I know, it was the men who were the navigators and the women left behind. Certainly, in the time and place in the Portuguese immigrant community where I grew up, women were not encouraged to travel the world. I was encouraged to live at home until I got married to a nice Portuguese boy. I didn’t do that. When I left to live in Thailand, to volunteer for six months, my grandmother, who is one of the dearest people in the world to me, said “You are breaking your mother’s heart.” Nobody wants to break their mother or their Avó’s heart! Everyone is getting used to my comings and goings now, but unfortunately, it is my personal perception that I had to fight against my heritage to do this. Maybe it is different for the later generations.
Q: Did you go to church in Thailand?
A: The majority of Thais are Buddhist but there are small percentages who are Catholic. One of my favorite masses I’ve ever attended was an Easter service in Thailand. When it was time for the kiss of peace, everyone turned to each other and bowed with their hands together in the Thai “wai.” It was so lovely that I could follow the mass because the order is universal but then there was this little lovely gesture from the local community. I have also had the pleasure of attending Buddhist ceremonies and celebrations as well as having lovely conversations with Burmese and Thai monks.
Q: What advice would you give to people interested in volunteering?
A: Be humble and a learner. The local people are the experts on what needs to be done for their community and how. Don’t come in trying to tell people what to do or impose western styles of doing things. I think this true whether you are volunteering in the US or abroad.
Q: What’s next for you? Where would you like to travel?
A: I’m dreaming of Brazil. I don’t know why, but I want to go there and write and volunteer.
Currently, Linette is working on a personal memoir about her time volunteering in Thailand, called “Same Same but Different: Reconstructing after the Tsunami.” She explains that it is about the Burma community and not only how Thailand has been reconstructed but how she as a person and as a writer has been reconstructed through her vital soul-changing experiences as a teacher and volunteer.
For Linette, volunteering as a teacher is second nature, she admits that teaching is her calling and her way of making a difference in the world. In a way, her volunteer work in Thailand is an extension of who she is, combining her teaching skills with other tasks like raising money, writing articles and training potential volunteer staff. She is proud to contribute side by side with the human rights activists. In Thailand, Linette has worked in a series of learning centers throughout the tsunami affected areas of Khao Lak in Phang-Nga Thailand, about an hour north of Phuket which was one of hardest hit areas by the tsunami and still has a long way to go toward rebuilding, as well as a large displaced population.
The Grassroots Human Rights Education & Development, the NGO Linette is associated with needs donations of all kinds, including money. They also are in need of volunteers with technical experience and people willing to donate their time to make a difference in a community in need of so much. In Thailand, ethnic groups like the Burmese, are still suffering terribly under the military junta and it is important to spread the word about these fine NGOs and the work they are doing to educate, feed and clothe entire communities. They provide job training, legal aid, emergency shelters and other services to the Burmese, a community which has been forced out of Burma due to either economic or political reasons. A dollar goes a long way in Thailand!
Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity (World Nouveau), Woman on a Shaky Bridge (Finishing Line Press chapbook), and Only More So (forthcoming from Salmon Press, Ireland). She has won fellowships from the NEA, the California Arts Council, the Barbara Deming Foundation, and Canto Mundo. Last fall, she was a visiting poet at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, VA. Millicent lives in Topanga, CA, and was in attendance at Disquiet 2011.